LONDON: Britain's Queen Elizabeth joined an armada of 1,000 boats down London's River Thames to the pealing of bells on Sunday in a spectacular highlight of four days of nationwide celebrations to mark her 60th year on the throne.
Hundreds of thousands of cheering people waving "Union Jack" flags and dressed in red, white and blue braved the wind and rain to pack the 7-mile (11 km) route for one of the largest flotillas ever seen on the river.
The queen, wearing a silver and white dress with a matching coat, smiled broadly and waved to large crowds before boarding the gilded royal barge, "The Spirit of Chartwell", alongside her 90-year-old husband Prince Philip.
Other members of the royal family on the barge included 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.
Up and down the country, millions of people were due to attend diamond jubilee street parties over the long holiday weekend in honour of the 86-year-old, the only British monarch after Queen Victoria to have sat on the throne for 60 years.
Leisure cruisers, rowing boats, yachts and canoes made up the colourful Thames armada that also featured 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.
A typically inclement British summer's day failed to dampen enthusiasm, with boisterous crowds massed along the banks of the Thames, watching giant TV screens showing black-and-white images of the queen from her childhood.
"We're English, we know what the weather is like. We really don't care if we get wet you know - it's the jubilee, it's the queen, so it's nice to come up and celebrate it," said Jackie, a 39-year-old sales consultant who travelled across southern England to watch the event.
Organisers say Sunday's river pageant is the largest of its kind in 350 years since a similar spectacle was held for King Charles II and his consort Catherine of Braganza in 1662.
Other vessels in the flotilla include Motor Torpedo Boat 102 on which Allied Forces commander General Dwight Eisenhower and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspected warships before the 1944 D-Day invasion of Nazi-occupied France.
It travels under 14 bridges and past landmarks including the Houses of Parliament, St Paul's Cathedral, and the Tower of London.
"There haven't been pageants like this on the River Thames for 300 years and that makes it extremely special," said Peter Warwick on board "The Macaret" launch with the flotilla. "You look at the river banks and they are packed with people."
Another boat 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.
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. AGENCIES