Queen Elizabeth gets four days of celebrations to mark her 60 years on the British throne under way on Saturday with one of her favorite pastimes, a trip to the horse races, as tributes to the long-serving monarch pour in.
Gun salutes around the country were due to kick off celebrations at 1200 GMT, marking the exact anniversary of the queen’s coronation.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to descend on London over the next few days for Diamond Jubilee festivities, with millions attending street parties across the country as the nation marks the queen’s personal milestone.
“The queen has given incredible service,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said.
“She’s never put a foot wrong, she’s hugely popular and respected here and around the world and it’s an opportunity for people to give thanks and to say thank you for the incredible service that she’s given.”
Across Britain, red, white and blue “Union Jack” flags billow from street lamps, outside buildings, shop fronts and houses, and sales of patriotic souvenirs have rocketed ahead of the celebrations.
“It’s not every morning you wake up on a day that will be written about in the history books,” declared the Sun, Britain’s best-selling newspaper.
“Make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. It may be centuries before another comes along.”
The capital is already festooned with flags and bunting amid the highest support for the royal family in decades, with a recent poll showing that about 80 percent of Britons want the country to remain a monarchy.
A huge pageant of about 1,000 boats will sail through London on Sunday with the 86-year-old queen in a special royal barge as the celebrations gather pace, and thousands of street parties are planned around the country -- although forecasters were predicting heavy rain throughout the day.
Some 4,000 beacons will be lit on Monday across the Commonwealth following a huge picnic and star-studded concert at Buckingham Palace. Tuesday is devoted to ceremonial events including a thanksgiving service and carriage procession.
Monday and Tuesday will form a rare double public holiday.
Political leaders lined up ahead of the revels to praise the queen, who in 60 years on the throne has won a reputation for shrewdness and devotion to duty, an unflappable demeanor and a seemingly infinite collection of hats.
On Saturday, some 72 horses and six World War I-era 13-pounder gun carriages were to head for parade grounds in central London after taking part in a morning procession.
Their 41-gun salute will be accompanied by salutes around the country, including at the 900-year-old Tower of London.
The queen, an avid horse-racing fan who still rides despite her age, was then due to attend the Epsom Derby, Britain’s richest horse race which dates back to 1780.
She was expected to be driven down the course in an open-topped vehicle before a flag-waving crowd of 150,000, after a display from the Red Arrows aerobatic team and performance of the national anthem by soprano Katherine Jenkins.
In the Telegraph newspaper, Michael Lockett, chief executive of the Thames Diamond Jubilee Foundation, said the rain should not stop the nation taking the chance to “be part of history.”
“In these austere times, we need cheering up more than ever,” he added, while royal watchers recalled it had also poured with rain on the day of the queen’s coronation.
“Original jubilees were invented in the 19th century by the popular press as modes of national celebration for which the monarchy and monarch was almost incidental,” said royal biographer Robert Lacey.
He said the jubilee was as much about society celebrating itself as it was about the head of state and the now largely symbolic institution of the monarchy.
“They tend to work best in times of economic hardship. It provides a tonic for the country,” Lacey told Reuters.
Having acceded to the throne in February 1952 on the death of her father George VI when Winston Churchill was prime minister, Elizabeth is now the longest-lived British monarch.
Only her great-great-grandmother Victoria spent longer on the British throne and she looks on course to overhaul her as longest-serving monarch in 2015.
As well as being head of the Commonwealth of nations mainly made up former British colonies, Elizabeth is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.