A personal account of what it was like to be a part of the historical Queue to pay tribute to Her Majesty, The Queen as the late monarch lay in state.
I found the experience of seeing her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, lying in the state at Westminster hall, profoundly moving.
The silence as you enter the hall and walk past the catafalque (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 bowed or curtsied or simply filed past the coffin you forgot the many hours in the queue that brought you there.
Many have joked that ‘the queue’ was the queue British people have been waiting for all their lives. Joke or not, it’s probably true. It was 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 was like going for a walk along the river Thames with 100,000 of your nicest mates.
Wittily dubbed ‘QueueE2’, it was a large mass of people constantly moving along, in a sort of order, to get to a common destination. I’ll grandly call the queue I was in, ‘my queue’ with no disrespect intended to others in it.
WHERE IT STARTS
My queue started in Southwark Park. The nearest tube station was Bermondsey and it was signposted from there. There were friendly, helpful stewards along the way from start to finish. Towards the end they cheered you on just as you were flagging. At the start they gave you their time estimates for the whole exercise. People took the estimates with a pinch of salt. They were 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 were 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 the Monday during the funeral, and that they would ‘bow their heads’ for a moment to pay their respects. We met people who were passing by who cheered us on and expressed similar sentiments all along the way.
Initially you just started walking with the crowd. Then near Tower Bridge there were stewards handing out wristbands. You couldn’t go further without a band. The wristband was a different colour each day, presumably to prevent people returning and jumping the queue.
It was a pretty, scenic route along the river. You walked through parts of Southwark which looked like they could have been used as locations for Oliver Twist. The queue then headed towards London Bridge, past Tower Bridge, the Cuttysark, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tate gallery, the London Eye, heading towards Southbank and then, finally, further along the river, opposite the Houses of Parliament, over Lambeth Bridge towards Westminster gardens.
There were lovely tributes to the Queen all along the way. The Tate gallery had a series of portraits in front of it. The BFI (british Film Institute) had a film about the Queen playing outside its entrance. There were displays of photographs and posters in many shops and restaurants.
COULD YOU LEAVE THE QUEUE BRIEFLY?
Yes, for brief periods. There were portaloos provided all along the route. But some people preferred to avoid the ‘Glastonbury experience’ and went into one of the shops and Cafes along the way, bought a coffee and used their facilities. Your wristband had a number on it and if you moved out of the queue for a few minutes, you simply looked for the group and rejoined them. You broadly stayed within your group number rather than strictly according to your individual one because the queue was not a straight line.
WHAT WE TOOK
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 came out for the Queen. Outside Buckingham Palace on the 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 20’s. 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 because that’s the demographics 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 The New York Times on the subject – I can’t think of any 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 before; and now she was drawing them 24/7 for 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 the recent days as a collection of ‘history’.
For many, it seemed that the television coverage, the documentaries and tributes were proving to be a living history lesson. Teachers told me that children who usually have little interest in learning were genuinely interested in the media output about the Queen and royalty. “Queen Elizabeth” was a big trend on social media platforms like Tik Tok! (Rejoice! This year kids on TikTok have discovered Kate Bush, Elvis and the Queen)!
The Friday after the Queen died, 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 haven’t seen that happen in decades. In fact, I personally can’t remember it ever happening. Maybe it did forPrincess Diana too. That should give the British press pause for thought as to what their readers appreciate, which is 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 were genuinely grieving her loss, such as her granddaughters Beatrice and Zara, were barely visible.
By contrast, there was a lot of love for little Prince Louis. His antics at the recent Platinum Jubilee had charmed many and they wanted to see more of him in the future.
Overall, people welcome a slimmed down monarchy.
There was also a lot of love all along the queue for Major Jonny Thompson! For the uninitiated, the dashing Equerry for King Charles, previously worked for the Queen and quite the fan club on the internet. But that, er, admiration is expanding!
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 is close. Paris is eternal. The queue was 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 were television crew all along the way at various points. So, if you fancied your moment to wave to your mum, you could dive in and accept their invitation to talk about your queue experience.
LEAVE IT AT HOME!
You couldn’t take liquids or food into Westminster Hall. Ladies had to leave their make-up lotions and potions at home, especially the expensive ones. One journalist had £80 worth of make-up taken off her!
Solid lipsticks were okay but not lipgloss. Creams, foundation, – all were confiscated.
The security check was just before you entered the hall. It was like airport security – but tighter. It was 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 could see the hall, it looked tantalisingly close – but the queue is so huge that even though it was still constantly moving, it felt like you would 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 had joked about whether we would bow or curtsey. Our attempts to curtsey 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 and 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.”
About the writer:
Rehna is a practicing Barrister in London, specialising in Family Law cases. She is also a freelance writer and commentator who contributes to the national press in the UK, print and magazines and radio.
While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves. LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).