Recap: The Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant

View of the Houses of Parliament on the Thames River from the Albert Embankment during the Diamond Jubilee River Pageant. (Photo: Sean O’Neill)

Flap-flap-flapping of Union Jacks in the wind, the pop-pop-popping of corks for bottles of champagne and even a kazoo rendition of “God Save the Queen.” Such were some of the sounds heard along the Albert Embankment, located on the south bank of the River Thames, during today’s 1,000-boat River Pageant to mark the Diamond Jubilee, celebrating 60 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

Along the Albert Embankment promenade, with a diagonal view of the Houses of Parliament, thousands of spectators gathered 20-deep to watch the seven-mile-long flotilla. The loudest cheers erupted when Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry and other members of the Royal Family floated past on a royal barge, the Spirit of Chartwell, which had been converted into a 17th-century style gilded ship.

When the royal barge approached Westminster Bridge, the Royal Marines let loose a blast from their trumpets, which was echoed by applause onshore.

One of the other biggest cheers of the day, at least from the crowd on Albert Embankment, was for the Dunkirk little ships, which followed the royal barge. These ships famously executed a daring rescue of British soldiers in France in 1940.

Announcing the Dunkirk little ships was the M.V. Valulla, with about 30 white-hatted members of the Royal Marines Plymouth. As the boat passed, the band performed “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” an American folk song, which was immediately picked up on and sung by children on-shore.

“I know this song, mummy,” exclaimed Sara Tarby, 7, of Johannesburg, whose parents timed a vacation in the United Kingdom for the event.

On the riverbank of the Thames, some children wore paper crowns and sat on the shoulders of their parents, waving at the oarsmen rowing in water. Others wore jester hats and took advantage of periscopes, tubes with carefully angled mirrors, to view the river above the heads of adults.

The rain held off until the flotilla passed Westminster Bridge. The flotilla is the largest on the River Thames since 1662, when one was held in honor of Charles II.

During the afternoon, spectators were in great humor and took the grey, drizzly weather in stride. “Is it reigning?” joked ten-year old Emma Dacre of Surrey, who proudly spelled the words in her joke to make sure everyone got it. Like many young spectators, Dacre wore a Union-Jack-colored windbreaker.

One teenager I saw had cleverly painted their wellingtons, or rain boots, in Union Jack colors.

A day earlier, the world’s most loyal admirers of the monarchy had staked out their positions along the riverbank early, to make sure they didn’t miss a single kayak, floating belfry or gushing spout of water from a fire boat. The afternoon before the pageant, I spoke with some people who had already staked out prime positions along the Victoria Embankment, near Big Ben.

Some of happy campers were Rachel Wheeler and her two granddaughters from Wolverhampton, in northwestern England, who were ready to bunk down for the night in tents emblazoned with the Queen’s coat of arms. “There won’t be another Diamond Jubilee in my life time or probably my grans’ lifetimes,” said Wheeler. “So we simply had to be here.”

While overnight campers faced a nighttime downpour, spectators who arrived after 10 am BST had a dry time. Fans of Queen Elizabeth II were lucky enough to see her make the full procession down the Thames facing only an occasional mild mist. Shortly after she disembarked to view the procession from a pier by Tower Bridge was the time when the rain started to fall in a bit more earnest.

Sunday was about more than London’s River Pageant. Many tea-and-cream street parties were held across the country as part of an event called The Big Lunch, though some were rescheduled for Monday due to the inclement weather. (Street parties are a British tradition popularized since 1919 as a neighborly way of celebrating major public occasions.)

The poshest of the day’s street parties was held at Piccadilly, the city’s most chic shopping avenue, where Prince Charles and Camilla joined about 500 revelers for a sit-down meal in the closed-to-traffic street. One of the specialties sold by Fortnum & Mason’s shop on Piccadilly was Victoria sponge, sponge cakes layered with a cream-and-berry center, sold by a vendor with a passing cart.

Best, perhaps, to leave the final word to the focus of the event herself, Queen Elizabeth II. Here’s what she had to say in her official message for Accession Day:

“In this special year, as I dedicate myself anew to your service, I hope we will all be reminded of the power of togetherness and the convening strength of family, friendship and good neighborliness. I hope also that this jubilee year will be a time to give thanks for the great advances that have been made since 1952 and to look forward to the future with clear head and warm heart.”

Sean O’Neill is a London-based correspondent for BBC Travel