It’s back to work/school after the Jubilee extended bank holiday and the half term break that old fashioned people like me still think of as Whitsun.
My daughter and I had been looking forward to the River Pageant for months. It was the biggest event on the River Thames since 1662 when Charles II welcomed Princess Catherine of Braganza to London to become his wife.
Cynics said that because of cutbacks to the Royal Navy a Review at Spithead, as inspected by Queen Victoria at her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and by Queen Elizabeth II at her Coronation in 1953 and her Silver Jubilee in 1977, would be embarrassingly short. Hence this pageant of 1000 smaller boats and ships on the River (Note to readers outside the UK, and outside London even – Londoners tend to refer to the River Thames merely as The River).
It was led by the Royal Jubilee Bells, a ring of eight bells newly cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and hung on a barge. Their peal was answered by the City churches as it passed. The Queen was on the barge The Spirit of Chartwell. The Gloriana, a re-creation of the barges painted by Canaletto was rowed by 18 men, including Olympic gold medal winners and servicemen recently returned from Afghanistan.
I particularly wanted to see the section of the Little ships of Dunkirk and the veteran Thames Fireboat (also a Dunkirk veteran) the Massey Shaw. But with 1000 historic, working, leisure and service boats, some of them carrying whole orchestras, there was going to be plenty to see.
We knew it would be crowded. We knew that many of the bridges would be closed. We knew we would only see a fraction of what there was to see. We knew we had to get there early. We alighted at London Bridge having decided that the South Bank was the less obvious bank to view from. All access to the river was blocked eastwards. I know London like the back of my hand. We’ll slip through Hays Galleria by the HMS Belfast, I thought. No, the gates were locked. All of the Queen’s Walk was off limits and the public was being filtered inland along Tooley Street. London Bridge was crossable but the seating along the rails was reserved for the British Legion. I certainly don’t begrudge veterans and retired nurses a good view.
We decided to keep with the Southbank plan and managed to get down the side of Southwark Cathedral thinking we could make our way into Bankside, past the Globe Theatre and towards the open expanse outside Tate Modern. The way into Bankside was closed off and a security guard was shouting ‘Not this way, closed, closed!’ from behind his stretch of heras fencing. A policeman said there had been access earlier but he thought the area was considered full. We found ourselves being filtered across Southwark Bridge. Security guards lined the rail making sure no one stopped for any length of time. Once on the north bank we couldn’t get to the river down Thames Street.
The Millennium Bridge, which gives access from St Pauls to the Tate Modern gallery was blocked by the gentlemen you see below.
I found out later that the bridge was reserved for the BBC to interview artists who were intending to capture the Jubilee’s ‘Canaletto Moment’. The main work exhibited later that evening was not of the river at all. A rather wild Rastafarian had painted the Queen, from memory and in primary colours, on an old wooden door.
We walked down St Paul’s Walk and saw spaces above up on the walkway above the Blackfriars underpass. We rushed up but the gaps were filled with picnic tables and folding chairs which were fiercely guarded. We also met the man in the picture wearing the only ship we were destined to see on his head. There were screens showing Pathé newsreel of the Coronation and other historic events of the last 60 years. But we couldn’t get as near as we would have liked.
My next thought was Temple tube station and the two gardens above the station which are all part of Victoria Embankment Gardens. They are public space; I knew them well in my days attached to the Law Courts. All Arundal Street was lined with heras fencing and security guards. We went down Surrey Street but couldn’t get into Temple Place at that end. We returned to Arundal Street and were stopped and told that this was access to Temple Tube station only. I agreed that the station was what I wanted and we were allowed to proceed. At the station access to the river was blocked by solid steel doors, not even fencing which could be looked through. But an illuminated sign showed an arrow – “this corridor to the viewing area”. We made our way towards it.
‘No, no! No entry’ cried another guard’.
I tried to reach the stairs. ‘You can’t come through here’ said another guard.
‘But the guard down there has sent us up here’.
‘Well you can’t come through’.
‘But there’s a sign saying that there’s a viewing area. Why are you giving contradictory and misleading information?’
‘Don’t get difficult and stroppy with me, calm down’
‘But all I want to do is get to the river of my own city’ I wailed.
‘What’s that? Don’t you talk to me like that – did you hear that?’ said young mixed race man to older black man. ‘We were born here too you know – I’m not being spoken to like that’
I turned and spoke to a police officer who was nearby. ‘I’m afraid these security guards don’t seem to have the information I’m asking. My daughter and I wish to view the pageant from Victoria Embankment Gardens, what do you advise? ‘
The guards went back to glowering at other people who also wished to go where they were not permitted (ie up those steps to a public garden overlooking the river) and the police officer directed me back to Surrey Street. In Surrey Street another officer thought the gardens were ticket only, and as we did not have tickets that was no longer a possibility.
The Strand was full of people holding flags looking lost and bemused. Ahead of us was that meeting place of Londoners for generations – Trafalgar Square. And the National Gallery with its café and clean toilets.
And a screen – a large prominent screen bearing the legend ‘The Mayor of London presents the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.' A large and dark screen. People sat down ready for the transmission to start.
There was a BBC team in the Square.
‘Excuse me when will this screen start showing the River Pageant?’
‘River Pageant? I dunno. That’s nothing to do with us’.
I asked one of the security guards who was guarding the screen. "No, this is only for Tuesday" he answered. "But there is a screen in the Mall, by St James Park".
We walked as far down the Mall as we were able to get, which wasn’t far, The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace will remain closed now until the end of the Olympics in September. I accosted three police officers, who looked high-ranking.
‘That’s funny, you are the third person to ask about a screen – we don’t know of one other than that one over there.’
It was large, and it was unlit. I asked two men with a Royal parks van who were rearranging the Royal park deck chairs. They spoke to each other in their own language, then called a third who confirmed what I had suspected. This screen was also only for use on Tuesday.
Whitehall and Horseguards were busy – some people heading towards the river and others flowing back from the river towards those tantalising but dark screens.
We couldn’t get near the screen on Westminster Bridge. We discovered that access to the bridges was by tickets allocated to the Riparian boroughs, ie those councils through which the Thames flows. I would like to think that those places were given to members of the pensioners club, the meals on wheels volunteers, long serving road sweepers, a selection of Scouts, Guides and local schoolchildren. I do hope so.
We saw a queue outside Victoria Tower Gardens and after a security search we got in. The crowd along the river edge was 10 deep. The crowd round the screen was so great that we couldn’t make out a thing. We and others decided to leave. But we couldn’t get out as the gates were now shut. I’m used to being kettled now after numerous demonstrations. Anybody who attends football matches, or rock festivals gets accustomed to being herded and held at intervals. But the people in this Home Counties crowd were not used to it. They were bewildered. Why can’t we move? We want to go over there. It was something of a culture shock for them. I hope they remember it.
I knew of the two other gates to that park and we did get out relatively quickly – never underestimate the value of local knowledge.
Lambeth Bridge was impossible. People were climbing trees, lamp-posts and on top of the portaloos. Millbank had potential. But we were cold, tired, damp and hungry by now. Pizza Express on Millbank beckoned.
‘Table for two please’
‘Sorry Madam we have just closed. Please come back later’
It was the last straw. We left the river, found a pub and ordered a meal. Just in time. The heavens opened with a cloudburst and the tables filled rapidly. We got on the tube at St James and fell into conversation with another family who also had failed to see a single boat or ship. The grandfather was not impressed. ‘I saw more of the Coronation’ he said. Even one of our readers had a similar experience.
We could hear announcements at the stations as we passed through them.
‘This station is closed until the platforms are clear – please be patient – you will be allowed to enter in due course’
That settled the question of whether to get off at Tower Hill and try to see some of the ships that were too tall to go under Tower Bridge in the Avenue of Sail. It was raining very heavily and I was feeling the beginnings of my cold which mean I missed what turned out to be a rather good local street party the next day. Once home the repeated BBC coverage proved worse than useless.
It then transpired that many of the hired security guards had been bussed in from outside London. They were unpaid but were doing work experience which was expected to lead to an NVQ (national vocational qualification) in Crowd Control. That explains why none of them were capable of anything other than ‘You can’t come through here’ and were unfailingly miserable.
Later in the week I felt better and in the mood to attempt another outing, so long as it was indoors (more rain) and did not involve the train into London. My husband was free to come with us and we drove to the Secret Nuclear Bunker. I can’t tell you where it is – it’s secret – if I told you I would have to kill you.
Psst – it’s near North Weald.
It was built in 1951, opened in 1952 (so contemporary with the Queen’s reign) originally as an RAF plotter station but it developed into an underground facility which, in the event of a nuclear attack, would become the command centre for London and the seat of government. Several tableau recreated inside involved some very scary manikins of Margaret Thatcher. In one she was asleep in the cabinet room, next to a strong box which would have contained the cyanide had all hope failed and the 600 personnel decided not to face the slow death of the nuclear winter.
When it was decommissioned in the 1990’s it was privately bought and opened to the public.
You enter through a nondescript bungalow where you collect an audioguide and pass a notice telling you that by continuing this way you are committed to paying on exit. Then you are guided round this 80 foot deep cold war citadel, which was fascinating for me in having preserved a Civil Service office as I knew it from the period say 1979-90. The same type of chair I sat on, with a choice of lime green, acid yellow or tango orange nylon cover. The ‘latest’ 18inch square push button telephones. Battleship grey metal desks.
On an old television one of the old ‘Protect and Survive’ public information films was playing. The ones that reassured the public that they could survive a nuclear explosion by building a shelter inside their house from doors weighted down with suitcases full of garden soil, inside which they should stock tinned food and two pints of water per person per day, for 14 days.
People on the upper floors of blocks of flats would not be able to build such a refuge. They were told to make arrangements with their neighbours lower down in advance. That it was not so long ago (1960/70) that it could be expected that one’s neighbours would share their cupboard under the stairs and precious drinking water was a more startling indication of how much the UK has changed, than the old fashioned equipment.
Except that the proprietors of the Secret Bunker still believe in trust and honesty. Exit is through the canteen and gift shop. You help yourself to drinks and snacks, make your own tea or coffee. There is a cook if you want something more substantial. And there is an honesty box.
You add up your entrance fee, the price of your refreshments and any sundries, put the money in a box, take change if you need, put your audio guides back on a rank, pat the station Labrador, and management hope you enjoyed your visit. A troop of cub scouts had definitely enjoyed it.
The potential horror of nuclear war leavened by trust that the general public is still honest and decent at heart.