I must have looked very I incongruous as I boarded the London-bound train from Horsham at 8.30 pm. The other travellers were mainly young people dressed for a Friday night out, and there was I in a thick coat, walking boots, and a wicker shoulder bag full of sandwiches and snacks looking for all the world like I was off for a night hike. And in a way I was, as the siren call to join the now famous Queue for Queen Elizabeth’s Lying in State had finally become irresistible.
It showed how rarely I go to London as I stood flummoxed in front of the Tube ticket machine. Seeing my confusion the man beside me asked where I was going and when I answered ‘Southwark Park’ his reply of ‘Here, have my Travel Card, I don’t need it any more and it will get you there’ was to be the first of many acts of kindness I was to experience in the hours ahead. Not having planned properly I, along with several other travellers, got off the tube at Southwark (seemed logical?)to see a big sign telling us that if were travelling to join The Queue we needed to hop back on for two stops to Bermondsey.
Following this miss-step there were no others as we were then in the hands of more volunteer stewards than you ever thought actually existed. Shepherded along the short walk from the Tube Station to the entrance of Southwark Park by this helpful and endlessly encouraging section of society ‘It’s only 5 minutes walk!’, ‘You’re nearly there!’ we entered the floodlit park whirring with generators and bristling with railings, security units and First Aid tents giving more of an impression that we had just entered a pop festival.
The night felt warm enough under the protective cover of the canopy of the London plane trees still in full leaf, but aware that a chilly night was forecast few of us turned down the offer of a free blanket from the Red Cross. We were then herded into the zig-zag layout of railings resembling endless cattle lines that the science of queuing obviously recommends as the best way to contain large numbers of people in a safe way and gives them something to do (walk) whilst they in effect, queue. In our case we had to be occupied until there was sufficient space to join The Queue proper which was to take us through the streets of London.
For us this was for two and a half hours, but we were told that when the Park reached full capacity this could easily stretch to six hours. But it did give a chance to have a look around and get a feel for who was there. Whole families with both children and grandparents, a surprising number of teenagers, proud soldiers and veterans. So many different accents, Scottish, Geordie and Yorkshire along with those of other countries. There was a couple with a toddler in a pushchair and I can’t have been the only person who wondered how on earth they were going to manage but you just accepted the simple fact was that they didn’t have, or couldn’t afford childcare, but desperately wanted to be part of the whole thing, so the baby came too.
Most people were in a group of family members or friends but some were, like me, on their own, (but in this company, never feeling alone). I would have loved to have had some of my family with me, but circumstances and the timing of my snap decision to come meant that they had to share my experience vicariously through WhatsApp (how did we live without it?) And travelling alone gave me more time to look around, take everything in and listen in the fascinating and uplifting conversations happening all around me.
Being slightly ancient and a slow walker anyway, I was continually falling behind the main pace, but this meant I was always walking with new folk and hearing about where they were from and why they were there. It felt a bit like a modern day Pilgrims Progress, as I came across new characters and their back stories and tried to process the allegory of it all into the wonderful tapestry of living in the UK. Sharing emotions with strangers felt like therapy for the national grief that had caught many of us unawares in the last week.
On finally exiting Southwark Park we were issued with our wristbands (now fetching good prices on EBay I’m told as unique Royal memorabilia) and set off through the streets. As we hit the embankment the full majesty of our capital city hit us as we saw our famous landmarks such as Tower Bridge HMS Belfast and the Shard lit up in Royal purple.
The success of satisfactory queue management with large numbers of people required the injection of additional loops to be added to the main route, essentially for the purpose of killing time. Thankfully the kind stewards had obviously been instructed to pull out anyone looking a bit flaky and allow them to rest up for a bit before retaking their place in the line as it came back around. Luckily, with my walking stick and limp (which funnily enough seemed to get worse every time we approached one of these junctures) I fell into this category. So perching on a wall under the magnificently illuminated Tower Bridge I struck up another Bunyanesque conversation with two small elderly ladies from Cumbria. Searching around for any common ground I mentioned that we always stayed in Cumbria on our way home from Scotland in the village of Old Tebay, ‘would that be the Cross Keys Inn?’ one of the gently wizened old ladies inquired (yes it was!) ‘we used to holiday there as children but of course you know it’s haunted’ and without explaining further they were up and off into the darkness and to the endless walking.
From time to time the queue halted but stewards always let us know why. One break was to allow a night-time funeral rehearsal to take place – you couldn’t argue with that . Another was a pause in the flow through Westminster Hall to allow for cleaning to take place – again, fair play. But there were pauses too when the stewards weren’t strict enough with us and let the queue become too wide and untidy, which meant a motorway style delay as the stream of people had to be filtered down to two-wide and ‘keep to the right’ so not to impede the normal users of the path. We heard one poor steward being soundly reprimanded by his boss (a huge bouncer type with K4 Security emblazoned on his high vis) for letting his part of the queue get untidy and letting people sit down in the road and rest their weary feet – he was told to ‘sort it out’ and shout at us to ‘Keep Right’. After this dressing down the poor steward turned towards us with an apologetic look on his face – clearly shouting at anyone was against his nature. But luckily the queue by this time had taken on a character and spirit of its own so we did his job for him by passing down the line ‘Keep Right’ , ‘tidy up the line’ on his behalf and ‘Keep Right, Keep Right‘ became the joyful battle cry for the rest of the walk whenever we entered a new section of the pathway.
The beauty of the city at night and the brisk pace of the walk had kept our spirits high and our blood warm so far, but as dawn broke we found our progress reduced to the occasional shuffle and away from the protection of the buildings and the lovely London plane trees, and on the shady side of the river, we were, for a couple of hours, exposed to a biting north wind whistling across the Thames. It was time to channel our beloved royal family’s mantra to ‘turn up our collars and just get on with it’. Our free blankets which had been stowed away during the night time hours were now brought out be used to wrap around shoulders, used as headscarves, and tucked around babies in pushchairs. There was never any doubt that a single one of us was going to throw the towel in and go home at this or any other stage. I was glad to spot the couple with the young toddler that I hadn’t seen since Southwark Park sitting on a bench happily having some breakfast together, and the pause in progress did give us a chance to phone home. Many people who had not arrived as a group had by this time formed friendship groups with strangers and I chuckled as I heard the man behind reassure his caller ‘no I’m fine I’m walking with another man and an elderly couple, I don’t know any of their names though’ – ‘oiy! not such much of the elderly !!’ I heard said couple shout good- naturedly back at his caller. The group of adult sisters with lovely Lancashire accents in front of me were face-timing their husbands who all appeared to be still in bed – their sneaky lie-in paraded shamelessly to everyone around them in The Queue accompanied by gales of laughter.
Packets of biscuits were opened and shared as we fortified ourselves for the final push. There were ranks of portaloos set up every half mile or so, but full marks go to the Globe Theatre who threw open their doors to let us use their much more salubrious facilities.
Such is the respect for the queen across the world there were many foreigners in The Queue but some things about the British humour still eluded them.Tired and weary in the unforgiving dawn light we rounded a corner on the South Bank to be greeted by a British Bobby in a proper police helmet and truncheon. ‘Hello Hello Hello!’ he cheerily called out to us, and to a man we all called out ‘Hello Hello Hello!’ back, the rather bemused American in front of me said ‘oh is that how you’re supposed to greet a police officer over here ?’ The need for a morning coffee was getting urgent which required certain members of a group to be despatched to join a coffee queue and then return to find their friends in The Queue that had since moved on, and largely the stewards accepted ‘We’re looking for our friends’ as a valid reason for the apparent queue jumping (which as we all know just isn’t cricket). But suspicion was growing in The Queue’, (which as I said had taken on a life and morality of its own by now) that some people were using this as cover for a bit of illicit queue manipulation and would start the chant of ‘They’re looking for their friends’ with gleeful sarcasm when couples who had clearly only bought coffee for themselves were challenged by a steward for walking yards up the ‘hard shoulder’ to gain some advantage beyond their original place.
As our pilgrimage neared it’s Mecca, taking us beside the Covid memorial wall under St Thomas’s hospital with its hearts and poignant messages, so more and more agencies appeared to support us; the Salvation Army were handing out bottles of water, Girl Guides were giving out energy sweets and pastries, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself was in the Faith Zone to give us spiritual encouragement. This really was Britain at its best.
As we finally entered Westminster Hall Garden to complete the final task of Hercules and spend three hours traipsing up and down more cattle lines, the mood changed as the solemnity of what was in front of us started to take hold. In bright sunshine now we started to peel off heavy coats and smarten ourselves up. I was amazed and humbled at some of the outfits that emerged. Men had walked all night in smart black suits and ties, others in kilts and berets, rows of medals were revealed as coats came off and ladies in fitted black dresses emerged from the portaloos.
Brushing our hair and powdering our noses as we walked up and down the railings, to look nice for the queen (and maybe just a little bit as we knew we may appear on the livestream to the rest of the world) us ladies were slightly alarmed to hear the announcement that the ‘no liquids’ security ruling was also going to include any liquid make-up, which we were supposed to have left in the bag drop about a mile back, whoops.There was also no food allowed through, so as well as tarting ourselves up a bit with one hand we were scoffing left over crisps and stale sandwiches with the other. Any unopened food packets were to be handed over to the Scouts to go to Food Banks. In the distance we heard strains of God Save the King and some muffled cheering, and were told that Charles and William were talking to people on back Lambeth Bridge which we had passed over a couple of hours back. Arriving finally at the security point we switched our phones off and braced ourselves. The police were manning the security checks and having already binned most of my liquid make-up I did a deal with the nice policewoman rifling through my toiletries bag – she could throw my tube of concealer (it was nearly empty anyway) if I could keep my new lipstick (phew!).
So on to the final act of this epic journey.
We were ushered politely but swiftly up the back stairs of Westminster Hall, our joints now creaking slightly from the 14 hours of walking that had preceded this moment. Before we knew it we were in the Hall itself witnessing in real life the scene that had been on our television screens for days. The yeoman surrounding the tableau were so still you honestly felt they could be waxworks, and for our walk through we also had members of The Royal Company of Archers taking their turn; heads bowed slightly forward, arms resting on their longbows, a slight breeze coming in through the huge doors ruffling the eagle feathers pinned to their berets the only detectable movement. In those brief seconds, in that place, amongst the silent, timeless pageantry, I suddenly felt a deep and almost tangible sense of connection with the unbroken line of our British monarchy stretching back over the centuries. I said my final goodbyes to the wonderful woman who I felt has walked beside me all my life, before being encouraged to move on and out into the blazing sunshine and the dozens of film crews waiting to pounce and interview anyone who looked interesting enough to have a story to tell. At that moment I felt sorry for anyone who had got a free pass to get in; moving as those last few moments in Westminster Hall had been, it would not have felt the same if it had not been the culmination of the hours spent in The Queue; enduring the discomfort together, the joint grieving, the comradeship, the stories, the sharing, the humour, and the kindness. Being a part of all this had meant as much to me as the privilege of being able to pay my respects to the Queen in person. The whole experience was huge in every sense of the word and one that I will remember for the rest of my life.
NB Laura is one of three sisters who write The3Growbags weekly gardening blog. If you’re not already a subscriber and you’d like some gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.