Since this was first mooted as a Diamond Jubilee event, it has been an imagination grabber for all sorts of reasons.
At first the idea was accompanied by moans that monarchs used to review the fleet on occasions like this – but that this was no longer possible since Britain no longer has a navy in the traditional sense.
And of course there is no longer a royal yacht from which to review any fleet.
The mood coming from all of this was a sense of defeatism, that whatever could be done would, inevitably, be a modest and lesser affair.
This was how one was coached to read the progressively available information on what was planned – lots of everyday boats of all kinds, rowing boats, working boats, canal boats and passenger boats.
A river tour boat was to be converted into some sort of royal barge for the occasion. It all seemed very make-do.
But what happened on the Thames this afternoon was a triumphantly magnificent spectacle that was all the more glorious for its diversity and lack of any militarist overtone (and this is said from the standpoint of a long standing fascination with naval history, warships and battles).
Leading the ceremonial waterborne pageant was a floating belfry, carrying a set of eight commissioned Diamond Jubilee bells which were rung in a quarter peal as the the belfry moved downriver, answered by church bells through the city as it went.
Not a single commentator mentioned or even named the tug that steered this powerless, rudderless floating belfry by pushing it forwards all the way with its bow – a quite astonishingly difficult feat of seamanship, faultlessly performed.
The slowest boats went first – the man powered ones. They were everything from the stately and utterly mythical royal row barge, Gloriana, that led them. The sound of her rhythmical synchronised oars in the water was a sensory delight.
She was commissioned for the Diamond Jubilee and paid for by private donations. Her presence on the river, with the huge fleet of rowed boats around her regal skirts, the height of her long stern cabin balanced perfectly by the length of her oars and the measured 4 knot progress of the fleet, will be the defining image of the event.
With her, more or less in support, was an increasingly chaotic (wind, steerage and sheer numbers) – multitude of war canoes, dragon boats, venetians, kayaks and traditional rowed working boats. Looking at the confetti they made of the river and the patterns of the oars at their sides, they were like a carnivalesque multitude of those swimming insects we call ‘water boatmen’. Unforgettable.
A fleet of outboard-driven sea cadet boats came next, each carrying commonwealth flags – an interesting combination of the consistency of the boats and the variety of the flags.
The royal barge was, of course, lavishly gilded and decorated. It was as impressive as it needed to be but its compromises were somehow always present, where Gloriana was simply splendid. However, the barge, Spirit of Chartwell, did the job, with its relatively massive presence dominating the fleet of Dunkirk ‘little ships’ astern of her, emphasising the plucky dauntlessness that is their story.
The Queen, eighty six years old, stood from start to finish, a matter of over three and a half hours from when she boarded the barge and in progressively cold and wet weather.
The fleet of narrow boats was wonderful. One of the working boats was a coal barge from Yorkshire, a river boat not a sea boat that nevertheless made its way down something like 300 miles of sea coast to get to the Thames for the pageant. The skipper said drily that he picked his weather window carefully. We hope he gets back up there without incident.
The National Theatre had their gigantic three-man ‘warhorse’ on the roof, charging over to the edge and rearing up in salute. The sheer apparent risk of this made it a stunning moment.
Tower Bridge raised its arms to their full height in salute to the Queen and we all learned a new word – they’re called ‘bascules’.
The last boat on the pageant carried the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing throughout the entire route – and taking to the James Bond theme as they passed the SIS/MI6 building. When this boat came through Tower Bridge it turned to face parallel to the Royal barge, berthed at a naval pontoon. It played Land of Hope and Glory and the National Anthem, along with the Popeye song – the Sailors’ Hornpipe.
The musicians were under a transparent roof on the main deck but out in the open on a raised platform were the singers – the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir – drenched to the skin. They opened their mouths and they sang their hearts out. They unashamedly gave it the welly. There was nothing pretentious about it and it was fantastic.
This was a really great show and logic suggests that not one single person now alive will see anything like it in their lifetimes.