The Queen's high-tech new state coachComment on this story
London, England - With the latest in 21st-century technology - plus quite a bit from the 19th - it is unique.
And despite having travelled by Concorde, Royal Yacht, elephant and South Sea canoe, the Queen has never been carried in anything quite like the transport that will take her to Wednesday’s state opening of parliament.
Unveiled for the first time, the new Diamond Jubilee State Coach is only the second royal carriage to be built in a century and joins the unrivalled royal collection of coaches, phaetons, landaus, broughams and barouches. None of the others, however, features a 360-degree ‘coachcam’ offering a monarch’s-eye view of the procession, gold-plated hydraulics, motor-racing technology and a dazzling museum.
For this palace-on-wheels is much more than the ultimate horse-drawn limousine.
Open a diamond-clad door handle and, inside, we find a time capsule of 1000 years of history.
Surmounted by a crown made from the timbers of HMS Victory, which houses the royal website’s ‘coachcam’, the new state coach contains relics of all those key moments sacred to Britain and so much of the Commonwealth.
The panelling includes slivers of Scott’s Antarctic sled, Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree, Hut Six at codebreaking centre Bletchley Park, one of Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest ladders and the beams of most of Britain’s great cathedrals.
As she is drawn behind six horses, the Queen will be sitting on a piece of Scotland’s Stone of Destiny, upon which monarchs are traditionally crowned, and surrounded by a bolt from a Spitfire, a musket ball from Waterloo, a bolt and rivets from the Flying Scotsman and a button from Gallipoli.
There’s even a fragment of the bronze cannon from which every Victoria Cross is cast, and a piece of metal from the wreckage of a 617 Squadron Dambuster.
Little wonder this three-ton coach - 5.5 metres long - has taken 50 people more than 10 years to build.
And it is all the idea of one remarkable Australian.
Jim Frecklington, 64, worked in the Royal Mews as a young man before returning home to help organise the Queen’s Silver Jubilee exhibition in Australia.
Having repaired carriages on the family farm in his youth, he set about building a replica of the 1902 State Landau.
This led to something even more ambitious and, in 1986, he built the Australian State Coach, a gift from the people of Australia to the Queen to mark the country’s bicentenary. It proved a very popular addition to the Royal Mews, not least because it was the first state coach with heating.
But Frecklington, whose family emigrated from Britain to New South Wales in the 1850s, was not finished.
“I wanted to make something in honour of Her Majesty’s great reign and something which represents our extraordinary history,” he explained as he showed me his spotless creation in its new home behind the Palace.
So, he set about building something even larger than the Australian State Coach at his workshop near Sydney.
The construction was a labour of love.
All the springs, for example, were hand-forged, while the wheels were cast in aircraft-strength aluminium and made by one of Australia’s leading racing car designers.
Frecklington wanted to use the finest craftsmen and women from all over the Commonwealth. So, all the leather is English, as is the gold silk brocade upholstery (from Sudbury).
The lamps are glazed with the finest lead crystal from Edinburgh. The intricate heraldic paintwork has been hand-painted by Irish-born Australian Paula Church. The door handles are from New Zealand - each gold-plated and inlaid with 24 diamonds (two of which make up the eyes of the lion in the middle) and 130 Australian sapphires by Kiwi master jeweller Mike Baker.
Even the bolts that fasten the gold-plated hand supports on to the bodywork have been finished using the same guilloche enamel as a Faberge egg.
Frecklington has applied the same mind-boggling attention to detail to the historical artefacts that give the Diamond Jubilee State Coach its special status.
He began by asking the custodians of HMS Victory if he might have a piece of timber from Nelson’s flagship.
Once it was clear Frecklington had the backing of Buckingham Palace, things started to progress.
”I knew Victory had undergone a refit in 1922 and that they had set aside some timber, and they were kind enough to let me have some.”
The result is a crown resting on four lions modelled on those found on the gates of Buckingham Palace. The entire coach is covered with heraldic emblems, crests and motifs, all of which have been approved by the College of Arms.
He then broadened his quest for other historic artefacts to include every great building and institution he could think of.
The trust which looks after Britannia donated some teak handrails from the old Royal Yacht.
They now form the armrests (flip them up and there are discreet, Bond-style controls for the heating and electric windows underneath).
He secured contributions from Windsor Castle, Balmoral and even the old Royal Box at Ascot. St Paul’s and Winchester Cathedrals presented certified pieces, as did Westminster Abbey and many stately homes.
The panelling includes yew from Glamis Castle in Scotland, where the Queen Mother grew up, ash from Blenheim Palace and oak from Althorp, ancestral home of the Spencer family. Going back somewhat further is a little bit of timber from the Bronze Age Ferriby boat found in the Humber.
A strong theme throughout is sacrifice - hence the metalwork from a Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster and many of our best-known battlefields.
“I wanted something every family in the land can relate to.”
There will be those who wonder why anyone should go to so much trouble - and how much it has all cost. Besides, how do you put a price on all this?
Frecklington’s not sure. He paid for a lot of it himself, but the coach has now been formally acquired for the nation by the Royal Collection Trust following a private donation. In other words, it hasn’t cost the taxpayer a penny.
After Wednesday, though, the public will be able to view it, along with all the other coaches and carriages, during the daily opening of the Royal Mews at the back of Buckingham Palace.
Though the Queen has seen the finished product, she will not have ridden in it until Wednesday. Frecklington - who is already working on his next project, a tribute to horses that went to war - has been allocated a ringside view of the royal arrival at the Palace of Westminster.
“It will be a very special moment,” he said. “She’s a wonderful example to humanity, and this has been a great team effort.”
The decoration around the roof is known as the gallery and features the rose of England, the thistle of Scotland, the leek of Wales and the flax of Northern Ireland (all approved by the Garter King of Arms at the College of Arms). Carved in beech, they were cast in brass and then gilded.
The main beam running under the length of the coach is made of 22 layers of spotted gum - an Australian tree - which were hand-bent into ‘goose-neck’ curves.
Ten coats of paint, including three of Jubilee Claret, give the bodywork a mirror finish that changes colour in different light.
A 2.7 metre ash pole attaches six postilion horses, which are driven by a rider in the saddle rather than from the cab.
Carved in oak from HMS Victory, the Crown has a small camera to produce a Monarch’s-eye view of any procession. Inside the Maltese Cross is a small capsule containing gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Crown is surrounded by four lions, modelled on the Royal Lions on the gates of Buckingham Palace.
Gold-plated and topped with a replica Imperial State Crown, each lamp has a different Edinburgh Crystal glass panel etched with the emblems of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They can be illuminated by candles and LED lighting.
The hand-forged ‘Cee Springs’ (the curved ones at either end) and the elliptical springs (lozenge-shaped ones underneath) are made of steel and painted gold. Six gold-plated hydraulic stabilisers prevent sway, while leather straps connected to a winch allow the coach to be raised and lowered.
An industrial 12-volt battery under the footmen’s seat generates enough power to run the electrics for several hours.
Inlaid with relics from almost every chapter in our history, the panels include fragments of the Mary Rose, a Lancaster bomber, a Waterloo musketball, Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree and timber from the Western Front.
The arm rests are made from hand rails from the former Royal Yacht Britannia. Inside them are hidden controls for the heating and electric windows.
Upholstered using more than 20 metres of the finest Sudbury gold silk brocade, the seats are decorated with the Royal Coat of Arms and the emblems of the four parts of the United Kingdom.
Traditionally made of wood, these are cast in longer-lasting aircraft aluminium by Australian racing car designer, Terry Sainty, and have roller bearings to ensure the smoothest ride.