There will be a thousand boats on the River Thames for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee pageant on June 3, including a "glittery" royal barge, several ships that took part in the Dunkirk rescue, and a Canadian slipper launch that the pageant's organizer describes as "a gorgeous vessel."
Two days after proposals for a new yacht for the Queen met political headwinds in Britain, the lavish plans for a river flotilla to celebrate her 60th year on the throne were unveiled, an event trumpeted as "the greatest show the Thames has ever seen."
British monarchs who reign for 25, 50, or in rare occasions 60 years receive the pomp-and-circumstance equivalent of a gold watch.
For her Golden Jubilee, marking 50 years on the throne, Queen Victoria rode in a gilded landau through 10 miles of cheering crowds perched on specially built scaffolds lining the streets of London. Ten years later, in a more scaled-back ceremony, 11 colonial prime ministers attended her Diamond Jubilee.
This year's pageantry is designed to live up to the hype and history. A floating bell tower composed of eight giant bells, each named for a member of the Royal Family, will lead the way along with Gloriana, a gilded rowbarge powered by 18 oarsmen, which is currently under construction. (This is not to be confused with the controversial new plans to encourage private donors to give the Queen the gift of a new yacht to replace her beloved Britannia, which was decommissioned in 1997. That's a whole other maritime matter.)
In addition to the river flotilla, the Queen's sixth decade on the throne will be marked with street parties, a concert at Buckingham Palace and a public holiday.
As Lord Salisbury, chair of the Diamond Jubilee organizing committee said, "We have a well-deserved reputation for putting on spectacular events."
During the pageant, which is expected to be watched by one million people in London and many times that number around the world, The Queen and Prince Philip will sail in Spirit of Chartwell, the royal barge (it's a step up from the vessel's day job as a luxury tour boat). The rest of the Royal Family will travel on other boats – though not, presumably, on a herring drifter, oyster smack, or the Barber's Cutter, the ship operated by the Worshipful Company of Barbers.
The Port of London Authority is overseeing safety. Many boats will be sailing for the first time on a tidal river that rises and falls by seven metres twice a day.
Lord Salisbury estimated that the pageant will cost £10-million ($15.6-million), which will be raised through private donations and corporate sponsorship. He admitted that the fundraising environment had left him "a little nervous before Christmas" but said it had picked up once the retail giant Sainsbury's came on board.
"This will be a United Kingdom event," he said, "but it will also be an event for the wider Commonwealth, to whom the Queen has devoted so much of her reign."
To that end, the flotilla will feature a slipper launch, or wooden pleasure craft, called Knight Errant, which is being sent by air from Canada. "It really is a beautiful boat," said the pageant's organizer, Adrian Evans, who added that Knight Errant has been in its owner's family for generations. Other details on the Canadian owner, however, were not immediately available. The slipper launch will be joined by a surf dory from Australia, an outrigger canoe from New Zealand and a houseboat from India, as well as ships flying the flags of all of the Commonwealth countries.
Britain's rich nautical history will be represented in the celebration, which Lord Salisbury assured would be larger and even more pomp-filled than Charles II's famous river pageant of 1662. Golden Hinde, the replica of the ship in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world, will make a rare trip from its dock. Several of the "little ships" that took part in the 1940 Dunkirk rescue will be sailing the Thames, including New Britannic, which helped save 3,000 soldiers during Operation Dynamo.
The seven-mile-long flotilla will set off from Putney at high tide on June 3 and sail east toward Tower Bridge (it will not reach quite as far as the Thames Estuary, where, it was announced today, the government is considering building a new airport to serve London.) No river procession would be complete without a performance of Handel's Water Music, written to accompany another royal trip down the Thames almost 300 years ago. John Lunn, who wrote the score for Downton Abbey, is one of 10 British film and television composers who will create an updated version of the Water Music for this year's jubilee.
For landlubbers, there will be street parties across Britain – a traditional way of celebrating royal events. At Battersea Park on the south bank of the Thames, a huge gathering promises to leave no English cliché unturned, from pearly kings and queens to countless tea trollies to Morris dancers. And yes, there will be a giant cake featuring a picture of the Queen, which will be dismantled and distributed at the end of the day. Comparisons to the empire are probably not welcome.