Coronation Dispatches From an American Interloper
As I arrived at London Heathrow last Thursday, “God Save the King” echoed throughout the terminal. Just as I was chuckling at the soundtrack choice, resounding applause broke out. Turns out, this wasn’t some piped-in elevator music. There was an actual band playing on the departure level high above me—and that’s when I realized just how much King Charles III’s coronation meant to British people. This wasn’t just some ceremonial crowning of a 74-year-old monarch—this was a celebration of patriotism and pride for the entire nation.
Like so many fellow Americans, I grew up fascinated by the British royals. As a teen, I fangirled over Prince William, and in my entertainment editor days, I hyper-analyzed every photo, from how Queen Elizabeth II held her umbrellas—brollies in Brit speak—to Charles’ penchant for literally sticking his nose in everything. (I once rounded up two dozen photos of him sniffing items from cheese to his mother’s hand.)
Just 11 months prior, I had been in the capital for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, so I knew the kind of no-holds-barred festivities the UK was capable of. But with the sudden shift in Charles' role from royal sidekick to actual monarch, I was curious how the British attitude would transform. When I found myself in Ireland just days before the Coronation Weekend, I couldn’t help but change my plane ticket and hop the Irish Sea to make sure I was in London for the historic occasion.
The Royal buzz
To really soak in the royal lifestyle, I based myself at The Milestone Hotel & Residences, where I could see Kensington Palace from my window. Here, in the Victorian mansion, sightings of the famous neighbors are just an everyday part of life. One of the doormen, Steven, famously has the ability to identify traffic patterns before royal drive-bys, and has been known to gather guests on the steps before they pass. In fact, good ol’ Wills knows him by sight so well, he always gives a wave.
While I anticipated being pulled to the front door of the hotel at any moment, I started by indulging in the Coronation Afternoon Tea. On my three-tiered platter were clever odes to the the king—a fruit cake made with his favorite recipe; a sandwich with coronation chicken originating from Queen Elizabeth’s 1953 coronation luncheon; and a honey, milk, and Earl Grey macaroon–the three key components of Charles's tea.
Already feeling posher than when I landed, I chatted with another doorman, Tim, on procession-viewing strategy. Thoughtfully outlining a packing list (including a folding chair, advice which saved me!), I learned that despite the 6 a.m. opening time for the gates to the viewing area, at least one other guest in the hotel was going to leave at 4:30 a.m. My competitive nature struck, as I programmed my alarm for a 4 a.m. departure. After all, unlike Queen Elizabeth’s five-mile route back in 1953, Charles’ would only be 1.3-miles long. Every minute could make a difference!
But to really get a lay of the day, I ventured over to The Mall—the 2,650-foot-long processional route between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square’s Admiralty Arch—that the king would travel down before turning in to Westminster Abbey. With more than 29,000 police officers from all over the UK staffing up for the weekend, security was already ramped up, with officers spaced out about every 100 feet or so. Despite the wall of cops, there was a jovial overtone, so I decided to try to pump them for info.
“So, if I was crazy enough to come tomorrow morning to wait for the procession,” I started, when the first officer cut me off. “I’ll stop you there,” he said, indicating it would indeed be a “crazy” thing to do. But, he offered me the hint to enter from the north side of the park, and said they’d be arriving at 3 a.m.
Useful information, but a journalist always gets a secondary source, so I asked another if I could come this way tomorrow. “Maybe,” he said with a shrug and a wink. The next one told me it would be “trial and error,” and the one after that simply offered, “All I can say is good luck.” Finally, one said, “If you have battery on your phone, go sit under a tree and work it out, but don’t listen to anything I’ve said.” With a complete lack of actual information, but a heightened love for the British sensibility, I ventured on.
When I got to The Mall, both sides were already lined with tents about five people deep. Panicking, I wondered if I should ditch my immersive theater tickets for Phantom Peak that night and pitch a tent. I approached one final officer who looked like he was in charge. “Those people camping out don’t know they’ll be moved,” he told me. “So go have yourself a lie-in.” (Brit speak for sleeping in.) Now that was a plan I could get on board with.
With my decision made, I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m. on Coronation Day. It didn't go off. By the time I was rushing to the viewing area, it was just past 5 a.m. Despite the anxiety, I was taken by the colorful sunrise ahead of me in shades of soft red and blue—dare I say, Mother Nature’s own tribute to the Union Jack on the momentous day.
Surprisingly, by about 5:30 a.m. I found myself a pretty decent spot, strategically located across from St. James’s Palace near a walkway opening, and set up my seat about eight people deep. Considering the women just two rows in front of me got there at 1 a.m., I was satisfied with my sleep-to-spot ratio.
The procession wouldn’t start for five hours, at 10:20 a.m., but as it turns out, nothing brings strangers closer than waiting for royalty. Since I had my chair, I offered two women from Sussex next to me my ground cover—in return, they gave me a flag and offered me sushi. Soon I was chatting with college kids from California and Colorado, a gentleman from Melbourne, a couple just a few towns over from me in New Jersey, a Scottish mom with her six-month-old baby, and 8- and 13-year-old cousins from Liverpool. As a self-professed royal watcher, the older one told me he loved the family because of “their history.” When I asked how people feel about Charles, he put it bluntly saying that people didn't like him when he was prince, but they’ve accepted him as king. This sure is a whole lot of pomp and circumstance for mere acceptance.
Despite some rain, bottles of Moët and Chandon were popped, cans of Pimm’s consumed, and countless strangers bonded, sharing laughter over a man who refused to put his umbrella down and the announcer asking us not to wave flags at the horses since "the horses would really appreciate it.”
The King’s Procession
Before we knew it, the Diamond Jubilee State Coach, the newest coach first used in 2014, was traveling down The Mall with a waving king inside. Our entire section erupted with cheers as the 8-year-old shouted, “We saw him! That was amazing!”
While our young friends left, the rest of us sat down for another three hours as the coronation ceremony took place and we awaited his return trip. In between, a continuous stream of bands marched down to prepare for the much grander procession back. That morning, we were all cheering at the sight of one security guard walking down the center of The Mall. Now, we were jaded–we didn’t even bother getting up to see hundreds of soldiers marching to Westminster, knowing the real show would be upon the return.
Getting hungry and feeling extremely British, I pulled out a pack of crumpets. I tried to offer them to people around me, but kept getting turned down. After half a dozen rejections, one woman finally said, “Did you bring a toaster as well?” I didn’t know what crumpets had to be toasted. Such an American!
After the ceremony wrapped up around 1 p.m., excitement started brewing again as the military processions led the way. Then we felt it—a radiating aura as the 260-year-old Gold State Coach, used at every coronation since William IV, approached. With an open sightline of both King Charles III and Queen Camilla, as well as their purple crowns, I suddenly found myself feeling the weight of the occasion—and the crown jewels.
Not far behind, I peered into a second coach and spotted Princess Kate and Prince William with their three kids, George, Charlotte, and Louis. Even through the glass windows, Charlotte’s charm shone the brightest, as she enthusiastically waved in both directions, working the crowd like a pro.
Not long after, the barriers were dismantled and we were allowed onto The Mall and in front of the palace. I grabbed a place a step up on the fountain with a clear view of the balcony. Then it happened. As if in slow motion, the doors opened, and that moment I had seen so many photos of, with the family gathered on the balcony, lay before my very eyes.
From the crowds, flags waved. From the balcony, hands waved back. And then everyone’s attention was turned upwards as—despite the streaming rain at this point—a scaled-back flypast created a show in the sky, with the Red Arrows leaving streaks of blue, white, and red behind in a true unity of spirit.
Dancing King and Queen—and Princes and Princesses!
Still on a high from the Coronation Day excitement, I headed to Windsor Castle the next day with a special ticket to the BBC’s Coronation Concert. I bought a cappuccino at Heidi bakery serving up Charlesccinos, with his picture in the foam. The shop owner told me he had served up 300 with Charles’ face on it, 150 with the coronation logo, and only about 20 of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle that day.
Partying on castle grounds—the first time the public had been allowed onto the area in history—seemed like it might be a refined affair. But after winding through a long queue and pathway, it opened up to completely relaxed Castle-Edition Coachella. Food stands lined the perimeter behind the stage as concertgoers picnicked in the grass, many of who were dressed up in patriotic colors. I followed suit, putting on a plastic Union Jack bowler hat and tying a flag around my neck.
Once inside, I planted myself at the mid-way point between the royal box and the stage. After all, I was here to see the royals as much as the star-studded line-up. The biggest names to me were familiar American stars: Nicole Scherzinger, Lionel Richie, and Katy Perry (whose performance kicked off with a drone-lit lion roaring in the sky!) as well as Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, but the Brits went crazy for their own superstars like Paloma Faith and, in what was their first performance since 2019, the '90s British boy band Take That.
As a lifelong teeny-bopper, I tried imagining the American version of this concert with the Backstreet Boys as the finale—and all the jeers that would follow. But here, the entire stadium was on their feet, King, Queen, Princes and Princesses included, waving their flags and dancing to a trio of certifiable hits in a show of national camaraderie. As colorful lights lit up the castle, it was hard not to feel British for a moment.
After the show, those lined-up guards showed off their trademark British suaveness, each one thanking us for coming out and wishing us a safe journey onward. One shouted, “It’s really hard to say goodbye!” while another said, “Same time, same place, next year?”
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler