The Daily Telegraph

‘Most never met her, but it seemed as if she had a relationsh­ip with us all’

The sudden loss of the Queen finds the people of Windsor struggling to come to terms with losing their beloved neighbour

- Michael Deacon

The little girl couldn’t have been more than two years old: a toddler in woolly white cardigan and blue dungarees, wobbling uncertainl­y on her tiny feet. Her mother handed her a single white rose. Clutching it in her pink and pudgy paw, the little girl tiptoed forward, towards the gates of Windsor Castle, and laid her tribute gently on top of the rest.

The railings looked as if an avalanche had hit them. It was only 8.30am, yet already they were submerged by a vast drift of bouquets – mourners were asked to remove any plastic packaging – as well as pot plants, candles, teddy bears dressed in Union flag vests, a lone black HMS Queen Elizabeth baseball cap – and, nestled in among them all, innumerabl­e notes and letters, each addressed directly to the late monarch.

To read these messages seemed somehow intrusive, even disrespect­ful: although they were on public display, they were so personal, so heartfelt, it felt like opening a stranger’s unattended diary.

Perhaps it would suffice simply to quote from the photograph of the Queen someone had printed out at home on A4 paper and affixed to a railing with black twist ties. Beneath the photograph, the caption read: “She represente­d the best of us.”

All day long, Windsor was thronged. The Great Park, the streets around the castle, everywhere. The town’s modest population ( just 32,000) are used to visitors: it typically attracts more than 1.5 million tourists a year, arriving in their droves in hope of a glimpse of the Queen, and to see the oldest and largest inhabited castle on Earth, home to English monarchs for a thousand years. The town has played host to so many royal weddings: the former Prince of Wales to Camilla Parker Bowles, now Queen; Prince Harry to Meghan Markle; Prince Edward to Sophie Rhys-jones; and

Reading the heartfelt messages on display felt intrusive – like opening a stranger’s unattended diary

most recently, in 2018, Princess Eugenie and Jack Brooksbank.

Yesterday’s crowds, though, were unpreceden­ted. The staff at Martyn Crossley, the nearest florist to the castle, were run off their feet. In hope of meeting demand, they had opened at 8am, an hour earlier than normal. But when they arrived to open up the shop, said one assistant, “There were already people queuing down the street.”

The rain that through the night had seemed to fall on Britain like a vast black curtain had by dawn lifted, and left Windsor blinking in a morning that was dry, shrouded in cloud, and above all, despite the teeming crowds,

While the Queen’s life had been symbolic of her nation’s greatness, her death was symbolic of its decline

The Queen had been a constant presence their entire lives. Her absence seemed shocking

quiet. Overhead, the ever-present bunting flapped forlornly in the breeze.

Into the parish church of St John the Baptist, barely 100 yards from the Castle, mourners streamed to light candles. In the Great Park, filmed by a camera crew, a choir of primary schoolchil­dren were being led by their teacher through a rendition of God Save the King. In the pubs and cafés, meanwhile, there was only one topic of conversati­on. You could have sat there all day, eavesdropp­ing on people’s reflection­s. “I know most people never met her, but it was like she had a relationsh­ip with all of us…”

It was a miserable morning. But then at lunchtime, out of the blue, or rather grey, the sun appeared. The mourners were bathed in the fond warmth of late summer. Into the Great Park the crowds continued to pour: locals, tourists, office workers, schoolchil­dren.

Despite the unexpected sunshine, Windsor, perhaps more than anywhere in Britain, felt bereft. This was, after all, the town with the strongest associatio­n with the Queen and with the history of her family. The streets are crammed with royal reference points. The Theatre Royal, the Castle Hotel, the Windsor Royal Shopping Centre. Then there are the endless royal gift shops, the names of the cafés (the Clarence, the Crown Cafe, the Cafe de Royals), and the names of the pubs (the Duchess of Cambridge, the Prince Harry, the Queen Charlotte, the King and Castle). Even the local Chinese takeaway is named Nell Gwynn (after the long-term mistress of Charles II).

The whole town felt dazed, spooked, and unready – despite the evergrowin­g deluge of bouquets at the castle gates – to process what had happened. But perhaps, in some strange and unsettling way, the news was simply of a piece with everything else. In recent months, it had been hard to avoid the creeping sense of Britain as a nation that was somehow winding down, slowing, grinding to a halt; things that once ran so smoothly now ceasing to function. Disruption­s, delays, cancellati­ons, strikes, shortages of supplies and staff: in countless small but important everyday ways, Britain no longer seemed to be working. And now, suddenly, her figurehead was gone, too.

On this quiet and lonely day, it was difficult to escape the glum thought that in some unfathomab­le way there was a connection between the two. That while the Queen’s life had been symbolic of her nation’s greatness, her death was symbolic of its decline.

Perhaps this thought was unnecessar­ily defeatist. A thought that she herself, with her brisk good sense and her faith in her subjects, would have dismissed. But one thing for certain was true. For almost everyone in Windsor, the Queen had been a constant presence their entire lives. They had never known a world without her. Her absence seemed somehow shocking, unexpected.

On the face of it, this may appear an absurd thing to say of a 96-year-old woman long known to be in ill health. Yet that, none the less, was how it felt. To the people of Windsor, it was like living in a garden dominated by a great, ageless oak tree, only to awaken one morning and find that, overnight, it had vanished into thin air.

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