The Daily Telegraph
Pilgrims of all kinds share sweets, fight tears and shuffle silently by
While the Met Office was cancelling its weather forecasts and Center Parcs debated whether to incarcerate their guests on the day of the funeral, millions of ordinary Brits chose to honour their late sovereign in the most British way imaginable – by forming a massive queue.
And this wasn’t any old queue either. Despite stretching halfway across London, it was well-ordered, polite; simultaneously dignified and efficient. Walter Bagehot would have been proud.
An extraordinary cross-section of society was there; men, women, of all ages and races – a pilgrimage like a latter-day Canterbury Tales.
I saw nuns, vicars, construction workers, Army veterans, countless kilts, hijabs and turbans, the occasional baby brought by some brave (or foolish) mother – even a man in eyeliner who seemed to have come dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow.
Some arrived in Westminster Hall fighting back tears, others offered up a short prayer or crossed themselves. Almost everyone turned back for a farewell glance at the coffin. Perhaps it would be a stretch to call this Blitz spirit, but the camaraderie in the queue outside was unmistakable.
At one point someone passed a bag of Starbursts along the line, and everyone took one; from little old ladies to suited businessmen and a builder in a high-vis jacket. A nation, brought together by the memory of a treasured monarch and a bag of sweets.
Once inside, a hush descended on the crowd, and a peculiarly British type of awkwardness. Few of us will have bowed or curtsied before. I could see crowds almost visibly wondering what to do next, torn between keeping up with the Joneses (do I curtsey? If so, how low?) and not wanting to take too long during their coveted moment in front of the coffin.
All seemed overwhelmed by that first glance at the Royal Standard, unable to take their eyes off the orb, the sceptre, the herald, and the Imperial State Crown where centuries of history are set in gold; the Black Prince’s ruby, worn by Henry V at
Agincourt. Pearls owned by Elizabeth I via Mary, Queen of Scots and Catherine de’medici dangle from the centre. Mounted on the Maltese Cross, the most ancient gem in the royal collection – a sapphire worn by Edward the Confessor, which, by some stroke of fortune, the Roundheads failed to get their grubby mitts on.
Every 20 minutes came the changing of the guard. A cohort of Beefeaters, marching stoutly in their gaudy livery, alongside Household Cavalry and Guardsmen with their bearskins bowed in ritual homage.
Perhaps the only fly in the ointment was the second queue coming out of St Stephen’s. This was the “VIP lane” reserved for dignitaries, coppers, military and parliamentary staff – and of course MPS, zealously maxing out their allotted number of plus-ones.
A hushed, reverential silence filled the Hall; unbroken but for the occasional shuffling of the soldiers’ feet, and the scratching of the journalists’ pens nearby.
I’m not the most emotional person, but when an elderly lady, a nearcontemporary of the Queen, stooped to curtsey, leaning on her daughter’s arm, I felt a catch in my throat. Then an old boy in military medals knelt so low you could almost hear his knees crack – and I suddenly found I had something in my eye.
Some arrived fighting back tears, others offered up a short prayer or crossed themselves