Special relationship forged anew between US and Britain

From high ideals to high fives: the bond remains strong between the two nations

THE wreath was composed in the colours of the United States, a mix of red and white carnations and blue hydrangeas resting on a bed of green foliage. As president Barack Obama yesterday laid the wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey he marked a "special relationship" between Britain and the US, one forged in the crucible of two world wars and continuing still in the heat and dust of Afghanistan.

On the abbey's worn flagstones, Mr Obama followed in the footsteps of previous presidents, most recently George W Bush, by paying tribute to the past before embarking on the key point of what is only the third state visit to Great Britain by a US president: planning for the future safety and prosperity of both nations.

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Yet if the relationship between the two countries is described as special, that between the Queen and Prince Philip and the president and his wife can accurately be described as warm. For ever since Michelle Obama broke protocol during her previous visit two years ago and put an arm around the Queen, a gesture, which, even more surprisingly was reciprocated by the monarch, a genuine friendship appears to have blossomed, nurtured by letters and phone calls.

Yesterday, the Queen and Prince Philip greeted the Obamas on a sunny, windy afternoon in London at the beginning of their official visit. Following a private tour of Buckingham Palace, the two couples emerged on the ceremonial steps of the West Terrace for a 41-gun salute. The Queen, dressed in a powder blue suit and matching hat, stood with the president as ranks of Scots Guards in red jackets and tall hats played The Star-Spangled Banner in their honour. A longer 62-gun salute at the Tower of London could be heard throughout the city, heralding the Obamas' arrival.

At one point Mrs Obama was left desperately protecting her modesty when the ceremony turned distinctly windy. Strong gusts had Mrs Obama clutching on to her dress as it threatened to blow up into the air. The Queen had no such problem, as her dressmakers sew tiny weights into the hems of her gowns. The blast also played havoc with the first lady's hair, which was left standing on end at one point.


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The day began when the president and first lady were greeted by Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, at Winfield House, the mansion in Regent's Park that is the residence of the American ambassador. The Obamas had stayed there on Monday night after leaving Ireland early, because of safety concerns over the volcanic ash cloud being blown towards Britain from Iceland.

At the palace, the Queen then held a private lunch for the Obamas, and afterwards embarked on a tour of her private picture gallery. The Queen had personally picked out pieces from her collection that she thought might interest her guests, including items from the president's home state of Hawaii and an exhibit about Abraham Lincoln, whom Mr Obama greatly admires.

The gift Mr and Mrs Obama gave the Queen delighted her: a special compendium of the official visit by her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, to Washington DC in 1939.

The president and his wife were also introduced to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and his new wife, Kate. At one point the duchess, looking tanned after her honeymoon, was pictured deep in conversation with Mrs Obama. Wearing a pale coffee-coloured cap-sleeved dress, she held a black clutch bag as she chatted to the first lady. Prince William, in a dark suit, gestured as he talked with Mr Obama.

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Just weeks after the world's eyes focused on Westminster Abbey for the young couple's wedding, Mr and Mrs Obama were present for a more sombre occasion. Arriving to crowds reminiscent of - if slightly smaller than - the 29 April event, they were greeted with cheers, some shouts of "Obama" and people waving flags.

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Rev Dr John Hall, greeted them; Mrs Obama said: "It's a pleasure to be here again," to which her husband added: "She gets to come to all the fun places," then: "So nice to see you, how are you?" The dean invited the president to lay a wreath in honour of the Unknown Warrior and all those represented at the grave. Mr Obama solemnly placed the wreath, helped by a US marine and a general from the US air force.

The presidential pair's visit to the abbey included an impromptu meeting with choirboys, when Mr Obama was teased by his wife for his lack of singing talent. "He insisted on speaking to each one of them and shaking their hands," Dr Hall said. "He said he liked to think he could sing, and Mrs Obama said, 'Well, he can't really, he can dance'."

It later emerged that he also can't play table tennis. After a short stop at 10 Downing Street to collect Prime Minister David Cameron, the pair made a surprise visit to the Globe Academy secondary school in south London, where they teamed up to play table tennis against the pupils. A few winning shots were not enough to stop Mr Obama and Mr Cameron taking a beating at the hands of 16-year-olds Jason Do and Jamiyu Mojaji.