The Coronation

by David Gregorie

Bill and Ken and I left Barry on our motorbikes about six o’clock in the morning on the Monday before Coronation Day and set out through the already worsening weather for London, the traffic getting thicker and thicker all the way.

We got to Uxbridge without serious incident and set out on a half-hour search for a parking place. In the end we had to bribe a car-park attendant five bob (about $10) to let us hide our machines behind his office, a small shed glorified with the title, then we shouldered our packs and descended to the Underground for the remaining 12 kilometres or so into London.

The train spewed us out into a Piccadilly thick with people seemingly of very nationality except British. People were already camping on the pavements although it was only three o’clock in the afternoon and any parts of the footpath that had not been claimed by campers were covered by a slowly-moving press of people.

It took us nearly an hour to get from Piccadilly to New Zealand House in The Strand. The foyer was full of people and we just sat and watched them for nearly an hour, eager to see New Zealand faces and hear New Zealand accents again. Almost all of them had a sort of “new” look about them as though they had just arrived in the country and were feeling a little lost and frightened by it all. No doubt we had looked just the same when we went there for the first time the year before.

After pleasantly wasting time for as long as we dared, we set off in search of a place to camp out for the night. There wasn’t much offering. Some time later I found myself a ring-side seat with a couple of very nice Swiss girls, but Ken and Bill were still stuck for a place so I guarded the gear while they set off in search.

After about half a hour of “Excuse me…”, “Do you mind if I push through here?” and “Could you shift your bag a minute, sir?”, Bill came back with the news that he had found a wonderful place in Parliament Street, a part of Whitehall. It was a niche between four pillars on a shoulder-high plinth at the entrance to King Charles Street, which leads off Parliament Street towards Birdcage Walk.

Reluctantly, I said goodbye to my Swiss friends, after swapping names and addresses and promising to call on them in Switzerland, and crossed the street to join Bill and Ken in what we named “Lambert’s Eyrie”. For a while we just rested, then out came our little Primus and in no time at all we had a hot cup of coffee to cheer us up. The crowds were getting thicker and thicker and it was raining again. We did our best to make our “castle” look like home, with boards to sit on and dumps for our gear, and settled down to enjoy the evening. Then, as Ken and I were feeling a little cramped, we left Bill to repel boarders and went off on a rather laborious tour of the immediate vicinity. We dropped down into the subway and headed towards Westminster Bridge.

On the way we were amazed to see the queues for the women’s conveniences, anything up to thirty metres long, almost blocking the entrance to the subway. The men were well catered for with “Eccleses”, a species of prefabricated urinal designed for the Minister of Works, Sir David Eccles. We went in by the door marked ENTRANCE and were amused to see a notice saying WAY OUT at the other end and a second notice saying OTHER WAY OUT above the entrance. Very British.

We went over Westminster Bridge and paused to admire Big Ben and the London County Council building, both beautifully floodlit. Then, standing by the Admiralty Arch and looking up the Mall towards a floodlit Buckingham Palace, we got a wonderful view of the coronation arches shining gold and silver in the floodlights with a great crown suspended from the apex and a ten-foot lion-and-unicorn emblem on top.

The Mall was packed, so packed that we couldn’t move freely — we had to let the crowd carry us slowly up one side and down the other. When we got back to our roost, we found that Bill had provisioned us with meat pies and beer. We had a good supper.

Our only cause for anxiety was the colony of pigeons who lived above us. Every time we looked up there seemed to be a pigeon tail sticking out over the edge of the pillar and we hastily looked down again in case, like Pooh’s jagular, they dropped on us.

Ken didn’t have a sleeping bag, he kept forgetting to buy one, so he wrapped himself in his US Marine Corps greatcoat and curled up between the pillars. Bill and I went behind the pillars and, warm, dry and comfortable in our sleeping bags, we dropped off to sleep in no time. During the night someone kicked me in the face in an experimental sort of way to see if I moved and when I did he apologised and backed away hurriedly. Once a large pair of black boots wearing a London policeman stood on my feet. “Hey, that one moved!”, he said. He told me to relax and moved on.

About six o’clock the news came over the loudspeaker above our heads that Everest had been conquered and that the Union Jack and Nepalese flags had been planted on the summit. We felt very proud that a New Zealander had been one of the first two men to reach the summit of the world. And Coronation Day was a wonderful day on which to announce it.

A little while later a cop came along and ordered us down from our eyrie. We protested as nicely as we could and told him that a sergeant had given us permission the night before to stay there, which was quite true. But he insisted, and down we came. We could not possibly have done any harm where we were, but we were right opposite Scotland Yard and I think we were removed for the sake of appearances. Bill went down to the crowd at the front and found that with his height he could see quite well and Ken could see a bit, but I couldn’t see at all. I was very dispirited, I can tell you.

The rest of the morning passed slowly and uneventfully. Later on, after the loud speaker announced that the procession was arriving at Westminster Abbey, Bill and I went round to Birdcage Walk, where there were hardly any people. The police here were most obliging and helped us up onto some decently high walls where we had a wonderful long view of the procession.

I was just in time to see the Queen’s personal escort of guards march over Westminster Bridge — a forest of busbies and bayonets, line upon line of them, a masterpiece of precision marching.

Then the Queen’s coach came into view moving slowly towards me with the sun, which came out for ten seconds, shining on the gold work and richly painted panels. As the coach turned the corner to go towards the Abbey, I could see the Queen herself and the Duke of Edinburgh waving to the madly cheering people. They were about a hundred metres away, but I could see them well and I was so moved by the splendour of it that tears came into my eyes.

As soon as they had passed I tumbled down from my perch and limped off back to our old possie, where we settled down for the four-hour wait for the procession to come back, as we were now on the return route. We listened to the loudspeakers relaying the service to us from the Abbey, which was only a few hundred metres away. We sat through the long and moving service, absorbing every word of it — it was tremendously impressive.

The Coronation Coach

It was raining solidly and had been for some time when I wandered off down King Charles Street to stretch my legs. I found the whole procession drawn up waiting for the Queen to leave the abbey and I was able to stroll past at my leisure, examining every unit closely. The Indian and Malay units were tremendously impressive in their rich silk uniforms, turbans and banner-tipped lances, and the Canadian Mounties, the South African Army officers marching with drawn swords, and the Royal Australian Air Force contingent all looked very smart. The Royal New Zealand Air Force unit was the only air force contingent to be in full dress uniform, complete with swords. I felt sorry for the Fijian Army unit, in their sulus, tunics and sandals, with nothing much to keep out the cold.

The loudspeaker announced that the Queen was about to leave the Abbey and the men I was watching were getting the “’Shun, Eyes front!” and moving off, unit by unit, so I hurried back to Bill and Ken. They had very kindly hauled our packs down among crowd and made a little pyramid for me to stand on. I had a fine view of the procession, which was only about ten metres away. With my extra height, I wasn’t hampered by the double row of Royal Marines who obstructed the view of the people in the front of the crowd.

The procession took an hour from start to finish — a wonderful spectacle. Thousands of troops from every army in the Commonwealth and then, at last, the Royal Horse Artillery, the Brigade of Guards and the Life Guard. The Royal Horse Artillery Band was most impressive — massive black horses, some of them with enormous hemispherical drums on either side, and the bandsmen playing with commendable precision.

All this time it had been raining steadily and was showing no signs of clearing up. We were thoroughly wet but as happy as sand boys, all of us.

Towards the end of the procession came the personalities, led by the Sultan of Lahore in his rich-looking, gold-coloured robes. The hit of the procession, apart from our own Queen, was the Queen of Tonga, a magnificent woman, 1.9m tall and extremely cheerful. Her landau was open in spite of the pouring rain and she waved gracefully to everyone — she didn’t look stiff and starchy like most of the other royals.

A few minutes later came the Royal Dukes followed by the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret. I had a wonderful view of Princess Margaret — as her carriage passed us she leaned forward and looked more or less in our direction, and we were only ten metres away. She was more lovely than her photos showed her to be. I just stood there and completely forgot to take a photograph.

Then came the guards again with their scarlet tunics, black busbies and glittering bayonets, the Life Guards with their blue tunics, shining breastplates and red horsehair plumes, and finally, the Coronation Coach.

We were unfortunately on the Duke’s side of the coach this time but we could see the Queen quite clearly, if not much of her. We could see her sparkling dress, her sceptre and crown, and the look of happiness on her face as she looked out at her people. I took a photograph and then hopped down so that Ken could get up and have a better look. It was an experience I’ll never forget, being so close to the Queen in all her magnificence and splendour.

It was all over. We were so happy that we didn’t care what happened next. I swore at the policeman who had kicked us down from our perch because we noticed that during the procession others got up into our eyrie and hadn’t been kicked down. I told him what I thought of his petty officiousness and that the police in the Birdcage Walk and other parts of London had been a lot nicer to us. He started making “come along o’ me” noises, so I promptly lost myself in the crowd.

Four o’clock and we were beginning to think about breakfast. We went down to the embankment, got into the shelter of a by-now empty stand and hauled out the Primus. Afternoon tea time is not the best time for breakfast, but we were rather hungry so we decided on bacon and eggs. It wasn’t long before the delicious smell of frying rashers filled the air.

A while later we saw a comical old character digging in the wastebasket for something to eat. He wore a very old coat and trousers and an old grey trilby hat with ostrich feathers stuck in all around the band. He had a mighty grey beard, almost down to his waist. He carried a few sacks neatly wound up in a leather belt in one hand and a walking stick and a bundle of clothes in the other.

He began talking to himself, “Not e-bloody-nough to feed a pussy… lot o’ fish around ’ere… ‘Christ, look at that old bastard,’ they say… ,” and so on. He wandered off and got a bit to eat from the street cleaners.

We squatted down by the side of the embankment wall for the five hour wait for the Fireworks Display. Crowds built up around us and the pressure was terrific. I had to brace both arms hard against the wall and lean back with all my strength to protect some little kiddies I had let in in front of me. They were very tired, poor things, one of them was only four, but I think they enjoyed it.

The show started at 10.30 pm and was very good. Some parts of it got a little monotonous — they had a sort of coloured fountain of Verry lights that they turned on much too often and I got sick of seeing it, but the rockets were really spectacular. Half a hundred of them would shoot up to around a thousand feet and then, as they started to descend, they’d burst again into another colour and then again into a myriad of little dancing white points that crackled like a piece of cellophane being twisted into a microphone. There were some barges moored in the Thames and every so often they almost sank themselves in a terrific burst of orange or white rockets. The set piece was an extraordinarily realistic portrait of the Queen, Prince Phillip, Prince Charles and Princess Ann.

When it was all over and the crowds had dispersed we dug a bottle of beer each out of the bottom of a pack and drank the health of the Queen. Then we shouldered our packs and jostled our way through the crowds to the Underground station where we staggered onto the train for Uxbridge. I sat down, propped the heavy pack on my knees and dropped straight off to sleep.

It was two o’clock Wednesday morning when we got to Uxbridge and we had nowhere to go. We dropped into the local cop shop and asked if they could put us up for the night. The sympathetic young chap on duty said he would like to help us, he normally would, but they were reserving space for genuine customers. He suggested the Underground station, but that was closed for the night so we crawled into an adjacent bus shelter and prepared for bed.

A policeman came along and asked who we were and when we told him he said, “Oh, that’s all right. As long as I can tell the Inspector I know who you are, you can sleep here all night as far as I’m concerned.” We did. I got to sleep about a quarter to three and slept soundly till seven, when I sat up to find the place swarming with people on their way to work. It was still raining.

Gibson was awake so I dropped a boot on Lambert’s head, put on my own socks and shoes on, rolled up my sleeping bag and prepared for the road. We had to wait until nine o’clock to redeem our bikes from the car-park attendant and then we set out along the long, wet and dismal road for home.