Having settled for ‘distant spectator’ to so many British royal occasions, I decided to experience the first coronation in seventy years in person. I’m finally settled back in England so won’t need to stagger around in the middle of the night watching it all happen from America. Maybe it’s spending half my life in a foreign country that leaves me searching for what puts ‘home’ in ‘homeland’. Maybe it’s the knowledge that I can’t quite identify what makes me inherently British that leads me to search for the core traditions and characteristics of my nation. I hope to discover something about myself and my ties to my birth country on a drizzly, historic day in London.
Arriving in town the day before the festivities, Sis and I stroll down The Mall, that iconic avenue leading to Buckingham Palace, in anticipation we’ll get nowhere close to it on the following day. As it turns out it was a good move. The sun shines beautifully, and Charles, William, and Catherine choose that moment to do a walkabout. We wave to them across the street. Kate is even taller and thinner than she looks on television, which is saying something. Anyway, it’s an unexpected treat, as is watching the TV cameras set up and various reporters from around the world conducting interviews with the red, white, and blue bedecked Super Fans lining The Mall, some for their third night. By now I’ve already discovered that my desire to take part in the festivities stretches only so far. Tents, sleeping on hard ground, and Porta Potties are not part of my British genetic makeup.
Coronation Day arrives, overcast and threatening rain. This is apparently traditional as both the late Queen Elizabeth II and her father were crowned in the rain. So far, so British. Security is watertight, certainly spectator-tight. Getting anywhere close to the parade route is out of the question as we chose to enjoy a leisurely hotel breakfast rather than bolt down The Strand at 5 am to join the hoards.
Huge barricades of solid metal block all streets, allowing no glimpse of what’s going on behind them. Security doesn’t seem to want huge crowds milling around. Luckily, Sis and I manage to cadge a spot in Trafalgar Square where we just glimpse the roof of the coach carrying King Charles and Queen Camilla through Admiralty Arch to Westminster Abbey. Thanks to the very tall man standing next to me, I come away with a better photo than my 5’4” stature allows. There is a distinct lack of waving flags in the crowds as compared to my TV memories of these scenes in days gone by. I realise it’s because we’re all holding our phone cameras in the air instead of flags. Times change.
One of the quintessentially British memories I’ll cherish is each time someone puts an umbrella up blocking views, the crowd chants, ‘Brolly down!’ until its owner cowers and lowers said brolly. The only holdout is a gentleman who obviously speaks no English. When his brolly remains aloft, the elderly Brolly Police behind him enact putting a brolly down. He finally complies but I’m pretty sure he has no idea why we all want to get wet. I’m not convinced he knows what’s happening anyway: an Accidental Coronation Tourist is my guess.
There are anti-royal protesters in Trafalgar Square. I think them brave, given their very small number surrounded by vast crowds of those feeling very differently about the day. When people around me mutter about them I remind them without protestors we’d still have an absolute monarchy. History tells us that was no fun at all. (There are many reasons to question the place of a monarchy in 2023 but I’m endeavouring to find my English heritage, warts and all, so we’ll stick to that.) The protestors are drowned out by the cheering crowds. ‘Not My King’ is met with ‘He’s My King’ and so the two teams merge into a cacophony of viewpoints, just as they should. We weren’t aware of any controversy with police until days later. All the officers we saw – and there were thousands – were jovial, helpful, and respectful.
Sis and I determine not to watch any TV coverage on our phones while the ceremony takes place at Westminster Abbey, enabling us to soak up the ambiance in situ. We wander the streets, enjoying the decorations and the spectators, listening to the joyous pealing of all the church bells at the moment Charles is crowned. When we guess the Golden State Coach is leaving Westminster Abbey, we try to return to Trafalgar Square but it’s a hopeless task. We end up watching the fly past from Waterloo Place, a street or so back from The Mall. It is a tearjerking moment for me; The Red Arrows a favourite with my late father and reminiscent of so many celebrations during my youth.
With the red, white, and blue smoke trails dissipating in the sky, the rains begin in earnest. We work our way back to our hotel and collapse into a restaurant booth with a glass of wine. We wonder how the royals feel. Exhausted, I imagine. Relieved it’s all over. As are all the soldiers, planners, church leaders, security personnel and event construction crews. The logistics of a day like that must be mindbogglingly complex. Whatever your views of the monarchy, it’s impossible not to admire the Brits when they decide to throw a parade. They do it well.
So what did I discover about myself and what it is to be British? As I look back on the day, I don’t feel the intense emotion I experience when I watch footage of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. I wasn’t even born then but something about that ceremony felt otherworldly compared to this one. Maybe we just know too much about current royals. The mystique is gone and that’s no doubt a good thing. We get to see Kate wrestling to keep Prince Louis in line and Charles muttering about his kids being late to the church and all the drama of the non-working royals. It gives the whole sword and sceptre and over-the-top crowns a more theatrical feel than an ancient rite steeped in magic. But I respect Charles for what he has already endured and know he has much more criticism and negativity to face than his mother ever had. He probably just wanted to be a gardener. I don’t envy him and wish him good luck. I do think the architecture, music, and pomp of a British ceremony speaks to me still. It is something I can point to and say, ‘This is part of me, part of my story. To know me you need to see this.’ I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I can move forward, analysing my feelings towards home and all that entails with new data points.
Back on Exmoor, the annual rubber duck race down the river was held last weekend. Another fun tradition. Not so many marching bands or horses but still a good time. And a part of me. Wishing you many celebrations of importance to you and your homeland.
Images: family photos