LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) – Britain will mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II with four days of celebrations beginning on Saturday that include a 1,000-boat river pageant and a star-studded concert.
The queen starts the festivities by indulging in her love of horse racing at the Epsom Derby on Saturday before she rides in a ceremonial barge on the Thames at the centre of the giant flotilla on Sunday.
One million people are expected to line the river to see the extravaganza of steam boats and tugs, speed boats and historic vessels.
A concert in the shadow of Buckingham Palace featuring Paul McCartney and other top names is the highlight on Monday before the four-day extravaganza culminates in the pomp and splendor of a ceremonial parade on Tuesday.
Aside from the set piece events in London, millions of people up and down the country are commemorating the jubilee by throwing a party at home.
They will be making the most of the two-day public holiday granted for an historic occasion — the queen is only the second British monarch to celebrate a diamond jubilee, after queen Victoria, in 1897.
Union Jacks are fluttering in streets and shop windows and retailers report that red, white and blue bunting and even jubilee garden gnomes are selling fast.
“It’s a celebration of what she has achieved in 60 years and it’s also a celebration of the institution,” said royal author Robert Jobson.
“In a more informal way, it’s also celebrating your national identity, your national pride.”
The celebrations take place as the royal family enjoys its highest support for decades, with a recent poll showing that 80 percent of Britons want the country to remain a monarchy.
Those levels of support are comparable to 1953, the year of the queen’s coronation.
Coming hot on the heels of Prince William’s wedding to the then Kate Middleton last year, the jubilee is likely to further boost the royals’ popularity.
Amid the acclaim for the queen it is easy to forget that just a decade ago, the picture was very different.
Following the death of Diana, princess of Wales, in a Paris car crash in 1997, the monarch was widely criticized for failing to join in the public outpouring of grief.
She did eventually bow to Diana’s coffin as it passed, a moment that historian Kate Williams says was a turning point.
Now there is a “massive surge” of affection for the queen both in Britain and across the Commonwealth, said Williams, the author of “Young Elizabeth: The Making of our Queen”.
“At the moment the queen’s popularity is as high as it’s ever been since her coronation,” she told AFP.
“This is really quite incredible when you think about how extraordinarily unpopular she was after the death of Diana.
“The amount of people in this country who were either indifferent or felt that the Windsors had got no point at all and should be abolished — that has all changed.
“It looks like the entirety of Britain is going to turn out in the first weekend in June.”
At the centre of the celebrations is an 86-year-old great-grandmother, who was visiting Kenya in February 1952 when she was woken to be told by her husband Prince Philip that her father, king George VI, had died at the age of 56, thrusting her into the role of queen.
When she ascended to the throne in 1952 aged just 25, Winston Churchill was prime minister of Britain, Jawaharlal Nehru led the newly-independent India and swathes of Africa and Asia were still governed by Britain.
She has visited 116 countries over the past six decades, but in a nod to her age she and Prince Philip have given their children the task of visiting the countries of the Commonwealth in the jubilee year.
Philip has recovered from emergency heart surgery in December and is expected to play a full part in the jubilee celebrations, just a week before his 91st birthday. – Guy Jackson, Agence France-Presse