Unfailing instincts and poise keep Queen in high regard

Her sure-footed rule despite an unexpected and young ascent to the position after her father's premature death has won her subjects' affection.

In a BBC documentary filmed nearly 20 years ago, Queen Elizabeth II tells the story of a young Scottish soldier to whom she was presenting a gallantry medal. She said to him that she thought he had been very brave.

"Och, it was just the training," the soldier replied.

The Queen's response encapsulates her attitude to the job that was thrust upon her when she was just 26, with the premature death in 1952 of her father, King George VI.

She said: "I have a feeling that in the end training is the answer to a great many things. You can do a lot if you are properly trained, and I hope that I have been."

Unlike her son and heir, the Prince of Wales, the young Princess Elizabeth had no apprenticeship. In the documentary she went on to say that it was a question of accepting her fate and "making the best job you can".

Next year Queen Elizabeth will celebrate 60 years on the British throne, and for many people it is that single-minded dedication to duty that has been the keynote of her reign.

For them, she represents constancy, continuity and the importance of tradition. The deep-rooted affection and respect that British people have for her is a reflection of her sure-footed appreciation of the requirements of the job.

Her instincts seldom falter. Only once in recent years were her actions questioned when, after the death of Diana, the Princess of Wales, she retreated with her two grandchildren to Balmoral to grieve privately.

The outpouring of public grief must have been anathema to a woman whose character and bearing were forged in an era of the "stiff upper lip". Plenty of people felt her natural protectiveness towards Prince William and Prince Harry was entirely proper, and that they should not have been forced by the publicity-conscious prime minister, Tony Blair, to return to London.

Elizabeth Windsor represents values that saw her country through the devastating years of the Second World War, values such as courage, dignity and the ability to "make do and mend", which have been diluted by subsequent decades of prosperity and relative comfort.

Although she has never given an interview, she has on several occasions let documentary makers capture her daily life on camera, following her as she launches ships, lays memorial wreaths and rides in her gilded coach to the State Opening of Parliament.

At 84, her work ethic remains formidable. Last year, she carried out 375 official engagements - 20 overseas - always with her hallmark grace and dignity. Her smile still dazzles, and her interest remains as genuine and evident as ever.

Traditionally non-political, she has had friendly relationships with her 12 prime ministers, providing a wise, confidential sounding board. Put simply, she is extremely good at the job.

Yet people love her ordinariness. Stories have emerged over the years about her frugality, that she goes round her various homes switching off lights to save energy and stores her breakfast cereals in Tupperware boxes to keep them fresh.

At heart, she is a countrywoman. In headscarf and wellies, she happily drives herself around Sandringham and Balmoral in a battered old Land Rover. She still rides her horses and goes for long walks with her dogs.

She refuses to compromise on her personal image, having had the same hairstyle for more than 50 years. She also understands the need for good dress sense, always wearing bright primary colours so people can spot her easily. Every year there is a guessing game about the colour of her hats at Royal Ascot.

As with anyone else, the British Queen has had her share of tragedies, not least the deaths of her sister Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother, to whom she was exceptionally close. The disintegration of the marriage of her son, Charles, hit her especially hard.

Nearly 10 million people watched her admit on television that 1992 had been her "annus horribilis", or horrible year. Her two elder sons had separated from their wives, her daughter, Princess Anne, had divorced and a fire had destroyed part of her beloved Windsor Castle.

At public ceremonies, Queen Elizabeth knows every command and formation, and visiting heads of state are treated to a view of royal life in all its glory. She once described it as "putting out the red carpet for our guests".

Pollsters love to speculate about the future of the British monarchy. Only this week a UK poll found that 55 per cent of Britons would prefer Prince William, 28, not his father, Charles, 62, to succeed the Queen.

Others in the past have suggested that the Queen should abdicate to let her son become king while he is still in good health.

However, constitutionally that cannot happen. When Elizabeth ll made her vows at her coronation in Westminster Abbey on June 2, 1953, she became queen for life.