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Queen sails down Thames as thousands cheer in London
Updated 6/4/2012 11:04 AM ET
LONDON — Cool, wet and dreary weather didn't rain on the queen's parade Sunday.

Dressed in a heavily embellished white ensemble, Queen Elizabeth II boarded the Spirit of Chartwell royal barge to sail down the Thames with thousands of other boats and wave to crowds. Members of the royal family family joined her, including husband Prince Philip, son Prince Charles, grandson Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who wore a fire engine-red Alexander McQueen dress with a matching hat. William and brother Prince Harry were among the family members onboard wearing military uniforms.

Call it the queen's Big Fat (Wet) Diamond Jubilee. Hundreds of ships (not counting the police boats) organized for a sail-by on the river in what is being called the largest, most elaborate public event ever organized in this city. Are they crazy? Yes, crazy like a fox with a keen feel for the historic.

VIDEO: Maria Puente on Diamond Jubilee PHOTOS: Scenes from the weekend

The Thames River Pageant, the signature spectacle of the four-day jubilee weekend, was a triumph — and a cacophony of sound, color, music and shouting. Cannons saluted, guns fired, bells pealed, bands and orchestras played, whistles blew, ship horns sounded. A million people on the riverbanks, plus millions more watching at home or at street parties across Britain, cheered and waved flags and sang, in a big "Thanks, Ma'am!" to the queen for her 60 years on the throne as the living embodiment of the United Kingdom.

People stood in long lines for the toilets and the food kiosks. The longest lines were for the places selling beer, sandwiches and tea.

At Battersea Park on the south bank, cold, wet, bedraggled people started lining up to get in gates soon after 7 a.m. "It's for the history of the thing," says Patrick Green, who came into town from Essex with wife Louise who was wearing a gold blow-up crown on her head. "Only 99 pounds," she said proudly. Both were laden with jubilee stuff — flags, bunting, masks, mugs, face paints, not to mention umbrellas and folding chairs.

"We're fans of history," they said, repeating a common British sentiment. They are such fans they plan to camp Monday night on the Mall to get good spot to watch the closing-day coach procession.

History and the chance to see something that will never happen again in their lifetimes drove the Swash family in from Buckinghamshire 30 miles away on a 6 a.m bus. Eight-year-old Lily wants to see Will and Kate, whom she loves. "Also she wants to see the queen and be part of a celebration she'll remember and tell your children about," says mom Jo Swash, wearing a Union Jack bowler hat and earrings. Her kids were wearing Union Jack bracelets, T-shirts and caps, too.

William and the duchess have helped make the monarchy more popular than ever, says grandpa Barry Stephens. "They seem to be more approachable so it's made the monarchy more approachable," he says.

Jo Swash says she was in Hyde Park for Princess Diana's funeral in 1997, so she feels more connected to her sons. "I have more of a link to the boys," she says.

Organizers have spent years putting this together, signing up ships for the parade, raising money and building, polishing, carving, forging and cleaning in a frenzy of preparations. Composers even wrote new music based on Handel's Water Music, written for George I in 1717 for a concert on the Thames. Today, it all came together in a scene of royal pageantry not seen since the days when twittering was for the birds.

First came the belfry boat with eight newly forged bells named for the queen and senior royals ringing out as church bells pealed in response. Then a rowed barge, Gloriana, handmade of a type not built in a century, led the way with 18 oarsmen. It was followed by the queen on a redecorated river cruiser, The Spirit of Chartwell. From this lavish barge, equipped with tiny robotic cameras operated by the BBC, the queen and her family watched the flotilla sail past.

An estimated 30,000 people were actually on the flotilla, which ranged from tiny kayaks to tall ships, Chinese dragon boats and a Venetian gondola and even a Hawaiian war canoe. Among the boat passengers, as guests of the queen, were the Middletons, Michael, Carole, Pippa and James, the parents and siblings of the former Kate Middleton who became celebrities themselves after last year's royal wedding.

Riverside roads on both sides had been closed since early morning. The riverbanks were jammed for the seven-mile parade between Putney and Tower Bridge; the half-dozen bridges along the route were closed to traffic but overloaded with photographers as boats of all shapes and sizes and types passed below. It took a couple of hours for the entire flotilla to pass any one point.

It was a floating traffic jam on the river; all of the boats were assigned places in the "avenue of sail," and at times the river nearly disappeared under all those hulls jockeying to keep up, keep to the schedule and keep their spot in the sail.

It could have been a security nigxmlare — there were tens of thousands of police, security and military officials on duty for the event — but it went off mostly without a hitch. There were protests by a few republicans who'd like to get rid of the monarchy but few people paid attention.

Instead, it was an all-love bash for Her Majesty, 86, dressed in white hat and coat with black shoes and handbag. It demonstrated how far the monarchy has come back since the sad, bad days of the 1990s when the queen's children divorced amid embarrassing scandals, her castle burned and no one wanted to pay to repair it, and the people turned against her in the disastrous handling of the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

Mostly forgotten now, thanks to the queen and Will and Kate. Instead, most of the media here have embraced the queen and the jubilee with an outpouring of gushing coverage, headlines and flattering pictures. "Jubilation!" shouted the Daily Mail on Saturday, demanding readers show their pride by using the window poster of the smiling queen in her crown printed across two pages ("Long To Reign Over Us").

Nothing could have better reflected her widespread popularity than the news that Britain's politicians, normally as partisan as American pols, are coming together to back a plan to rename the tower housing Big Ben— the beloved London bell that chimes the quarter hour — in the queen's honor. The east tower of the Houses of Parliament, now known as the Clock Tower, will soon become the Elizabeth Tower.

It was an unprecedented day, at least for the last 350 years. On Monday, there will be a star-studded pop concert at Buckingham Palace, but that has been done before. On Tuesday there will be a cathedral service, coach procession and balcony scene, all routine at any royal celebration, including last year's royal wedding of Prince William and the former Kate Middleton.

But this size flotilla of tribute hasn't happened here since 1662, when Charles II welcomed his new queen, the Portuguese Catherine of Braganza, to England with an armada of similar proportions.

For pageant master Adrian Evans, a river activist who came up with the idea, it was a chance to honor the queen but also to remind Brits of how important the Thames has been to royal history and British history in general. It used to be the city's "biggest boulevard" until it became polluted and ugly and people turned their backs on it.

"Now one of the most delightful things to do is walk along the banks — we've changed our relationship with the river, reinvented its image," Evans said in an interview before the jubilee. "It's my hope people will be encouraged to think differently about this great river running through our city and our history."

To close the show, fireworks were launched from the Tower Bridge.

Richard Heaton-Watson was in the crowd watching the parade on the jumbo screen with his daughter and her new puppy, which looks exactly like Will and Kate's new puppy Lupo.

Near the end of the day's events, he said, "It's all very British, isn't it?"

Posted 6/3/2012 12:40 PM ET
Updated 6/4/2012 11:04 AM ET
Queen Elizabeth II waves from the royal barge during the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames in London Sunday.
By John Stillwell, AP
Queen Elizabeth II waves from the royal barge during the Diamond Jubilee Pageant on the River Thames in London Sunday.

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