I found the experience of seeing her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, lying in the state at Westminster hall, yesterday evening, profoundly moving.
The silence as you enter the hall and walk past the catalfalque (the raised platform on which the closed coffins rests) is almost otherworldly. The emotion on the faces of the people paying their respects is very real. The admiration and love is palpable. It’s not an experience anyone lucky enough to enter that hall is likely to forget. As one of my group quietly said as he exited, “Well, that was powerful stuff!”
The magic of it also is that, as you bow or curtesy or simply file past the coffin you forget the many hours in the queue that brought you there.
Many have joked that ‘the queue’ is the queue British people have been waiting for all their lives. Joke or not, it’s probably true. It is indeed the mother of all queues!
But, it’s not actually a real queue at all. Not in the proper sense of people shuffling along one by one. Instead, it’s like going for a walk along the river Thames with 100,000 of your nicest mates.
Wittily dubbed ‘QueueE2’, it’s a large mass of people constantly moving along, in a sort of order, to get to a common destination. I’ll grandly call yesterday’s queue ‘my queue’ with no disrespect intended to others in it.
WHERE IT STARTS
My queue started in Southwark Park. The nearest tube station is Bermondsey and it’s signposted from there. There are friendly, helpful stewards along the way from start to finish. Towards the end they cheer you on just as you’re flagging. At the start they give you their time estimates for the whole exercise. Take the estimates with a pinch of salt. They are mostly on the pessimistic side, probably not to raise hopes early on.
There were over 44,000 people in front of me and more behind.
The police are also on hand to help with the queue. We met two officers who told us that it was their day off but they wanted to help out “for her Majesty.” They said they would be on duty in Hyde Park on Monday (during the funeral) and that they would ‘bow their heads’ for a moment to pay their respects. We met passers by who cheered us on and expressed similar sentiments all along the way.
Initially you just start walking with the crowd. Then near Tower Bridge there are stewards handing out wristbands. You can’t go further without a band. The wristband is a different colour each day, presumably to prevent people returning and jumping the queue.
It’s a pretty, scenic route along the river. You walk through parts of Southwark which look like they could have been used as locations for Oliver Twist. Then head towards London Bridge, past Tower Bridge, the Cuttysark, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tate gallery, the London Eye, heading towards Southbank. Then, finally, further along the river, opposite the Houses of Parliament, over Lambeth Bridge towards Westminster gardens.
There are lovely tributes to the Queen all along the way. The Tate gallery has a series of portraits in front of it. The BFI has a film about the Queen playing outside its entrance. There are displays of photographs and posters in many shops and restaurants.
CAN YOU LEAVE THE QUEUE BRIEFLY?
Yes, for brief periods. There are portaloos provided all along the route. But some people preferred to avoid the ‘Glastonbury experience’ and went go into one of the shops and Cafes along the way, bought a coffee and used their facilities. Your wristband has a number on it and if you’ve moved out of the queue for a few minutes, you simply look for the group you got your wristband with and rejoin them. You broadly stay within your group number rather than strictly according to your individual one because the queue is not a straight line. If you have a wristband, you will get in, so no queue jumping is needed.
WHAT TO TAKE
Comfortable walking shoes. Food and drink. I took a book with me but didn’t open it once because I was chatting to people in the queue, as we were walking, and there was no time.
I spoke to a lot of people in the queue. They were all extremely friendly and just plain nice!
People shared food, sweets and bought coffees for strangers they had just met. It was wonderful – even the woman who tried to share her homemade marmite(!) sandwiches and the young woman desperately trying to offload a big bucket of flapjacks!
Don’t let social media tell you otherwise – the crowd was diverse in every respect. Lots of young people. (I’ve been pleasantly surprised at all the events I’ve covered, so far, by how many young people have come out for the Queen. Outside Buckingham Palace on Thursday after the death of the Queen was announced, the majority of the thousands who were there, in the pouring rain, were in their late teens and early 20s. On Saturday there were whole families, including thousands of children).
In my queue there were people of every age group, different ethnicities, nationalities and sexualities. Women in hijabs, men with dreadlocks, people from Scotland, Yorkshire, Suffolk, everywhere, tourists from the USA, Japan, China , gay couples holding hands, suited professionals carrying briefcases, older people using walking sticks. Obviously the majority were white British because that’s the make up of the country.
I will also say this, in response to the ugly posts of Americans like Uni Anya who wrote a cruel tweet about the Queen and the ‘journalism’ of once respected New York Times on the subject – I can’t think of another head of state who would draw crowds of this number and this diversity. Only The Queen could draw such crowds for her platinum jubilee just three months ago and now she is drawing them 24/7 to her last ‘public engagement’ on earth.
People were chatting to each other throughout the entire walk. Obviously people talked about the Queen. They spoke of her younger years, of the programmes they had watched about her life, the commemorative supplements they had bought in recent days as a collection of ‘history’.
For many, it seems the television coverage, the documentaries and tributes are proving to be a living history lesson. Teachers told me that children who usually have little interest in learning are currently genuinely interested in the media output about the Queen and royalty. ‘Queen Elizabeth‘ is a big trend on social media platforms like Tik Tok! (Rejoice, this year kids on TikTok have discovered Kate Bush, Elvis and the Queen)!
Last Friday I tried to buy one of the newspaper special editions printed to mark the death of the longest serving monarch in British history. Every single newspaper had sold out everywhere I searched. I haven’t seen that happen in decades. In fact, I personally can’t remember it ever happening. Maybe it did for Diana too. That should give the British press pause for thought as to what their readers appreciate, namely Royals who have a sense of duty and who display class and regal behaviour.
Apart from the Queen, the people I spoke to, in the queue, admired the new Prince and Princess of Wales (William and Catherine), Princess Anne and Prince Edward and Sophie, Countess of Wessex. They want to see more of them in the media. Nobody wanted to see more of actress Meghan Markle or at all. The dislike for her amongst everyone I spoke to in the queue was intense. Her malodorous jabs at the Royal family and everything the Queen stood for have not gone unnoticed. People of different backgrounds said they simply “do not want to see her face pushed upfront by the media” when those who truly knew and loved the Queen and are genuinely grieving her, such as her granddaughters Beatrice and Zara, are barely visible.
By contrast, there was a lot of love for little Prince Louis. His antics at the jubilee had charmed many and they wanted to see more of him in the future.
Overall, people welcome a slimmed down monarchy.
UPDATE: in my tiredness yesterday I forgot to mention the love all along the queue for Major Jonny Thompson! For the uninitiated, the dashing equerry for King Charles, previously worked for the Queen. He has quite the fan club on the internet. But that, er, admiration is expanding! Here’s why:
Generally there was much light, enjoyable conversation about all sorts of topics. It was like joining a huge picnic where you fear you won’t find anyone to talk to but end up making friends you arrange to meet for drinks in the future. It’s not quite “We’ll always have Paris” but it’s close. Paris is eternal. The queue is a once in a lifetime experience, albeit a lengthy one. When we got near Lambeth bridge we saw what looked like Christmas trees. “We’ve been here longer than I thought” quipped one woman.
There are television crew all along the way at various points. So, if you fancy your moment to wave to your mum, dive in and accept their invitation to talk about your queue experience.
LEAVE IT AT HOME!
You can’t take liquids or food into Westminster hall. So, drink up your bottles of water before you go in or chuck them in the bin. Ladies, leave your make up lotions and potions at home, especially the expensive ones. One journalist had £80 worth of make up taken off her!
Solid lipsticks are okay but not lipgloss.Creams, foundation, – all will be taken off you.
The security check is just before you enter the hall. It’s like airport security but tighter. It is very quick and efficient however, unlike at many airports.
THE HARDEST PART
The first few hours passed easily and quickly. My queue got stuck for a while outside County Hall but that was bearable. The hardest part was definitely the zig zag section (snake lines) inside Westminster gardens. You can see the hall, it looks tantalisingly close but the queue is so huge that even though it’s still constantly moving, it feels like you’ll never get there.
By this snake line point even my lively queue looked tired. Feet and backs were finally complaining. One young boy just lay down on his skateboard and had to be pushed along by his mother. A toddler woke up from his sleep and looked bewildered. A few rows back a man seemed to lose it and a couple of police officers had to quietly ‘assist’ him.
Going through security was quick and painless. We were asked to switch off our phones. Suddenly everyone forgot their tiredness. We all stood straighter and dumped our half eaten sandwiches and flapjacks.
We all divided into four lanes, two on each side. The girl in front of me started sobbing before we even mounted the set of steps leading to the hall. She was clearly overcome with emotion. I lightly touched her arm as a gesture of comfort. She gave me a small, sad smile.
INTO THE HALL
Total silence. To say the sight before us was majestic is both obvious and true. The man to my side began to cry silently. My throat constricted but I didn’t cry.
I looked at the crown on top of the coffin. I looked at the guards. I looked at the coffin. And I thought of the young Queen taking on a role she was not born for at the age of 25. The image of her at her coronation came into my head. Many other, more personal thoughts too came to mind.
It seemed like we were all floating through a dream sequence as we walked closer to the coffin.
I bowed my head. In the queue we’d joked about whether we would bow or curtesy. Our attempts to curtesy were not elegant. So a bow.
At the doors I looked back, trying to take it all in. The royal purple, the red and black of the guards uniforms, the vastness of the hall, the magnificent ceiling and most of all that coffin.
Then we were out. Everyone silent, reflective. The girl who been crying saw me and gently squeezed my arm this time.
Hours earlier, halfway on our queue journey, a passerby had stopped to chat. He said, he had waited 10.5 hours the day before. “Don’t give up,” he said. “ I promise you it will be worth it.”