A thousand boats sailing in a grand flotilla down the Thames, headed by Her Diamond Majesty, watched by a jubilant crowd. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. The seven miles from Battersea to the City would allow hundreds of thousands to line the banks and watch the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant go by. Alas, for anyone arriving less than a few hours early, those banks weren't long enough...
London Bridge (1pm): "Would you like a flag?" asks the grinning girl lurking in the entrance to the ticket hall. I decline. "Are you sure?" she adds, as if I were somehow mad not to want to wave an advert for a well-known weekly gossip magazine for the rest of the afternoon. Outside on King William Street, a man with a pushchair has six of these flags in his hand, and another two sticking out of the back of his rucksack. The hawker attempting to flog "proper" Union Jacks for money loses. The grinning girl wins. I'm hoping to cross London Bridge to the South Bank, but I'm not a car so I don't rate my chances. Half the pavement has been fenced off to facilitate later viewing, and the remaining strip is home to a slowly-trudging snake of humanity going nowhere fast. Sight of the Thames: nil. I move on.
Blackfriars (1.15pm): The bridge is closed, for the benefit of fortunate souls with pre-accredited tickets. The rest of us have to make do with the Victoria Embankment, which ought to be great, but is already nearly full. The road is full as far as the eye can see, even the stretch behind HMS Wellington where there's no view of the river at all. Any chance of getting anywhere near the water's edge is clearly entirely hopeless. A sliver of river is visible from the ramp down from Blackfriars Bridge, but the only sight there'll be of the Queen is the giant "77 Jubilee balcony shot" poster draped across Sea Containers House opposite. Thankfully a big viewing screen has been set up so that nobody misses out entirely, but this means thousands of Britons have travelled miles from their own TV merely to watch the Pageant on another. Prospects of a memorable day out: nil. I move on.
Grosvenor Road (2pm): Pimlico station isn't usually this busy. But then it's not every day that the Queen floats by, and the neighbouring roads aren't normally sealed off. A crowd of well-wishers line up to file through security, merely a cursory bag check, then wander along the street in search of a view. It soon becomes clear that all the best views were bought up by property developers many years ago, as the river lies concealed behind a façade of apartments. Through archways we can see residents sat out on their own private walkway, shielded from the weather, alcohol in hand. Pimlico Gardens are open, a rare public space, but with crowds already several deep there's nothing to see here. It's a very simple problem. The Thames is always lower than the surrounding riverbank, obviously, so unless you're standing in the front few rows on that riverbank you'll see nothing. Even when the apartments and businesses along Grosvenor Road finally make way for Thames-side, you'd need to be stood up on the pavement to have a chance of seeing anything. Those who got here very early are in place. Those who brought mini-stepladders are looking smug. The rest of us stroll blindly behind (or climb up on top of the nearest bus shelter, that seems to work). Huge numbers of would-be onlookers are still turning up with flags and brollies, both here and elsewhere along the river, but there is zero opportunity to onlook anything. On nearby Cadogan Pier the Queen and Prince Philip are finally walking down the gangway to board the royal launch. We know this only thanks to a big TV screen placed across the Embankment, in front of which the crowd is so large it's very hard to pass. An old couple sat on a bench despair at the endless stream of people brushing past them, their picnic uneaten alongside. Anaemic chips are selling well, the official Jubilee Pageant programme less so. I move on.
Chelsea Bridge (2.30pm): Only a very select group of spectators have been allowed onto the bridge, pitifully few, guarded by police and security in a line across to the portaloos. The whole of the Chelsea Embankment looks full, which is perhaps not surprising given it's building-free and bang opposite the ticketed festival in Battersea Park. I stand at the top of the slope and look down at the sea of heads, cagoules and flags. There is no point in walking any further. But there is a small window in the trees ahead through which a fraction of the Thames can be glimpsed. We stand and wait - the Sloanes, the families, the Chelsea Pensioner - until the flagship Gloriana rows into view. It's tiny, and indistinct, and (after all this time) unutterably underwhelming. There may be an hour and a half of pageant yet to pass by, but a fair number of the crowd start to retreat, perhaps to the pub, perhaps back home, now it's been proven that standing here is completely pointless. I move on.
Wapping (4pm): Seven miles downstream, the railings are empty. It's started raining, which may explain it, but we're also past the flotilla's dispersal point and the Queen's not coming this far. One family has stuck it out, bravely sipping champagne beneath an umbrella. Several drinkers are settled on the pebble beach below The Prospect of Whitby, and dozens more on the far bank outside a pub in Rotherhithe. For hundreds of souls still gazing from their Thames-side balconies, it feels like their patience may never be rewarded. Eventually a distant boat emerges round the corner from the Pool of London, low and black, followed by something gold. The first barge is The Royal Jubilee Bells, pealing out for considerably fewer souls than heard it in town, and the second is the flagship Gloriana. It's a shame that they're passing much closer to Rotherhithe than to Wapping, but I'll know better where to stand if ever there's a Platinum Jubilee. Suddenly the Thames is full with craft, which in these wider stretches is quite a difficult state to achieve. There are canoes and kayaks and dragon boats and gondolas, most with flags a-fluttering, and cheery oarsmen waving from the water. It's a very Canaletto moment, except that Canaletto had much better weather, and fewer kayaks. Late arrivals on the Thames Path stop and stare, filling up the spaces along the railings now there's something to see. The weather takes this opportunity to worsen considerably, the breeze whipping up and the rain coming down much heavier. The towers of Canary Wharf start to disappear in the swirling murk as dozens of Commonwealth boats pass by, in what would be a blaze of colour but is actually a muted grey. All further boats come in smaller convoys, with greater gaps, be they warships, steamships, Viking longships or whatever. I hold my own at the water's edge for an hour, even as most others slip away, increasingly sodden and shivering in the relentless downpour. And eventually I surprise myself and leave early, because conditions really are that bad, and because once you've seen five hundred distant boats you've seen them all. Drying out at home in front of the telly, I hear the BBC presenters saying what a wonderful pageant it's been and how the weather didn't dampen the crowd's spirits. It wasn't like that on the ground, either in terms of visibility or spectator cheeriness. But a marvellous once in a lifetime sight all the same, for those of us who were fortunate enough to eventually find front row seats. [photos]