The Queen's Golden Jubilee Weekend: A Personal Account

I arrived in London on Friday May 31. After relaxing for bit at my hostsí house I changed into my black tie outfit and went into the city to walk around and take in the sights before the Constitutional Monarchy Associationís Golden Jubilee dinner. First I found Buckingham Palace. I was thrilled just to be there and walk around. Then I walked to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, among other famous sites. Nothing was open for visitation but at this point I was happy just to see these famous buildings with my own eyes from the outside.

Eventually I couldn't walk any more and there was still time before the dinner, so I sat in a park for awhile. After my feet had recuperated I walked to the Horseguards Hotel at Whitehall (near all the government offices) for the dinner. I felt a little strange at first since everyone there was quite a bit older and they all seemed to know each other, but then I recognized Steve Lester, the secretary general I'd made the arrangements with, so I introduced myself to him and then he introduced me to his wife and some of the other guests, including the CMA's chairman Lord Sudeley and treasurer Denis Walker. The meal was very elegant, with a few items a little esoteric for my taste, but still quite good. In his opening speech, Lord Sudeley individually thanked the guests who had come from foreign countries, including me. This was definitely the first time my name had ever been read aloud by a Lord and from then on I felt very welcome. Originally I had supposed that everyone else would be much more familiar with this sort of thing (£50 dinners), but I discovered that there were others for whom this was a somewhat new experience. The keynote address by historian David Starkey was appropriately thoughtful and insightful. We closed with a rousing tribute to the Queen and the monarchy led by a former Conservative MP. I have a feeling there weren't many (if any) Labour supporters in this crowd. A very nice bunch; the people at my table were all friendly. I met the Australian royalist who had e-mailed me a couple times. I had to leave right after the speeches concluded in order to make the train back to West Norwood.

Having slept very little on the plane, I was exhausted and my alarm the next day did not wake me; I slept until 10:45, which in retrospect was probably just as well as I was very well rested for Saturday's activities. However, this did mean that there was less time for sightseeing than I'd expected, with the morning and early afternoon gone by the time I left. I'd intended to visit both the Royal Treasures exhibit at the Buckingham Palace Queen's Gallery and the Tower of London afterwards, but by the time I got to the gallery to buy tickets the only ones left were for 4:30, meaning that there would not be time to go to the Tower and then get back to the Palace in time. I figured I should favor the temporary event, so I bought the ticket and put off the Tower. I'm glad I did, because the exhibit was amazing. I'm not normally a big art exhibit person, but this one was really special, with fantastic paintings, gigantic ornate royal furniture, Faberge, etc..

Saturday night was the classical concert, "Prom at the Palace." I got a place on the grass near the giant screen right in front of the palace, so I was as close to the actual performance as I could have been without having a ticket. There were about 40,000 of us out there, according to the news reports. I was there two hours early, but the time passed very quickly as the family next to me were extremely friendly, insisting I sample their picnic food (I hadn't eaten much, although I did try fish & chips--and liked it!) and chatting the whole time. Anyway, the concert was absolutely fantastic. Among the highlights were 12-year-old clarinet prodigy Julian Bliss, and of course the legendary cellist Mstislav Rostropovich playing the second movement of the Villa-Lobos Bachianas Brasilieras No. 1 with the cellists of the London Symphony Orchestra. About a half hour after the concert ended, the Queen and Prince Philip came out the center gate with the performers to wave to the crowd, so I saw them in the flesh for the first time which was thrilling, although the crowd was so thick that it was hard to get a good view.

On Sunday morning I went to Windsor, where I knew the Queen and Philip would be attending the Jubilee service at St George's Chapel. I expected merely to stand outside and see her on the way in, but as it turned out the police were giving the public free tickets so I actually went in and attended the service! I saw the royal couple enter at the beginning and recess at the end (they were hidden, at least from my view, during the actual service). Afterwards, we all gathered outside on the steps, and HM & HRH passed by again so we could all see; I was closer this time and hopefully got some good photos. I was a little disappointed I didn't get to meet them but it was still exciting--I can say I attended church with the Queen! (The other members of the royal family were at different church services all over the UK.)

By the time the service was over, I was famished and had a nice English lunch at a 1645 restaurant. I went to Windsor's free exhibit on the Queen's lifelong relationship with the town, with fascinating photographs, paintings, ceremonial programs, press clippings, and other memorabilia. Then in the afternoon I toured the castle, which I loved. I saw the famous Queen Mary's Dolls House, a new Jubilee exhibition of previously unseen photographs of the Queen and Royal Family, and the lavish and historic State Apartments, including St. George's Hall (where the Queen hosts visiting heads of state, most recently the King of Jordan), which was so badly damaged by the 1992 fire and has been brilliantly restored since then. The exhibit detailing the fire and restoration was also fascinating. I had intended to go to Henry VIII's magnificent Hampton Court Palace, but as it turned out there wasn't time.

Sunday evening I learned that there had been a fire at Buckingham Palace. Fortunately it was quickly extinguished.

On Monday June 3 I got up early so I would have plenty of time for sightseeing. My first stop was the Tower of London, and I ended up spending the whole morning and early afternoon there. I took the Yeoman Warder's guided tour, marveled at the Crown Jewels, observed a costumed reanactment of a 1267 seige of the Tower, and toured Edward I's recreated medieval palace. I had lunch at the Tower's restaurant, and at 1:00 watched (and heard!) the military salute in honor of the Jubilee. I intended to visit St Paul's Cathedral next, but it was already closed for the next day's Jubilee thanksgiving service, so I saw only the outside and headed for Westminster Abbey, where again I took the full tour which was great.

After leaving the Abbey at its 3:45 closing time, I headed toward the Buckingham Palace area, which was already teeming with huge crowds getting ready for the 7:30 pop concert. I sat down in one of the parks near a giant screen. Eventually I got tired of sitting (the last time I would feel that!) and decided I wanted to be closer to the palace, so I slowly moved toward it and gradually ended up in front of the right-hand Palace giant screen to watch the concert, which was still two hours away. From then on I knew that I would not move until well after the event was over. I was surrounded by a solid mass of people in every direction. Finally the concert started. Unsurprisingly, I preferred the classical one. "Party at the Palace" was interesting and even fun at times, but at three and a half hours was too long for me, and it didn't take long before all the pop songs sounded the same. The Queen and Prince Philip had the right idea in my opinion; they didn't arrive until 10. At the very end, they, Prince Charles, and William and Harry joined all the performers on stage, where Charles movingly paid tribute to his "Mummy." Then the Queen came out to light the beacon; I saw this only on the screen until the rocket whizzed down the Mall and the great flame leapt up in the air. This launched a thirty-minute fireworks display which was probably the best I've ever seen. Color exploded up from Green Park as Buckingham Palace was alight (this time intentionally) with white flames making different designs around the front. Occasionally fireworks would also arise from the Queen Victoria Memorial (also shooting multiple jets of illuminated water), meaning that we had three areas of simultaneous pyrotechnics to look at. As more and more explosions filled the air, the whole front of Buckingham Palace was transformed into a screen on which were projected images of the Queen's reign, royal coats of arms, flags, and finally a gigantic "1952 2002". The event was over before midnight, but of course that didn't mean I could leave, the crowd (over a million by news estimates) preventing any quick departure. Fortunately the rail service extended their hours and I finally got back to my hosts' house at 1:30.

The following morning, I got up at 6:30 and was at Buckingham Palace by 8. I had made arrangements to meet the Monarchist League's Don Foreman and Peter Cavanagh by the statue of George VI about halfway down the Mall. But I wanted to be as close as possible so I got a place near the barrier. The person nearby agreed to save my place when I went off to meet Mr Foreman and Mr Cavanagh; they joined me at the barrier. The royal procession, which had started at 10:40 at the Palace, reached us about five minutes later. There were many mounted soldiers, and then, much to everyone's excitement, the younger members of the royal family in coaches: first William, Harry, Andrew, and Beatrice (I didn't get my camera ready in time for them but got the rest), Edward and Sophie with Eugenie, Anne's husband and children. Then many more soldiers, who preceded the climax: the Gold State Coach carrying the Queen and Prince Philip. The Queen was on my side; this was the closest I got to her all weekend. Charles and Anne rode behind their parents.

After the royal procession had passed us by, I went with Mr Foreman and Mr Cavanagh to the Royal Overseas League to watch the Jubilee service of thanksgiving (11:30-12:30) at St Paul's Cathedral on TV. This was a very nice indoor break, and would be the last time I sat in a chair for the next 7 1/2 hours. The music was spectacular of course.

After this I returned (by myself) to the Mall, where I watched the Guildhall luncheon speeches (the Lord Mayor, the Queen, the Prime Minister) on the giant screen. I saw the first part of the carnival procession from there. Then I realized that I was going to need to gradually get closer to the Palace in order to see the balcony appearance (still four hours away) with my own eyes instead of just on the screen. So I walked that way, eventually getting the royal family (minus the Queen and Philip, who were presumably still at lunch) in my sight; they were seated on the Queen Victoria memorial watching the parades. But eventually I discovered I wouldn't be able to move any farther due to police barriers. So I left the Mall and went all the way around Green Park to approach the front of the Palace. Eventually I ended up in roughly the same spot I had been for the pop concert. I could see everything that was going on on the screen, but from my angle the palace gates were blocking the view of the balcony. Everyone in my area had the same problem--we were all getting upset. I was really worried that I would have to rely on the TV screen, which just wouldn't be the same. By this point my legs felt ready to give in, I felt dehydrated, and was irritated that the parade I couldn't see was taking much longer than it was supposed to. I thought I was ready for it to be over.

Then the royal family came out on the balcony.

Just in time, the police allowed my part of the crowd to move to where we could see. I have seen so many photographs of the royal family appearing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, but they cannot capture the incredible emotional power of the moment. As the Windsors filed out the doors, the million-plus-strong crowd roared, waved Union Jacks, screamed, sang, cheered, and clapped. I was crying as I fully realized how much it meant to me to be there. All of a sudden, I was no longer thirsty, my feet were no longer tired. All that mattered was to yell as loud as possible. The Royal Air Force treated us to a spectacular flypast, ending with a perfect formation of planes streaming red, white and blue. The royal family left the balcony. But it wasn't over. As the crowd continued to cheer, the door reopened, and they came out again to an ecstatic reaction--first just the Queen and Prince Philip, and then the others. Again we screamed and cheered, singing Elgar's "Land of Hope and Glory," as the clearly gratified royals waved. They filed back into the palace. But the crowd wanted more, and the royals would not disappoint us. For a third and final time, the whole royal family entered and waved from the balcony, as a million voices sang "God Save the Queen."

As the New York Times observed, the party's over, but the British monarchy is here to stay.

--Theodore Harvey

Golden Jubilee