For someone who is generally sensible, a busy person, who needs 7 hours sleep each night, its perhaps a little strange that, on hearing of the death of HM Queen Elizabeth II and the arrangements that were being made for her Lying in State, I decided that I wanted to pay my own respects at Westminster Hall last Friday.
There was talk of 24-hour queues, but we had a plan; we left home at 8:30pm on Thursday evening to drive down to London, caught the tube and arrived at Bermondsey Underground Station at 11:30pm. There were a few people around, and plenty of stewards directing us towards Southwark Park; all looking good. We were directed into a “zig-zag” queuing system, continuously walking, the government website suggested a wait of 9 hours, maybe they were just trying to put people off joining the queue?! We were halted, but could see ahead, out of the park gates, that we had a road to cross, and so people were crossing in batches of 50 or so, so that the traffic was not held up for too long.
We continued, through the streets of Bermondsey until the magnificent sight of Tower Bridge lit up in purple lights could be seen from the banks of The Thames. We were given our wristbands, which meant we could then leave the queue if we needed to, to purchase a drink, or snack, or use “the facilities”. All along, everyone was in good spirits, chatting quietly to those around them, careful not to disturb those sleeping in the homes that we passed along the way. Of course, along the way we passed several London landmarks, Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast, Southwark Cathedral, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the Oxo Tower before arriving outside The National Theatre where, we stopped! We didn’t move for nigh on 2 hours!
Never mind, this was a great opportunity to chat to those around us (and to use the facilities at the Southbank Centre which was open all night). We chatted to Ann who had travelled to London on her own, by coach from Newcastle. A mother, father and two sons from America, although they had been living in London for 15 years so classed themselves as honorary Brits! There was a group of three ladies, who we thought were friends who had come to pay their respects together, we discovered that in fact they had met on the underground, all initially travelling alone but struck up a friendship on the tube. One lady had brought two young children with her, we’re not sure whether she gave into their complaining and took them home before reaching Westminster Hall to pay their respects. Someone in the queue for the ladies recognised by distinct accent and asked how long my journey from Birmingham had taken, she was from Nottingham. We were witnessing and taking part in something that will never happen again, well certainly not in my lifetime, and it was important, and special, to be part of it.
Looking ahead of us, we identified the cause of the stationary queue; there was a bottle-neck. A little like being on the motorway when three or four lanes go into one, and there are the impatient drivers who insist on speeding past and cutting into the lane that is staying open at the very last minute! Nevertheless, the sky began to lighten and we eventually started to move again, the London Eye came into view, but the queue diverted away from The Thames, and round towards St Thomas’ Hospital. At this point we started to see signs warning us that no food or drink could be taken into Westminster Hall and we would have to go through airport style security ahead. It was around 6am; time for breakfast! We had brought a can of G&T each with us, but hadn’t drunk them; no champagne breakfast for us, G&T followed by chocolate and crisps!
Arriving on the Albert Embankment felt a little like seeing the finish line of a marathon approaching. We felt we’d made it; I felt quite emotional, after a long, cold night, although at no point had I felt tired. The pace of walking slowed but that gave us opportunity to read some of the wonderful tributes that had been written on the National Covid Memorial Wall alongside the Thames.
Over Lambeth Bridge we walked, there was a cold wind blowing, we were thankful we hadn’t been stood waiting on the bridge in the early hours of the night. We were greeted by Scouts “Good morning, we hope you’ve had a good night”.
Not long now, or so we thought! We continued to talk to those around us, we were joined by another gentleman who had come to London on his own, he had felt like many of us, that he wanted to be part of this historic moment. We got to the end, through the barrier and, another set of barriers in zig-zag formation! These were much longer, the numbering started at 25! The previous set started at 15; these rows were B25, B24; the last set were C15, C14, would there be another set with A numbering as well? Thankfully, no!
We were relieved of any remaining food that we had; any unopened wrapped food was put into a foodbank collection. We were told we would be in Westminster Hall within an hour (it was around 11:15am at this point); it was a clergyman who told us this, so we thought it must be right!
We emptied our water bottles and were directed through security; at this point we joined a different queue to Ann and never saw her again, it felt odd to have spent most of the night chatting to her, and to then be separated without saying goodbye.
We climbed the steps into Westminster Hall, silence, absolute incredible silence. So many people, yet you could hear a pin drop. We slowly made our way down the steps, when it was our turn, we turned to face HM Queen Elizabeth’s coffin, took a few moments to give thanks, say a prayer, bowed our heads and then solemnly left Westminster Hall, outside into the sunshine.
Our backs were aching, feet sore, knees in pain, and it really was very cold at 4am in the morning, but all of this really was a small price to pay our personal respects to a lady that had given over 70 years’ service to her country, to us. She has lived through times which have changed beyond recognition and, as a Christian, I admire her faith on which she relied to get her through good times and bad; she knew that the only way to live life is to try to do what is right and to give her best in all that the day ahead brings. Amen to that.