William and Kate in final wedding rehearsals

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Prince William and Kate Middleton sped into Westminster Abbey on Wednesday for a final wedding rehearsal as excitement built ahead of Britain's biggest royal event in a generation.

The couple went through their paces in secret after around 1,000 army, navy and air force personnel had their last practise, offering a glimpse of the pomp that two billion people worldwide are predicted to follow live on Friday.

Best man Prince Harry was at his older brother William's side for the private run-through at sunset, while Middleton, dressed casually in a jacket and a skirt, was joined by her parents.

Senior clergy were also inside the abbey, William's St James's Palace office said.

The prince and his fiancee arrived in a motorcade with blacked-out windows and were whisked out an hour and a half later to the sound of cheers from the hundreds of well-wishers gathered outside.

Earlier, Middleton had left her family's home in the village of Bucklebury, west of London -- for possibly the last time as a single woman.

Her mother Carole and sister Pippa drove off together later, while her father Michael was seen arriving at The Goring, a luxury London hotel close to Buckingham Palace, where Kate will spend her final nights as a commoner.

Vans carrying a wardrobe of wedding clothes, including a long dress bag, were carried into the hotel by a porter wearing a bowler hat, and there were constant deliveries of fresh flowers.

Before dawn, horse-drawn carriages, mounted cavalry and limousines including the Rolls Royce that will ferry Kate to the historic abbey were also involved in a dry run in the deserted streets of London.

Rain is expected to fall on Friday, but that is unlikely to dissuade hundreds of thousands of well-wishers, with around 20 small tents belonging to die-hard fans already camped out in front of the abbey.

"I have just done a month in China travelling through Tibet so this is a piece of cake. I am very proud, I wouldn't be here if I wasn't," said Cynthia Fisher, 69, from Sheffield in northern England, wearing a glittery Union flag bowler hat.

Meanwhile thousands of tourists were soaking up the atmosphere outside Buckingham Palace.

Kumar Iyer, a retired bank worker from Thiruvananthapuram in southern India, said he had also been in London for the wedding of William's parents Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981.

"Poor Diana is not there to witness the marriage, that is sad," he told AFP.

The fervour around the ceremony partly reflects the public's enduring fascination with Diana, who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 and whose emotional funeral was held at Westminster Abbey.

She and Charles -- the heir to Queen Elizabeth II -- had divorced the previous year.

William, the second-in-line to the throne who works as a Royal Air Force helicopter pilot, used Diana's engagement ring to propose last year to Kate, the privately educated daughter of wealthy entrepreneurs.

Friday's ceremony will aim to bring closure to Diana's tragic legacy, and William and Kate have personally overseen "every detail" of their "exquisitely beautiful" wedding day, said St James's Palace.

Key points remain shrouded in mystery: the wedding dress has prompted enormous media speculation, while there is no news on whether the royal couple will take any new official titles.

Speaking in parliament, British Prime Minister David Cameron wished the couple a "long and happy life together" and said the "whole world" was looking forward to the ceremony.

Around 1,900 guests are set to attend, including foreign royals from 40 countries, politicians and celebrities such as Elton John, David and Victoria Beckham and Rowan Atkinson.

Thousands of street parties are planned while the British government has declared a public holiday and pubs are allowed to stay open late.

British police have launched a massive security operation for the wedding involving some 5,000 officers and warned that they will "robustly" deal with any protests during the event.

© 2011 AFP

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