Everything you’ve heard is true. Yes, it was the longest queue in the world running for 4 and a half days across London from Southwark Park to Westminster.
Yes, we all got talking and formed our own little gang ready to keep spaces for quick trips to the loo, and to gather food & drinks. Yes, at times it was exhausting, standing until the line started moving again, aching legs, joints and feet. Grabbing a few moments to sit on benches when we could.
And yes, it was good humoured. A warm camaraderie between strangers bloomed as we all wanted to be there, be part of the historic event that our country was living through. We shared stories of our own lives, families and histories. We chatted freely about the sense of loss, the gap that had been left in our lives from the only head of state we’d ever known.
The combination of an interesting route (St Pauls – check, London Eye – check, Big Ben – check) and good company meant the hours slipped by until we finally crossed Lambeth Bridge and joined the zigzag lines across the length of Victoria Tower Gardens. The huge Union Jack atop Parliament’s South Tower billowed with majestic gusto as we inched our way to the front.
After the airport style security, we lined up along Millbank to wait our turn to go in. In a lucky twist of timing I spotted Mr Speaker himself, Sir Lindsay Hoyle checking the proceedings.
‘Mr Speaker!’ I called out and reached out my hand. He came over and graciously shook it, thanking us all for coming and apologising for keeping us waiting. A nice touch and a little sprinkle of parliamentary stardust that underlined we were nearly there.
Entering the building, the bustling, hubbub of the past few hours melted away as a reverent hush fell. Nobody needed to tell us. Walking in steps trodden for a thousand years in Westminster Hall, it was at once calm and palpably solemn. Even though there were hundreds of souls moving in slow procession, it was serene as the stillest night. The serjeants-at-arms gently ushering us in formation towards the stairs leading down into the heart of the hall.
Looking up, the roof of the building set high with wooden rafters, speaking of the centuries of struggle. For dominance, for conquest and then survival. Few buildings have borne such witness to our nation’s story.
The carpets over the marble floor meant no footsteps interrupted the stillness. As luck had it again, the one noise we’d hoped for happened – that distinct double banging of sword on stone, meaning the changing of the guards was due. The lines stopped.
In slow procession, the Yeoman Guards (Beefeaters), Lifeguards and Blues & Royals marched to their positions, relieving their colleagues for the next shift. The police officers and palace officials held the lines and watched closely until the ceremony was complete. The ritual, like so many across this week and the state funeral, brought the spectacle and splendour we expect.
Once concluded, the lines started moving again. And before long, it was my turn. The two women who’d been part of our queueing gang all day had moved on, and I walked slowly forwards into the space at the side of the catafalque (a new word for all of us this week).
Despite the crowds, at that moment as I tuned to face the coffin, I was oblivious to anyone else. I deliberately took my time, glancing down at the red carpet covering the base of the dais.
Looking slowly upwards, the royal standard draped over the coffin, falling over the purple sides of the catafalque. On top, the sceptre and orb but most of all the imperial state crown, sitting atop a rich, purple cushion. The symbols of statehood resting on the coffin of the benevolent soul who occupied her position for more than seventy years. The weight of the occasion and significance of the moment rushed through me as the feelings of pride and loss flooded my senses. Tears formed in my eyes as I clasped my hands together and bowed my head.
It was no forced genuflection, nor a gesture of obligation. It was the right, respectful and grateful act in homage to a lady who had embodied our character and lead the nation over several generations with a wise head and gentle hand. She moved with the times but was not shaped by them. This was the moment to reflect, remember and say thank you.
The moment was then over and I moved along towards the exit. Ten hours queuing for less than a minute before the coffin. Was it worth it? Well once again – everything you’ve heard is true. Yes, a thousand times it was worth it.
My position and views on our status as a constitutional monarchy were well detailed in a previous blog here. I shall not regurgitate them now.
I’ll simply reflect on the example of leadership Queen Elizabeth II showed throughout her reign. The focus on service and duty to others. The knowledge and self-awareness that she was one link in a continuous chain – not the centre of the universe. The frugality of habits and understanding that the privileged lifestyle she enjoyed came with responsibilities to the nation and Commonwealth.
Her approach to focus on bringing people together, drawing what we have in common rather than what divides us. Witness her unique and vital role in the peace process in Ireland. The period of Empire to Commonwealth (unfinished business there, of course but she devoted her life to peace and deserves credit for the transition).
She bequeaths us a monarchy that might have fallen during many fraught times for this nation but remains central to our nation life. These are impossibly big shoes to fill. But the King will have the residual goodwill from his people. And a fervent wish from the majority of us that we want to keep our royal family.
Rest in peace Your Majesty, and as Paddington so rightly said – thank you for everything.