Memories of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant 2012

Ross Tibbles
Ross Tibbles

By Mike Rego

Saturday, June 2nd, 2012, was dry and sunny over London and full of promise for good weather for Sunday, 3rd July, for the Thames river pageant to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

The Pageant had been in planning for a couple of years, and those of us associated with the river had been preparing for this momentous event. I was (and still am occasionally) an oarsman, rowing a traditionally-styled fixed seat Thames Waterman Cutter on the tidal Thames owned by my Livery Company in the City of London, the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers.  

Most crews were so busy with cameras or looking at Royalty as they rowed past, who were looking and waving back at them, that all pretence of precision rowing went out of the window, to the great amusement of HRH Prince Philip! 

The Thames Cutters are similar to a gig, but having a lower saxboard and were designed based on Thames Watermen’s vessels of the 1700s for the Great River Race, a 26-mile race held annually from Greenwich to Richmond that brings traditional rowing on the Thames back into the heart of the City of London. They can be rowed or sculled with six oarsmen and cox, or as in the Jubilee Flotilla with four oarsmen, cox, and two to four passengers under a tented awning at the stern.  

All of us participating in the flotilla had to be security vetted beforehand because we were going to be in such close proximity to HMQ. Strict instructions were issued on what we could and couldn’t do, along with detailed scheduling on boat launching, forming up the flotilla and navigation for 670 boats of all sizes and power. What could possibly go wrong? Lots actually, but mainly the weather.
All man-powered vessels had been towed to Chiswick, at the end of the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race course, and moved on to dry land for preparation. So that sunny Saturday was spent with crews from all over the UK and overseas busily cleaning and polishing boats, checking equipment, getting everything ship-shape ready for the big day. It was all quite a party, until Sunday morning… .

At 7am when we all gathered with our security bracelets the river was shrouded in dull grey mist, a thick heavy drizzle, the sort that permeates through everything – just like on Dartmoor. Gamely it was time to get out the duct tape, rig up the bunting, decorate the boats, grab a bacon or sausage bap, remind ourselves that, being British, a little drop of rain wouldn’t spoil our fun and change into our kit. And as usual there were lots of crews with missing or forgotten bits of kit or bits of boat ensuring the usual faffing around, but everyone helping each other to make it happen.

The skiff alongside us had a familiar face – it was Ben Fogle, the television presenter, surrounded by a few techies sticking cameras all over their boat. Boating time was approaching and they had run out of ways to attach all their cameras, so we started helping by loaning our duct tape. At one point I commented that all we needed to complete this jerry-rigged affair was an old squeezy bottle and some sticky-backed plastic, at which point one of Ben’s crewmates, a shortish blonde lady, commented that ‘oh no, we are not allowed to use squeezy bottles any more with children, they may be carcinogenic!’ Fortunately, I held back from a sarcastic response – the lady turned out to be Helen Skelton, the children’s television presenter from Blue Peter, who only two years earlier had kayaked 2,010 miles down the Amazon. With that pedigree, she should know her squeezy bottles! Their third crew member was Charlie Bormann, another seasoned traveller and television personality. So, no excuses for running out of duct tape to set up cameras then.

The Thames Waterman Cutter of the Worshipful Company of Barbers passing before the huge crowds gathered along the riverbank

Boating started at 9.30am, still on the flood tide. The Thames foreshore is delightfully muddy either side of high tide with a thick grey cloying mud, and it was quite a sight to watch everyone boating at the water’s edge and trying to maintain clean kit and boats, especially for all the women passengers in their finery. Many expensive shoes were ruined!

We had a leisurely row – still against the incoming tide – some eight miles down to our gathering point between Chelsea and Grosvenor Railway Bridge. The drizzle had eased off by now, and the sun even broke through for a short while. As we rowed down, we caught up and passed Fogle, Skelton and Bormann, happily shouting out typical oarsman’s witty insults and banter to them not realising that they were on a live transmission to breakfast TV across America! (Apologies Ben!)
Already the crowds were gathering, a miserable Sunday morning, but the riverbank was lined with crowds watching all the boats forming up: cutters, skiffs, wherries, steam launches, Dunkirk Little Ships, gigs, gondolas, Edwardian passenger vessels, narrow boats, anything that floated and could maintain four knots, all proudly displaying their purple and white pennant for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant. There were also rumoured to be a number of heavily armed and extremely fast SBS RIBs lurking on the water for security. Steam whistles, klaxons, fog horns, bells all created a cheer from the riverside; it really was one hand on the oar and one waving.

We arrived at the gathering point at around 1pm, mooring amongst friends and competitors in other boats, old rowing friends that one had known since schooldays, fellow racing competitors and people one only sees on the river once or twice a year, all excited in anticipation after seeing the size of the crowds forming up.  

Around 2.15pm the 4-6-2 ex-LMS steam locomotive, Princess Elizabeth sounded her whistle from Grosvenor Railway Bridge, the signal for boats to take up position midstream on the slack water as the ebb tide built. Five minutes later, HMB Gloriana cast off ahead of us and in mid-stream tossed oars, drawing an enormous deafening cheer from all around! It was quite an emotional moment to be part of such an occasion. The noise from the crowds on the banks was incredible, unimaginably loud, so great that we never heard the peals of bells being rung from the barge at the head of the Flotilla, just in front of HMB Gloriana.

We could hardly hear the cox’s instructions as the Flotilla set off at 2.30pm on the dot. The Flotilla had been planned to maintain steady progress throughout at four knots on the start of the ebb tide. Any slower boats were to be pulled out and sent to the back. Furthermore, those of us in the front rows were under strict instructions to maintain position – 2m to 3m blade tip to blade tip, and about 5m stem to stern. Supposedly it was a procession and NOT a race… only all the crews knew different…

Strict instructions not to break ranks; the man-powered vessels at the front immediately behind HMB Gloriana consisted of three rows of cutters and gigs, nine vessels abreast. At Westminster Bridge, we were all reasonably in formation, but then it began to fall apart as we rowed past HMQ aboard The Spirit of Chartwell – everyone was so busy tossing oars, looking up at HMQ and family whilst also holding cameras, that everything fell apart. HRH Prince Philip especially, it seemed, was enjoying pointing out to HMQ all the boats messing up, because crews were looking up at them from only a few feet away and losing all sense of rhythm and timing, bringing chaos to the strict positioning of vessels.  
The noise from the crowds was deafening – it was truly a great roar all along the way from Grosvenor Bridge to Tower Bridge, from both banks. Crowds really were three or four deep in places despite the weather, not to mention those in offices and flats, on balconies, leaning out of windows or on rooftops. Flags waving, bunting everywhere, it was a riot of colour and noise that few of us will ever experience.

By Waterloo Bridge, canoes, kayaks, skiffs and all manner of smaller vessels were coming forward amongst us jostling for our prime positions for camera and television etc, so all the cutters came forward, effectively racing each other to try and hold back the smaller boats, which then fanned out as we entered the Embankment Reach to create the so-called ‘Canaletto Moment’ that was pictured in the world’s media. It was the unique photo opportunity that defined the occasion yet was never planned for!

One of my fondest memories is the banter between crews as we passed under the bridges. No press or television there, but lots of ribald banter and jovial insults from crew to crew. It was our big day too, with nothing similar for over 300 years! By the Pool of London, as we passed HMS Belfast, the rain started and from that point it truly became a race, with no prisoners taken.

As we passed under Tower Bridge the rain became intense; I can just about recall one of the tall ships in the ‘Avenue of Sail’ but we were getting drenched, and with three miles to row to our disembarkation point at Greenland Dock, it was heads down and row like crazy at full throttle to make the first locking into the dock.
‘Drowned rats’ is the expression that comes to mind. We were sodden, but what an occasion! We went off in search of a pub and found the Wibbley Wobbley Pub, a converted Rhine barge where we felt like heroes, sodden and cold, but on an emotional high.

A ‘few’ pints later and we were on our ways home, tired but nursing unique memories of being part of such a truly magnificent occasion. And as for the rain, at the front of the Flotilla we didn’t suffer as much as those further back and besides, as any oarsman will tell you, ‘better a bad day on the water than a good day in the office’!

Sadly, there is no major river pageant to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022, however on Saturday, 24th September, 2022, the Jubilee Reflections Flotilla will mark the River Thames’ celebration of HM The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
Reflections will be an opportunity for the River Thames’ community and its stakeholders to come together to capture the enchantment of the night river, with an illuminated flotilla of invited vessels at dusk, both manpowered and motorised, parading down through central London from Chelsea to Tower Bridge.