04 June 2012

Liquid History

John Burns nailed it when he said, "The Thames is liquid history". He was a politician and historian, so he ought to know. I think he would have rather enjoyed seeing liquid history in the making yesterday.

Unless you've been living under a rock you know that this weekend marks Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee and the whole city, country, nay, even the world is celebrating! Even if you aren't British or a citizen of the Commonwealth, this is an event worth noting. It's also an excellent excuse for a party with lots of cakes, little cocktail sausages, and bunting. One can never have too much bunting.

The last time this country saw a Diamond Jubilee was in 1897 when Queen Victoria (Elizabeth's great-great grandmother) celebrated 60 years on the throne. And here we are, 115 years later celebrating this historic moment and what better way than a pageant on the Thames!

Map of the Pageant route (

The Thames has been used for transport, both Royal and common for centuries. Back in the day, the Thames was the M1 of its time and since there was a whole string of royal palaces from Greenwich to Hampton Court it probably wasn't terribly uncommon to see the royal barge sail past. Today, it's quite a spectacle. Like the city, royal barges have gained somewhat in stature.

This is Prince Frederick's (eldest son of George I) barge, built in 1731 and designed by William Kent. The Queen has graciously loaned it to the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich where you can see it up close and personal. The elaborate carving of shells, mermaids, and sea monsters is gilded with gold leaf, the seats inside the cabin are plush red velvet, and the painted oars were manned by a crew of 21.

Fast forward almost 300 years to Queen Elizabeth's barge:


The times, they are a'changin'! Like it's historic predecessor, the carving on the prow features gilded sea monsters, mermaids, and swags. The plush red velvet was present, as were 10,000 flowers from Her Majesty's gardens.

Everyone is comparing the day to that famous image painted by Canaletto in 1747 depicting the Lord Mayor's Show.

My friend Celia Fiennes wrote of the Lord Mayor's show around 1698 and described the river as being "full of Barges belonging to the severall Companyes of London, adorned with streamers and their armes and fine musick". In some ways, little has changed in 300 years. Had she been there with me yesterday, Celia would have seen 1,000 boats of all types adorned with streamers, flags, bunting, and balloons. She would have seen flags of state, of the territories of the Commonwealth, the arms of the Queen, and she would have heard the 'fine musick' of pealing bells, live orchestras, pipe bands, and choirs all playing and singing as they traveled up the seven mile procession route.
Costumed rowers as they pass Somerset House as part of the Diamond Jubilee Flotilla, 3 June 2012

She would also have seen a spectacular crowd of over one million people waving Union Jack flags, wearing Union Jack hats, scarves, shirts, skirts, glasses, and carrying Union Jack umbrellas and tote bags. Bunting festooned bridges and buildings and the atmosphere, though wet, did nothing to dampen the spirits of those who waited more than seven hours in the rain and drizzle to see the flotilla and cheer on Her Majesty.


She would have heard the bells of St. Paul's and every other church near the river ringing out.

And she would have been amazed at the litter left behind. Seriously, people, you brought it with you, take it home.

But I digress...

News reports say the city of London and the Thames haven't seen anything like this in 350 years and who knows when they will again. I met people who had travelled from as far north as Scotland and from the very southern end of the south Devon coast to be a witness to history. Others no doubt travelled from across the world. I staked out my spot right up to the railing on the south bank next to the OXO tower before 9am and by 10 am the pavement behind me was packed. One of several jumbo screens was located behind me and relayed live footage of the procession from beginning to end. Before the live coverage started we were treated to news footage of the Queen's Coronation 60 years ago when she was only 25 years old. Then, as now, people lined the streets to catch sight of their new elegant queen. The reporter's words were just as applicable yesterday as they were in 1952 when he said:
"No wind-swept or rain damped sky could diminish the colors or the enthusiasm of the thousands of people waiting to catch a glimpse of the Queen pass by".

It is, indeed, a proper boat, fit for a proper Queen.

There are some events in history worth standing in the rain for. This was definitely one of them!

The Daily Mail had this cool image of Canaletto's painting c. 1747 and the Jubilee Flotilla, 2012 from about the same vantage point. History, then and now.

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