" It was, quite simply, very British no matter what the weather, we put on a good show in Britain; that no-one can deny."
Sue Ockwell, Genevieve
Diamond Jubilee River Pageant
A number of historic and traditional craft that we have had the pleasure to restore, build and look after over many years, took part in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee River Pageant.
From Sultan, a coal fired steam launch built in 1900, to Genevieve, an elegant Edwardian saloon launch, SS Alaska, umpire launch Amaryllis, 20 ft electric canoe Melodie, and Bibi, a classic Riva Ariston.
The Personal Experience of Some of Those
Amidst the 1,000 Boat Procession
With many thanks to Sue Ockwell, aboard Genevieve
We heard that we were part of the Jubilee Pageant only on 21st April in Reading, at a weekend travel industry conference, so it was slightly surreal and unexpected. Wed applied - along with the other 4,500 would-be participants - a good year back, struggled through the complex forms (who knew, with a boat that normally pottered the upper stretches of the Thames at Hurley and Henley, what height the boat would need above it to get safely through 14 bridge arches in the lower reaches of the Thames in a high tide?!). We were turned down. My sisters family, keen boatmen all, were disappointed but stoical; my husband, whose company owns the boat, equally so.
Genevieve at Westminster (with Bibi Riva Ariston just visible behind)
To hear but six weeks before the Pageant that we could take the place of a last-minute cancellation was both exciting and daunting. We were travelling back from the USA only the week before, had heavy work-loads to juggle, and who could possibly spare the two days required to bring the Genevieve downstream from Hurley on Thames to Teddington for the pre-Jubilee scrutineering? Who would have time to read and act on the huge number of emails emanating from the organisers, absorb the contents of 50-page manuals and attend the mandatory evening briefings? Then there were the basic essentials such as buying a radio and acquiring life-jackets for all guests (different rules apply in the gentle upper reaches of the Thames from the choppy waters of the near-estuary around Canary Wharf and West India Dock, where wed arrive to overnight at the end of the Pageant), not to mention the key point of having a qualified and experienced captain who wasnt fazed by the tight formations envisaged (just one boats length between boats, with huge washes being created by emergency and safety RIBs, water taxis, Port of London Authority monitoring boats and so on).
My husband dithered. He said yes and I immediately emailed my sister in the USA. He said no half an hour later because the logistical nightmares loomed firmly to the front of his mind. The organisers were persuasive: Mr Josephides, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He capitulated... It was indeed such an opportunity, and worth pulling out all the stops.
My sister now, sadly, couldnt join us. Noel invited some of his long-standing office team (Rosanna and June, plus Junes partner Sean), some old friends of ours from years back (Angelos, Catherine and Wendy) and his sister, Ginette. Key participants, without whom nothing would have been possible, were our Captain, Bill Collis, plus Issy Emin, Sunvils financial controller, Chris Wright, MD of GIC The Villa Collection and his partner Chris they were Ships Mates and Crew, and undertook the hard graft of absorbing the contents of the working manuals, acquiring the necessary kit, bringing the boat to the scrutineering point - a 9-hour trip just to get to Teddington and the pre-tidal river alone - attending the briefings and generally keeping guests and boat safe on the big day. Chris said absorbing the detail was the hardest thing hed ever done it makes sorting out an airline collapse look simple!.
Looking her best and dressed for the occasion.
The big day loomed. Decorating the boat was important we aimed for simple but elegant, in keeping with Genevieve itself. Shes a 1914 Edwardian river cruiser, found rotting in a canal up north some years ago by Peter Freebody, boat-builder extraordinaire based in Hurley on Thames. He restored her over several years and she was re-launched in 2010 - 40 feet of sleek lines, teak decking, highly-varnished interiors, plus Peters trademark motif carved by hand (a slanted cross in appearance, it provides a decorative method of ventilating moist areas within the boats core, preventing wood rot). The finishing touches were maroon leather seating mirrored by a maroon/cream scallop-edged canvas roof. Her body is cream-painted and she boasts a beaver-end stern an unusual and rare feature. Genevieve is one of just two-remaining such boats, They sold for a mere £1,500 back in the day! Restoration has meant she is now insured for circa £450,000.
We decorated the boat on Friday night after work; we chose to decorate with ivy wound around the upright roof supports, and I harvested two huge bin liners full of long swags of ivy from our garden on Thursday. Friday night saw us in semi-darkness at the Marina at Thames Ditton, green gardening string and scissors to hand, frantically finishing off the decor! Blue hydrangeas, red geraniums and white pot plants were grouped in a large cache pot on the roof of Genevieve. The bunting was more problematic I was scared to scramble around the outside of the boat, especially in the dark so we decided to finish it off early Saturday morning, when others would be there to help and when wed load up with supplies for the trip.
Saturday brought a cold, damp morning much more of that, unfortunately, to come on the big day, Sunday! but Wendy and Captain Bill did a great job on the bunting, with Union flags to the fore and St Georges flags to the rear. We added blue, red and white flowers amidst the ivy. At 10 am, Chris and Bill set off for Putney, where Genevieve would moor overnight in its flotilla position, ready to go on Sunday. Some 2,000 buoys had been put in position ready for the Pageant calling it a military-style operation doesnt really do justice to the sheer amount of thought and organisation that went into planning this amazing occasion.
Steam launch Sultan, part of the historic ships section
We watched Genevieve draw up at Teddington Lock, and join a group of some 50 small boats heading down-river in convoy. We saw them all again at Richmond Bridge in brilliant sunshine (the last of the weekend!) pootling down-stream in good spirits, much-watched by the crowds on Richmond riverside. It was there that Gloriana, the Royal Barge, had been built out of ten tonnes of wood in just 18 weeks by 60 craftsmen headed by master boat builder Mark Edwards of Richmond. We had watched it emerge from its initial skeleton shape over the weeks, as the planks were placed and paintwork and gilding was added, and on Friday night the floodlights were on as workers finished their massive project late at night. On Saturday morning, Gloriana had gone, having set off to reach her start-point in the Pageant and for 18 oarsmen and women, led by Olympians and Paralympic champions, to power her along the river at the head of the procession of 1,000 boats, the biggest gathering of boats on the River Thames for over 400 years.
We heard from Chris Wright and Captain Bill early Saturday evening. Mooring at the buoys at Barn Elms had been a hairy experience. Our Captain had aimed to get to the Barnes stretch of the river, close to Fulham Football Club, just as the tide was turning, when the water would be slack and mooring would thus be easier. The convoy had made such slow progress, however, that the tide was in full flood heading seawards, and Genevieve, along with many of the boats, struggled to stay in position and had to be nudged back/held in place by PLA boats. Chris had stretched out on the boats bow, held by his ankles, reaching overboard to attempt to tie the rope to the buoys. In his heart-felt words: Scary!.
SS Alaska in full steam along the Chelsea Embankment
We left home, with guests firmly in tow, at 8.45 am on Sunday because of all the security checks at Putney Pier (passports and boarding cards essential), and were scheduled to get on to our boat (moored in mid Thames since Saturday early evening, with two of our crew gamely over-nighting on board) by 11 am via water taxi, although the procession wouldnt start moving until 2 pm. We were scheduled to get to West India Dock at 7 pm, and would then travel back to Twickenham from Canary Wharf by public transport. Genevieve would stay in the dock, with the crew over-nighting on her again and bringing her back up river to Hurley (it's likely to be a 20-hour trip, in two stages, keeping a watchful eye on tides until the non-tidal reaches north of Teddington) on Monday/Tuesday.
The water taxis huge RIBs and professional crews buzzed back and forth, ferrying guests to the boats. One particularly striking RIB (see pic) sported an enormous pink hat in honour of the Queen! Genevieve was in the Historical boats section, just ahead of the Dunkirk boats. We were number H97, in a row four historical boats wide, and our section was about 15 boats deep 60 historical boats in all. The sheer scale of it started to hit us. Next door to us was Christabel, a similar-sized historic Thames river cruiser. Her guests changed into Edwardian garb (over their jeans and other clothes for warmth!) in time for the start of the Pageant. Much banter was exchanged. We, sensibly, went for comfort and warmth over style, the previous evenings forecast having been 10 degrees C and the weather people having declared that it would feel like 8 degrees C due to the wind.
Nerves started when we got the half-hour warning engines were switched on (our next-door neighbour confessed to extreme angst at this point hed tried the engine so many times the previous day that he was worried he might have overdone things, or flooded it). Then we had to loosen the ropes to the buoys and hold fast until the final count-down and were due to set off at 10-second intervals tough for a group of old girls not designed for tidal rivers or split-second timing!
Immediately in front of us was, according to the BBCs website, the BBCs exclusive presentation boat, The Zephyr, right at the heart of the Pageant (with) Frank Skinner, Griff Rhys Jones, Omid Djalili, Sue Johnston and Sandi Toksvig providing an alternative and amusing reflection on the pageant as it takes place. We offered them lunch before the Pageant started, but they declined pressure of work, no doubt! (see pic) Most of their filming was, understandably in the light of the weather, done inside the boats cabin, so we didnt see much of them once we were underway, although our instructions were to remain within a boats length of the bow of The Zephyr, so we tailed her valiantly through heavy wash and waves. Thank goodness for travel wrist bands we managed to avoid sea-sickness by wearing these clever little contraptions that press on acupuncture points.
The rowers (man powered section) started off the Pageant from the back (poor things I cant imagine how much they must have ached afterwards, as they travelled further than any of the powered boats). There was such an array of styles of rowing boat, types of people rowing (lots of women well done, girls!) and costumes that it kept us all absorbed for a good 30 or more minutes. From the BBC website again: Ben Fogle will row a Triple Skiff with some friends and give us an insight into what its like to take part in the man-powered section, at the front of the pageant well, Ben looked the part of course, dressed formally in a suit of some kind!
In full flotilla with Umpire launch Amaryllis heading under Westminster Bridge
Amongst others, those which stood out particularly were the Maori dug-out canoe they did a Haka with their paddles lifted high, which was stunning, right alongside us the endless Australian surf boats in bright yellow, with crew wearing sleek swim hats, the many dressed in costume (pirates, peasants, top-hatted gentlemen, Robin Hoods merry men complete with monk at the tiller, jesters, knights, a drummer in bearskin headgear, mediaeval garb, with canopies on board to protect their VIP lords and ladies, tiaras), plus representatives from Wales - decorated with daffs and leeks - from the Lake District - giant daffodils - from Scotland, from Canada - canoes complete with maple-leaf flags plus rowers wearing warpaint, a Transatlantic rowing boat, French boats, Royal Navy boats, even a boat with a dog on board! The Italian gondoliers were spectacular, with their pale-blue pom-pom hats set at a jaunty angle. Young, old, big, small there were all sizes and shapes of boat, and the spectacle was jaw-dropping in scale and impact. We were already reeling from the experience and we hadnt even set off at this point.
The joyful cacophony, with bells, steam whistles, horns, cheers and applause, mixed with laughter and the revving of boat engines, the mad flapping of bunting and a thousand specially-created maroon and cream Jubilee flags a wonderful souvenir of the day plus, when the wind brought the sound our way, snippets of a choir singing and bagpipes on one of the music boats, behind us - was overwhelming.
And we were off! Frantic looking out, front, side and rear, on the part of Captain and crew, the guests settling down and snapping many photographs while drinking hot coffee and tea (much more popular than the champagne and wine on offer due to the unseasonally cold weather!), the unbelievable number of onlookers lining the banks for the whole seven miles that figure of 1.2 M people standing in the rain is, Im sure, pretty accurate and the cheers every time we waved, the flags on the shore held high, the bridges packed with spectators...my goodness.
The view from the bow of Genevieve in the Historic boats section.
In heavy rain, admidst grey skies, we ticked off the bridges Putney, Wandsworth, Battersea, Albert, Chelsea, Vauxhall, Lambeth, Westminster the terraces of Parliament were packed with onlookers, and flags hung from office windows in the House of Lords and House of Commons - Waterloo, Millennium, Blackfriars, Southwark, London, Tower Bridge, with its drawbridge raised high in honour of the Queen and then we were riding the by-now-quite-rough waves, all eyes to the left to observe the Queen and Prince Philip, Kate and Wills, and other members of the Royal family, on the Royal boat, Spirit of Chartwell. We waved frantically, curtseyed and bowed our heads, and couldnt believe that the Queen was standing, and evidently had been doing so throughout the event. What an example to us all she is magnificent is the only word that one can use.
What a day it was! The experience was not yet at an end we had a scramble, in very choppy waters, to gain access to West India Dock a huge edifice with 20-foot-high wooden walls the equivalent of a boat traffic jam or holding pattern in the air on board a plane. Sir, can you take our rope?, Sir, apologies!, Grab the boat hook and fend off from the walls! endless banter, shouted instructions and noise at the end of an amazing seven-mile Thames journey. (see pic) Barbara Windsor wandered by saying Goodbye boys! to some of our guests. We gathered together the remains of our picnic, surveyed the damp cushions and the leather seats (complete with puddles in the dimples!) and prepared to leave.
The tricky bit after the pageant as all boats moor up at West India Dock
If boats have a soul and I feel that they do Genevieve must have felt that her moment had come on Sunday, having travelled many waterborne miles and 98 years from her creation in Chertsey at the Taylor & Bates yard via the canal up north where she was abandoned to rot and sink and then to her rebirth at Freebodys Boat Yard in Hurley and her role in celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen.
Bravo Genevieve, and may you enjoy many more years of Thames river cruising with happy passengers on board. What, I wonder, will Genevieves 100th birthday, in 2014, bring?
We set off to return to our various homes around London at gone 8 pm damp, exhausted, nervous at the prospect of clambering over four other boats rails and decks to reach shore, but jubilant and glowing with pride and with wonderful memories of a spectacular day. It was, quite simply, very British no matter what the weather, we put on a good show in Britain; that no-one can deny.
4th June, 2012