Crowds of camping royals watchers staked their claims to sidewalk space outside Buckingham Palace today, as flowers poured into Westminster Abbey and dressmakers put the finishing touches on the still-secret gown 26-year-old Sarah Ferguson will wear for her wedding Wednesday to Prince Andrew.
Hundreds of thousands were expected to line the mile-long route from the palace to the abbey, along which the royal family will travel for the midday ceremony. Hundreds of millions more will watch the couple say their vows, courtesy of a robot camera that will be placed on the altar to beam pictures to at least 39 different countries, including the United States, where coverage was scheduled to begin at 5:30 a.m. EDT.
Inside the abbey, the center of royal pageantry since the coronation of William the Conqueror in 1066, many of the 1,800 guests, who include Nancy Reagan and other foreign dignitaries and royal representatives, are likely to have a less advantageous view than those in front of a television screen.
Although the groom's mother, Queen Elizabeth II, has said that the wedding will be a "family affair," every second of the event -- from the moment the couple leave their respective overnight lodgings until they arrive back at Buckingham Palace as man and wife -- will be televised live.
The wedding has none of the state importance of the 1981 nuptials between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. As Queen Elizabeth's second son, 26-year-old Andrew is only fourth in line to the throne, behind Charles and his two sons. Heads of state have not been invited, and many of the guests have been drawn from friends of the couple -- particularly those of the bride, whose list includes the spouses of her divorced parents as well as two well-publicized former boyfriends.
At the same time, the palace has insisted that costs have been kept down. While declining to cite a figure, the queen's press spokesman said Monday that most expenses would be "met privately by the royal family," which can well afford them.
As an example of the parsimonious nature of the affair, the spokesman pointed out that the decorations along the Mall, the broad avenue stretching from the palace between Green and St. James's Parks to Admiralty Arch at Trafalgar Square, were left up from the visit of the West German president last month.
British tourism officials hope the sight of the day's festivities will blot out fears of terrorism that have kept many Americans away from Europe so far this summer, and inspire new tourist hordes to book vacations.
At home, in this country of high unemployment, failing industry and fractious politics, the joyous event comes at a good time. Far from resenting the monarchy, most Britons see the pomp and pageantry it musters as what the nation itself is about. Even the staunchest antiroyalists are likely to feel a tug of patriotism, and wipe a tear from their eyes when Sarah promises to love and obey.
As for "Fergie" herself, she seems to be relishing both the show, and her starring role in it. "It's going to be the best day of my life," she said in an official radio interview broadcast today. "I am so excited. Fantastic. The more the merrier. More carriages. More pomp. Wonderful. I love it."
An official TV interview, shown on both networks here, was filmed earlier at the Portland naval base where Andrew, a Royal Navy pilot, is to be trained as a helicopter warfare instructor. "It makes me a bit proud of my boy," Sarah said, adding that she would learn to fly, because "if you can't share interests, what kind of a team are you."
The two held hands, and at one point she commanded, "Kiss me, kiss me, the camera is watching." Andrew obliged, said "you're a monster" and gave her a playful slap on the cheek. She pretended to fall backward.
The royal couple received two official bits of wisdom today to send them on their way. In a surprisingly conventional ode, avant-garde poet laureate Ted Hughes offered a wedding poem, including such verses as: "A helicopter snatched you up. The pilot it was me. The props, like a roulette wheel, stopped at felicity. Soft as a thistle's crown."
And the National Marriage Guidance Council released a recipe for a happy marriage, which urged them to "be romantic, always show you care, don't stop touching and kissing as you did when you first fell in love."
With a schedule mapped out to military specifications, wedding activities begin promptly at 10:45 a.m. here, when the first car carrying royal family members departs from St. James's Palace for the abbey. At 10:45, Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, leaves her home, Clarence House, for nearby Buckingham Palace to join her daughters and grandchildren.
At 10:57, the Queen's Carriage Procession, with suitable military escort, leaves Buckingham Palace for the trip down the Mall, around Trafalgar Square and up Whitehall to the abbey at Westminster. Riding in their own carriages behind the queen will be the Queen Mother along with Princess Margaret and her children; the Prince and Princess of Wales; and Princess Anne and her husband, Capt. Mark Phillips. A fifth carriage in the queen's procession will carry various duchesses and aides.
Prince Andrew, riding with his best man, his younger brother Prince Edward, leaves the palace eight minutes later in the big, black, open 1902 State Landau to ride along the same route.
Not until 11:15 does the bride -- riding in the covered glass coach, accompanied by her father, Maj. Ronald Ferguson, and escorted by a contingent of his Life Guard regiment -- leave Clarence House, where she will have followed royal tradition in spending the night with the Queen Mother.
It is at this moment that the world will get its first glimpse of the wedding dress whose design has been a well-kept secret. Sarah Ferguson chose relatively unknown designer Lindka Cierach, 34, who specializes in one-of-a-kind dresses made at her studio in her home in Fulham, West London.
Speculation has been that the dress will be an off-white Edwardian style, but those familiar with Cierach's designs predict a fussier, flouncier gown with elaborate embroidery and sequins. Whatever the design, artists at bridal shops all over Britain will be glued to their televisions, sketching the minute Sarah comes into view. Within hours, the first copies are expected to be sewn up and on their way to department stores by 4 p.m. Wednesday.
The processional route and surrounding streets are to be closed to traffic early Wednesday morning as the 2,000 police detailed for wedding duty make last-minute security checks. Although the senior members of the royal family, and the bride on the return trip with Andrew, will travel in open carriages, police have gone repeatedly over every inch of the terrain, checking high buildings and manhole covers, digging in the park dirt for possible bombs, and even sending sniffer dogs through Westminster Abbey.
Like nearly every participant in the event, even the police dogs have been interviewed on local television in recent days. In a separate session, Arthur Showe, the queen's head coachman for the last 17 years, revealed the inner thoughts of Brown Owl and Goshawk, the two bay horses who will draw the bride's glass coach. "They know there's going to be a big occasion," he said. "Just like us."
Reporters also turned out for last week's practice run of the royal dung-gatherers, who will follow the procession. Horses hauling the royal carriages and carrying several detachments of cavalry were sent along the wedding route in the light traffic of early morning, and dutifully gave substance to an exercise that went "very smoothly," according to Col. "Rags" Courage of the army's London district.
The ceremony at Westminster Abbey begins with the arrival of the bride. On the arm of her father, she is expected to take five minutes to walk the long, blue-carpeted aisle. Among her eight attendants are Prince William, the 4-year-old son of the Prince and Princess of Wales; Princess Anne's 5-year-old daughter Zara; and two young half-siblings from her father's second marriage and her nephew -- all under age 5.
The 50-minute service, the standard Church of England rite written in 1622, will be conducted by Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, and, by request of the wedding couple, will not include a sermon. Ferguson is promising "to obey" her new husband, a vow Diana declined to make when she married Prince Charles.
In interviews, Ferguson has explained that "I was thinking of obeying in moral terms, as opposed to physically obeying." But, she said, "when we find ourselves in a situation which needs a decision, then it will be Andrew who will take the lead, because he is the man of the marriage. Therefore, I will obey him at one stage or another."
Once back at Buckingham Palace, the royal family, with its new member, will appear briefly on the palace balcony to wave at well-wishers and the cameras. At this point, Andrew can be expected to kiss his bride in imitation of the crowd-pleasing Charles-Diana kiss in 1981. Then the family will head inside for photos, taken by Scots-born and New York-based fashion and portrait photographer Albert MacKenzie Watson, and breakfast of Scottish lamb, strawberries and the royal wedding cake.
The five-tier cake was baked in the kitchens of a Naval supply school in Cornwall. In case of damage during its 250-mile journey to London Monday, an identical copy was made and transported along a separate route. The cake, 5 feet 6 inches high, weighs 240 pounds and contains 2,000 portions. The top tier is decorated with the initials of Sarah and Andrew. Other tiers are decorated with the royal coat of arms, a Pegasus (said to be a favorite symbol of the bride), Prince Andrew's military insignia, a likeness of Westminster Abbey and silhouettes of the couple.
At midafternoon, Andrew and Sarah will leave by open carriage and travel westward through the city to the Royal Hospital Chelsea for a brief visit with resident retirees before starting on their honeymoon.
While the palace has refused all comment, widespread press reports have said they will travel by plane to the Azores, 700 miles off the coast of Portugal, where they will be met by the royal yacht Britannia. After their return several weeks from now, they expect to live at Buckingham Palace for the foreseeable future