Friday, March 23, 2012
After my royal weekend in Brighton, I continued my pre-Diamond Jubilee trip with a visit to two of London’s most important sites for the upcoming celebrations: the Queen’s royal barge and Buckingham Palace.
The former was located in the docks by the South Quay DLR station near Canary Wharf. The Spirit of Chartwell was being fully refitted in preparation for the 1,000-boat flotilla that will proceed down the Thames in June in honor of Her Majesty.
The ship wasn’t much to look at from the outside. It was plain in color and lacked the pomp that I expected from a royal vessel. But our tour guide, the Vice President of Operations, explained that the finished product would look far different than the barge did that day.
There are no less than five main designers and a host of craftspeople working to transform it into a ship fit for a queen. The Queen. Coats of arms from across the Commonwealth will hang over the sides, gardens will adorn the decks, and a specially sculpted prow will be fitted onto the bow.
Inside the ship, we got a glimpse of the elegance that would soon grace the exterior. The owner of the ship loved trains, and the dining area was furnished entirely with original chairs and Lalique panels from Orient Express carriages. There were also portholes and lamps from the SS France as well as flooring from Spain.
But the main events for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee were to take place not inside the barge, but outside. Up we went to the top deck, where arrangements are underway for the throne to be placed in the center.
As we basked in the afternoon sun, we learned that the barge will go into seclusion in a secret location on April 24, after which the public won’t be able to see it until the day of the Thames Pageant in June. The exact launch point will be kept a secret until the day of the event, but the ship is set to sail from near Albert Bridge to HMS President pier, where the Queen will watch until the last of the 1,000 vessels passes by to pay her homage.
While non-royals won’t be able to board the barge that day, the Spirit of Chartwell will go back to being a commercial ship after the jubilee. Regular tours around the UK will recommence, and the boat will also be available for hire, giving the rest of us the chance to live like royalty when the celebrations are over.
Speaking of living like royalty, the next stop on our tour of the Diamond Jubilee sites in London was the Queen’s home itself. Buckingham Palace invited my group and a handful of other travel writers to a reception that evening, and I couldn’t wait to attend.
We arrived promptly at 7pm, and were ushered into the gift shop with all of the other invitees. There we received instructions to wait (and “maybe buy something”) before the reception officially started. I thought it was a bit tacky to funnel guests into the retail outlet of the palace before an event, but I suppose the Queen has to make money somehow.
When the reception started, we walked upstairs into a gallery that was refurbished during the Queen’s last jubilee ten years ago. There we sipped wine from glasses etched with the royal “ER” as we listened to a presentation about the upcoming jubilee events.
It will start with the Queen’s annual visit to the Epsom Derby on June 2nd, then continue with The Big Jubilee Lunch on June 3rd. This will involve street parties and lunches across the country. Later that afternoon, the aforementioned Thames Pageant with its flotilla of 1,000 ships will take place on the Thames.
The following day there will be a huge concert at Buckingham Palace featuring everyone from Elton John to Kyle Minogue and Stevie Wonder. Also on that day 2,012 beacons will light up across the United Kingdom in celebration of the Queen’s 60 years on the throne. On June 5th, the final day of the Diamond Jubilee, the royal family will attend a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s Cathedral. For those that aren’t taking advantage of the two extra days off work, it’s going to be an big, busy four-day weekend in Britain!
After learning about the jubilee weekend, we were split into two groups and given a private tour of Buckingham Palace. The visit took us through the opulent ballrooms, drawing rooms, throne rooms, and picture galleries, and awed us with centuries of grandeur and history.
We saw paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, portraits of George III and George IV, the throne of Queen Victoria, and many decorative pieces that had made their way from the Royal Pavilion in Brighton to Buckingham Palace after that same queen sold it to the city. We saw the sumptuous room where last year’s Royal Wedding reception took place, and grand staircases that Hanoverian kings created to welcome their guests.
At the end of the evening, we were ushered down one such staircase and given a fond farewell by the palace staff. As we walked out the front gates—the ones we usually stand outside of to watch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace—I knew that my royal weekend in the UK was complete. Now all that’s left is to see if the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee events can compete with my royal time in Brighton and London. I can’t wait till June.