LONDON: Britain’s Queen Elizabeth marks 60 years on the throne this weekend starting yesterday with a visit to the races, indulging a lifelong passion for horses and launching four days of nationwide celebrations to honour a monarch riding high in public affection.

The focus today turns to London, where huge crowds are expected to line the streets and the River Thames for a series of spectacular events, although forecasts of rain and unseasonably cold weather could dampen enthusiasm.

Millions more are expected to attend street parties across the country as the nation marks the queen’s personal milestone under the banner of the diamond jubilee.

“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 say thank you.”

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.

To royalists, the occasion is a chance to express their appreciation of a woman who learnt she was queen at the age of 25 while on holiday in Kenya with her husband Prince Philip.

For others, the chance of some extra days off work and to enjoy the extravaganza and public ceremony for which Britain is renowned, has made it a welcome break from austere times.

Republicans hope the occasion marks the last hurrah of a dying anachronism, while some two million people are leaving Britain altogether to go on holiday.

Having ascended 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.

As well as being head of the Commonwealth of Nations, mainly made up of former colonies, Elizabeth is also supreme governor of the Church of England.

“I think we’ve been enormously fortunate in this country to have as our head of state a person who has a real personality – a personality that comes through more and more, I think, in her public utterances,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Anglican Church.

Today, a flotilla of 1 000 boats will travel 25 kilometres along the River Thames to accompany the queen and her 90-year-old husband on a royal barge in the largest such pageant for 350 years.

Thousands of street parties are also planned, including one in Downing Street outside Cameron’s office, as part of a big jubilee lunch.

The queen’s London residence Buckingham Palace will host a pop concert tomorrow featuring the likes of Sir Paul McCartney and Sir Elton John, before a network of beacons are lit across Britain and the Commonwealth.

The celebrations culminate on Tuesday with a memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, a carriage procession through central London and flypast by present and former Royal Air Force aircraft.

Large crowds are expected, with estimates that about a million people will travel to London today alone.

Not all will be cheering for the queen, however, with banner-waving republicans planning to protest at Tower Bridge.

London’s Heathrow Airport said 780 000 people were due to arrive in the next few days.

An estimated two million Britons were planning to head overseas to take advantage of the two extra public holidays.

Police said the weekend would include the largest royal security operation ever undertaken. – Reuters