- Associated Press - Sunday, June 3, 2012

LONDON (AP) - On a luxury barge festooned with flowers, Queen Elizabeth II sailed down the River Thames on Sunday amid a motley but majestic flotilla of 1,000 vessels, mustered to mark her 60 years on the British throne.

Hundreds of thousands of Union Jack-waving spectators formed a red, white and blue wave along London’s riverbanks and bridges, cheering the 86-year-old monarch and her armada of motorboats, rowboats and sailboats of all shapes and sizes. The pageant was a nod to Britain’s maritime heritage and one of the biggest events on the river for centuries.

The queen wore a silver and white dress and matching coat _ embroidered with gold, silver and ivory spots and embellished with Swarovski crystals to evoke the river _ for her trip aboard the barge Spirit of Chartwell, decorated for the occasion in rich red, gold and purple velvet.

The queen’s grandson, Prince William, and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge _ he in his Royal Air Force uniform, she in a red Alexander McQueen dress _ and William’s brother, Prince Harry, were among senior royals who joined the queen and her husband, Prince Philip.

After a celebratory peal of bells, the boat set off downstream at a stately 4 knots (4.6 mph, 7.4 kph), accompanied by skiffs, barges, narrow boats, kayaks, gondolas, dragon boats and even a replica Viking longboat.

The flotilla was sailing past some of the city’s great landmarks _ including the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye and St. Paul’s Cathedral _ before ending its journey near Tower Bridge. Downriver, ships too tall to fit under London’s bridges were moored along both banks of the river.

Large crowds turned out despite cold, drizzly weather to fete a queen who has assumed the status of nation’s grandmother.

Hundreds of people ignored the persistent rain and camped out overnight to secure prime riverside spots. Crowds swelled into the thousands Sunday, with revelers in hats, flags, leggings and rain ponchos adorned with the Union flag mixing with burger and cotton candy vendors along the 7-mile (11-kilometer) route.

“It would have been wonderful if it had been sunny like last Sunday but we have come prepared,” said 57-year-old Christine Steele. “We have got blankets, brollies (umbrellas), flags and bunting. We even got our glittery Union Jack hats and wigs, and the Champagne is on ice.”

The spectacle was a tribute to Britain’s past _ monarchs used the river as their main highway for centuries, and naval power built the island nation’s once-great empire _ as well as to its abiding love of boats and the sea.

River processions were once common in London. The last comparable royal pageant was held for King Charles II in 1662, when diarist Samuel Pepys recorded boats so numerous he could “see no water.”

Sunday’s flotilla included more than three dozen “Dunkirk Little Ships,” private boats that rescued thousands of British soldiers from the beaches of France after the German invasion in 1940 _ a defeat that became a major victory for wartime morale.

The four-day Diamond Jubilee celebrations also included thousands of street parties across the country on Sunday. Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, joined hundreds of people for a damp al fresco lunch on Piccadilly, one of London’s main shopping streets.

But a lunch organized by Prime Minister David Cameron’s staff in Downing St. was moved indoors because of the rain.

Not everyone in Britain was celebrating. The anti-monarchist group Republic held a riverbank protest Sunday to oppose the wave of jubilee-mania.

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