Street parties, picnics, Royal visits, thanksgiving services – all part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, but none will be as spectacular as Sunday 3rd June when the Thames will be brought to magnificent life in a royal spectacle that will make history and be talked about for years to come.
Royal celebrations on the river are part of the rich heritage of the Thames, probably the most history-steeped of all rivers. Richard III was the first English monarch to travel to his coronation by water in 1483, setting a precedent for spectacular royal processions on the river. In 1487, when Henry VII’s queen travelled by barge from Greenwich to the Tower of London, the journey was accompanied by a special firework display. Years later in May 1533, another Henry sent his new wife, Anne Boleyn, on an even more impressive coronation journey. Fifty gold clothed barges, a further 250 smaller vessels and two magnificent lead barges, mounted with fire-breathing mechanical monsters and choirs which flamed and sang for the huge crowds lining the banks of the Thames.
The tradition continued and on 30 May 1610, after James I proclaimed his son Henry to be the Prince of Wales, another grand celebration was staged on the river. This was followed by a three-day river pageant which included a fully orchestrated ‘sea’ battle with two merchant vessels, two fully-rigged men-of-war and a pirate ship.
Over 50 years later, on 23 August 1662, King Charles II and Queen Catherine of Braganza were welcomed with a reported 10,000 boats and an extravagant pageant on their arrival at Whitehall from Hampton Court. Twelve barges, each carrying a mythological character delivered an oration to their Majesties. This event so impressed 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys that he wrote: “the most magnificent triumph that ever floated on the Thames, considering the innumerable boates and vessells dress’d and adorn’d with all imaginable pomp.”
Music played an important part in these grand events. On 17 July 1717, Handel’s Water Music was performed on the Thames for King George I and a party of courtiers who had taken to the water in an open barge. Later, in 1749, to celebrate the end of the War of the Austrian Succession, Handel was again commissioned to write a celebratory piece of music for a celebration on the Thames. The Music for the Royal Fireworks, as it became known, was accompanied by a spectacular barge-launched fireworks display and this same music was again performed some 250 years later as part of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2002.
The Golden Jubilee wasn’t the first time that the queen had taken to the water. Six weeks after her coronation on 22 July 1953, a Royal River Pageant was held for the Queen on the Thames. The pageant comprised of 149 vessels and floats, divided into seven thematic sections: The Lord Mayor’s Procession, Her Majesty’s Services, Historical Tableaux, Marine Services, Industry and Commerce, River Services and Private motor yachts. The six-mile route began in Greenwich and ended with the Queen’s salute at Westminster.
To celebrate The Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, a River Progress and Pageant on the Thames was organised with over 140 vessels taking part. The Queen travelled aboard the Port of London Authority’s launch Nore which, dressed as a royal barge, landed several times to meet mayors of several London Boroughs and community groups before being welcomed by a 62-gun salute at the Tower of London.
For the Queen’s Golden Jubilee a new royal barge, based on an 18th century oared shallop, was built. The journey, from Isleworth to Greenwich, was accompanied by a dozen Dunkirk Little Ships and was joined by the Lady Daphne sailing barge, the Portwey steam tug and hundreds of smaller boats.
But no previous Thames pageant is likely to come close to this years, when at high water on Sunday 3 June 2012, over a thousand boats will come together on the River Thames for The Queen to lead her Diamond Jubilee Pageant. It will rival any spectacle that has gone before and be one of the largest flotillas ever assembled on the river.
30,000 flag waving spectators will be on the water and over 1 million are expected to line the shore and wave flags from the bridges along the route which stretches seven miles along the Thames from Battersea in West London to Tower Bridge in the East. The full route, including the mustering and dispersal of the vessels, from Hammersmith to the Greenwich Royal Naval College is around 14 miles.
The Queen will ride down the river from Putney to Tower Bridge in a Thames sailing barge specially converted to give the appearance of an ornate 18th-century royal galley. Her Majesty will review the flotilla before it sets off from Albert Bridge near Chelsea and by the time it reaches its final stop at Tower Bridge it will have travelled under 14 road and rail bridges and taken a full 90 minutes to pass any given point. The flotilla will be divided into 10 sections, with musical herald barges separating each group. The barge was aptly described by London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, as a royal quinquereme.
Everything from rowing boats to gondolas, passenger vessels to tugs, steamers, dhows, wherries, wooden launches, sailing boats, oyster smacks, square riggers and steam vessels, accompanied by the armed forces, fire, police, rescue and other services – everything, as Boris commented, “with the possible exception of the Ark Royal” will assemble all decked out in bunting and flags to welcome the Queen on this very special day in celebration of 60 years of her reign.
The gigantic fleet, selected by invitation and an open submission process, will be more than seven miles long and show our maritime heritage at its very best. Some boats have been chosen for their historic links, others simply because they will provide the Pageant with an element of fun, flair and a unique visual excitement. All will be accompanied by bands and hooters, water jets and whistles, fireworks and fantasy, even the sound of bells led by the Royal Jubilee Bells – eight church bells that will sound a quarter peal and be answered by churches along the route – and Gloriana, a hand-built 88ft row-barge with bell tower, covered in gold leaf.
This river pageant, centrepiece of the diamond jubilee celebrations and a tribute to Britain’s maritime history, will be the largest for at least 350 years and result in a long weekend of public holidays for the second year running.
Boats will muster at Hammersmith, Putney and Wandsworth, before entering the waters of the main route and passing Battersea, Albert, Chelsea, Vauxhall, Lambeth, Westminster, Hungerford, Waterloo, Blackfriars, Southwark, London and Tower, finally dispersing at Greenwich and the West India Docks.
The pageant can be reached by tube via a number of stations close to the route including: Pimlico Tube Station – 7 minutes from River Thames, St James’s Park Tube – 18 minutes from River Thames, Westminster Tube Station – 20 minutes from River Thames, Vauxhall, Waterloo, London Bridge and mainline stations: Victoria Railway Station – 21 minutes from River Thames and Charing Cross Railway Station – 29 minutes from River Thames.
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