What it’s like to attend a Royal wedding
THE text message arrived while I was on the bus, a particularly crowded Number 12 from the Palace of Westminster back home to Camberwell, in south east London.
It was the morning of April 11, 2011 and London was already in the grip of Kate and Wills fever, monuments scrubbed clean, Spring planting in full bloom, a sea of union jacks ready and fluttering in the breeze.
As the Europe correspondent for Aussie papers, I'd already had some pretty extraordinary experiences - among them flying from Rome to Sydney with Pope Benedict on Vatican I, reporting a mid sea rescue of refugees off the coast of Libya and a trip through Congo and Rwanda with Howard Buffett, eldest son of Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest men.
However, this message eclipsed them all: "Do you want to be inside the Abbey for the wedding? We should discuss!" My response - "OMG w call asap, am on the bus!" - is now in my laptop's archive, marked "never to be deleted".
Back home, I immediately rang the email's author, Christopher Wyld, the Director of the Foreign Press Association in London.
A former BBC foreign editor, he explained that he had been asked by Clarence House to personally nominate three journalists - one from each of the three Commonwealth realms, Australia, Canada and New Zealand - for approval by the Royal household.
Prince William had visited all three nations and the young couple had decided at the eleventh hour that a representative from each country should be invited to join the 25 UK reporters hand-picked to cover the pending nuptials in the Abbey.
And so it was that less than a fortnight later, your lucky correspondent found herself in the pews of Westminster Abbey among Prime Ministers and ambassadors and a coterie of less known crowned heads of Europe to report the wedding of the century. Wearing very high heels and a fabulous hat (which, just quietly, I bought in a charity shop in the Cotswolds for five quid), I had spent the morning in a fever of clock - and Royal - watching. Australia is nine hours ahead of GMT and newspaper presses in both Sydney and Melbourne had been kept open and waiting my reports - a scary and costly decision which is more often taken for war or mass disaster.
Central London was, of course, shut down to traffic and steel barriers lined the streets between the Abbey, Parliament Square and the roads leading from Pall Mall to Buckingham Palace. Simply getting to the Abbey was a logistic exercise requiring military precision: imagine if I'd got caught in a traffic jam? My husband, fellow journalist Robert Wainwright, was reporting from the streets so together, we set off on foot, me with my crazy high heels and hat in hand. Police checkpoints were set up for guests around all the entrances although I remember that London's bobbies were as smiley as ever, seemingly more in the mood for a party than fretting about terrorism.
Once through the security cordon, the enormity of what was about to unfold really sank in: a never ending red carpet stretched down the aisle from the front door of the Abbey to the altar. Above our heads, soaring, vaulted Gothic ceilings, below, a long, emerald grove studded with six-metre English field maples and hornbeam, traditionally symbols of resilience.
To this day, I still wonder if the decision to seat the media in the South Transept of the Abbey, the spot also known as Poet's Corner, was ironic or a kindness designed to inspire us. Whatever the motive, there we sat with Chaucer, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and a bevy of other literary giants - and no less than 17 dead English monarchs - beneath our feet. And from our special vantage point, we also had views clear enough to see all the major players, from Charles and Camilla, Prince Andrew (sans Fergie), the Middletons, mother and father, and later a really good look at the Royal bride's Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen gown in all its lacy glory.
For my part, I will never forget seeing Prince Harry take his brother out to a little room just off where we were sitting - it looked like a truly anxious William needed a quiet breather - nor later when his younger brother mouthed: "Wait till you see her," as Kate walked up the aisle as the entire congregation fell silent. I remember clearly seeing an affectionately shared joke between William and his soon-to-be father in law, and I still giggle at the (unknown) guest behind me who observed rather loudly that Elton John looked like he was wearing a "hairy fascinator" not to mention the sniffy lady in front who ascribed the Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice's choice of hat to "that mother".
It was an amazing, amazing day.
Best of all, the Aussie newspaper editions - out before the young couple had kissed on the balcony of Buckingham Palace - were the first off the presses the world over. Indeed, by the time my English colleagues were back at their desks filing their stories, my day was done - and I was enjoying a Royal wedding glass of bubbles with my commoner neighbours in the mews behind our street.
Paola Totaro is a London based Italian-Australian journalist and immediate past President of the Foreign Press Association in London.