LONDON (Reuters) - The Queen joined an armada of 1,000 vessels and more than a million cheering spectators on Sunday to celebrate her 60th year on the throne with the most dazzling display of pageantry seen on London’s River Thames for 350 years.
Pealing bells greeted the start of the flotilla as the queen’s gilded royal barge sailed alongside a colourful and eclectic array of boats from leisure cruisers and yachts to rowing boats, a Hawaiian war canoe and Venetian gondolas.
Organisers said 1.2 million people, many waving “Union Jack” flags, braved typically inclement British weather to catch a glimpse of the procession along the seven mile (11 km route) as riverbanks were turned in a blur of red, white and blue.
After four hours on the river, much of it spent standing to review the flotilla passing by, the 86-year-old monarch was still smiling and showing a resolute “British stiff upper lip” as the event concluded in driving rain with a bitter wind.
Elizabeth, her 90-year-old husband Prince Philip and the other senior royal family members even jigged in time to the strains of “Rule Britannia” as the last vessel carrying an orchestra and drenched singers serenaded her.
“It made me proud to be British. It’ll be a long time before London has another day like this,” said Sandra Evans, 68, a retired shop worker from east London who was wrapped in a soaking wet British flag.
“The royal family has taken a lot of abuse from people over the years, but they’ve shown their class today.”
Up and down the country, millions of people attended diamond jubilee street parties in honour of the sovereign, the only British monarch after Queen Victoria to have sat on the throne for 60 years.
The London pageant, the highlight of four-days of public celebration, drew crowds from Britain and beyond as the queen, wearing a silver and white dress with a matching coat, sailed down the Thames in the royal barge, “The Spirit of Chartwell”.
Also on board were heir-to-the-throne Prince Charles, his eldest son Prince William and new wife Kate, a global fashion trendsetter who wore a vivid red Alexander McQueen dress and matching hat.
“It was amazing. It felt like stepping back in time and seeing history come to life,” said American student Ashley Nissim, 21, who is studying in London.
From New Zealand Maoris in traditional cloaks paddling a canoe to sailors and costume pirates, the flotilla boasted participants from every corner of the planet in a colourful display that recalled Britain’s history and nautical past.
There were even vessels from the 1940 evacuation of British and Allied troops from Dunkirk in northern France - a famous rescue performed by crafts of all shapes and sizes and a celebrated piece of British history.
Organisers said Sunday’s river pageant, reminiscent of a Canaletto canvas from the 18th century, was the largest of its kind since a similar spectacle was held for King Charles II and his consort Catherine of Braganza in 1662.
The flotilla passed under 14 bridges and past landmarks including the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London, where the picturesque Tower Bridge bascules were raised in salute.
One of the boats taking part, “Amazon”, featured in diamond jubilee celebrations for Queen Victoria, Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother, held in 1897 when Britain’s empire spanned much of the globe.
Although the queen is still head of state in 16 countries from Australia and Canada to tiny Tuvalu in the Pacific Ocean and head of the Commonwealth, Britain is a shadow of its former imperial self.
Nevertheless, the pageant appeared on news sites around the world and was among the top trending topics on the Twitter micro blogging site, with messages ranging from congratulatory to comic. Interest in the festivities and affection for the queen extended to former colonies such as Canada.
“She is a kind of living history,” marketing expert Amanda Batchelor told Reuters from her home in Toronto where she was watching on television.
Historians and commentators say the pomp and spectacle of British royal occasions gives the country a sense of national pride at a time when the economy is in recession and people face deep austerity measures.
Across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, street parties were being held to mark the occasion. Prince Charles and his wife Camilla dropped into one in central London before the pageant, joining in a rousing rendition of the national anthem.
While the queen and the royal party braved the elements under a canopy on a barge in the middle of the Thames and then for hours on a bankside reviewing stand, the wet conditions proved too much for Prime Minister David Cameron, who moved his Downing Street party indoors.
That said, the government hoped the jubilee would mark the start of a summer of revelry capped off by the Olympic Games in London, raising the public’s spirits and their poll ratings.
“You wouldn’t get that anywhere else in the world - only the British could put on an event like that,” said Paul Slater, 30, a financial consultant, who travelled from Birmingham in central England for the pageant. “Bring on the Olympics.”
However, economists have warned that the extra public holidays will hit Britain’s already ailing economy, potentially prolonging a recession.
The celebrations come as polls show the overwhelming backing for the monarchy, which has overcome a slump in the 1990s following marital infidelities and the death of the hugely popular Princess Diana in a 1997 Paris car crash
However, not everyone in London was cheering as about 100 republicans waving banners demanding “Votes not Boats” and “Make Monarchy History” staged a protest near Tower Bridge.
“Her achievement is just staying alive, doing little and saying less,” Graham Smith, head of campaign group Republic, told Reuters.
Even republicans acknowledge though there is little chance the queen will be ousted and take solace in indications many Britons are simply indifferent -- 2 million people are leaving the country to take advantage of the extended public holiday.
Celebrations will continue on Monday with a pop concert outside Elizabeth’s London residence Buckingham Palace and conclude with a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Tuesday followed by a carriage procession.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Gaunt, Philip Baillie, Peter Griffiths and Ethan Bilby, editing by Paul Casciato