On 16th September I joined the queue to pay my respects to Queen Elizabeth II, lying in state in Westminster Hall. Queen Elizabeth was held in such high esteem by so many of the RAF veterans I had known over the years. Many is the time we raised a glass to ‘The Queen’ at dinners and events. And, of course, the Queen unveiled the Bomber Command memorial in 2012, an act of recognition very much appreciated by surviving veterans and the families and friends of those who served. It was one of the main reasons I decided to travel to London to pay my respects. When I bowed my head, on that Friday evening, I thought of all the veterans I had known, many of whom I called friends, and their respect for the Queen.
The queue, or #queueforthequeen, proved to be quite a remarkable experience. It was brilliantly organised, superbly marshaled, and policed, and it was amazing how high spirits were for what was ultimately a very sombre occasion. One ‘phenomenon’ was the bringing together of people you had never met before to form a friendship group, which helped in so many ways with the task ahead. Below is what I can recollect of the queue for the Queen.
Ta da da da. Ta da da da. 4.15am. Hit the snooze.
Ta da da da. Ta da da da. 4.25am. Hit stop. What am I doing!
I check the YouTube live feed on the status of the queue. What? 11 hours! I was thinking of going up to London the night before, but the status was showing 9 hours, so reasoning it unlikely to grow overnight I decided to travel early in the morning. British public, hey, what are they like.
I get dressed and put on comfortable trainers, following advice from previous queuers. Smarter shoes go in the bottom of a ruck sack, along with six rolls, six packets of hula hoops, club biscuits, humbugs, and water. ‘Take snacks’, I was told.
Having driven to and parked at High Barnet tube station, I board the Northern Line train. The couple opposite have comfortable trainers on. I arrive at London Bridge just after 6.00am, but where now? There’s a steady stream of what look like aspiring queuers and I decide to follow them. Soon we are at the banks of the Thames at Tower Bridge and there’s the queue, stationary, and the people are facing to my left. I must turn right to try and find the end of the line. It’s further than I hoped. As I turn east, where the Shad Thames meets the A200, there it is, my start, at the bottom of the River Neckinger. It’s 6.30 am.
Simon is from Cuffley, Hertfordshire. We also say hello to Eugene and Lay Bie, who are from Singapore. As we start to move slowly, and turn the corner back into Shad Thames, Eugene and Lay Bie tell us of their trip to England. Their daughter has just started to study law at London School of Economics and they’ve come to help her settle. The Queen died just after they arrived, and they recall their surprise when walking into an English pub and it being so quiet. The news of Her Majesty’s death had just been announced. Today they’ve decided to queue and pay their respects.
To our left is Queen Elizabeth Street. It’s a sign! Literally, it’s a sign.
I say hello to two ladies in front. Janet is a ‘happily retired teacher’ from Whetstone, North London, and ‘Chiqui’, her Filipino nickname, is a retired senior teaching assistant for special needs children, from Totteridge. (She later tells me her respectable name is Patricia.) Chiqui is well prepared, revealing a telescopic stool. Will it pass security at the end? Simon, Eugene and Lay Bie have been chatting with Michelle, a retired radiographer from Royal Tunbridge Wells. We are seven now.
The queue is moving slowly, if at all, and people are streaming past on the other side of the road to join the end. Marshals are having trouble keeping them out of the traffic. About an hour in and the queue starts to move quickly. Brilliant. Feeling optimistic we catch the occasional glimpse of Tower Bridge through alleys to our right, then we pass under Tower Bridge Road and out into Potters Fields Park. The reason for the sudden movement is clear, and our optimism diminishes. The organisers have deployed a queue ‘snake’, which we join and are issued with our brown wristbands. It is made very clear that these wristbands are essential. Having fumbled around for a while trying to put mine on, Janet sorts me out.
Not much movement, but a fantastic view of a sun burnished Tower Bridge, and across the river to the Tower of London, which gives Simon, Michelle and I the opportunity to regale Eugene and Lay Bie, whether they like it or not, with tales of Henry VIII. ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.’ And to further demonstrate our brutal past, the story of the beheading of a previous King Charles. Further ahead in the snake a group of women are chomping on crisps and sipping on glasses of wine. The atmosphere is good natured and jovial. Time for a team photo, which a lady behind us, Olivia, kindly offers to take.
We say a proper hello to Olivia, from Hackney, who has cycled in to join the queue, and also greet Caroline and Clare from Hillingdon. Olivia is a business and human rights specialist. Clare was an English teacher but now works part time at the London Jesuit Centre. Caroline is a retired medical librarian. We are now ten. Having exited the snake, we walk west along the riverside, ‘The Queens Walk’. An opportunity for a toilet stop presents itself. We are a team now and some hold the queue position while others nip off. I ask Janet, one of our teachers, if I can go to the toilet. Thankfully she doesn’t insist I wait until the end of the lesson. And it’s a chance to get some coffees. A cool breeze but intermittent sunshine keeps us warm, though autumn is in the air. HMS Belfast sits proud in the murky Thames.
News comes through that they have closed the start of the queue. Soon #queueforthequeue is trending on Twitter. I offer round my club biscuits. How they have shrunk over the years. Olivia reminds us of the club biscuit advert ditty, ‘If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit join our club’. That’s not true anymore.
The queue is moving, slowly. Olivia gives us the gen on the bridges, which will measure our progress. Tower Bridge, which is behind us now, London Bridge, Southwark, Millenium, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Golden Jubilee, Westminster and then our crossing at Lambeth Bridge. We start to share pictures with WhatsApp and Olivia gives us our name ‘Team Q’. Janet is a little concerned about our progress. Her husband has booked a restaurant table for 6.30pm. Fingers crossed.
Across the river is Fishmongers Hall. I sense an opportunity for a pun. ‘It’s an interesting ‘place’.’ I’m only rewarded with a couple of groans. I try to develop the failure of the first pun, ‘I guess that one fell flat’. There’s a pause of a few seconds and Simon asks if that was another attempt at a pun. ‘Plaice, flat fish’. You should never have to explain a pun. I need to up my game.
We pass London Bridge. Olivia and I chat, and we discover that Olivia’s husband’s grandfather was a pilot with Bomber Command, as was my grandfather. I give Olivia a steer about how they can find out more about his service, and then she says, ‘That’s where my parents got married.’ I turn and naively say, ‘That’s a nice church’. I’m quickly corrected. It’s Southwark cathedral! The Shard sparkles in the blue background.
We pass the Golden Hinde, ‘So that’s where it is’, and the ruins of Winchester Palace. On the left is a Pret a Manger. I grab a tea and others see the opportunity for a toilet stop, but the queue in Pret is ‘large’. I manage to catch up with Team Q, just after the Clink Museum, but Simon is still missing as we turn right at the end of the street. Fortunately, our queue stalls briefly and Simon returns. Ambling along Bankside now. Out of the sunshine it is a little chilly. A fellow queuer snaps a picture of the team with St Paul’s Cathedral and Southwark Bridge in the background.
We tick off Southwark Bridge, and Eugene and Lay Bie, whether they like it or not, receive a Shakespeare lesson at The Globe. Michelle and I discuss film adaptations of ‘the Scottish play’. We pass below Millennium Bridge and a saxophonist treats us to some Jazz outside the Tate Modern.
Albeit with stops and starts we are making progress, under Blackfriars rail bridge and then a busker’s ditty makes us smile as we pass beneath the road bridge. Then a very well received gesture from the WPP company, whose smiling staff are offering free drinks. Coffee is available now, but Caroline and Clare are disappointed as they are told there won’t be tea for another ten minutes. But wait, what’s that coming out. A trolley of tea. Everyone’s happy.
The Thames is low. Some young people, in some kind of green attire, are standing statuesque on the shore being photographed. We’re unable to discover their purpose. Swans are paddling in the water’s edge. Eugene and Lay Bie now know that the swans have a new owner.
We pass Gabriel’s pier and ahead are some seats. Chiqui steals the moment, comes out of the queue and heads off to one of the benches. A good tactic. We’ll catch her up, slowly.
We are in the shade of the trees now, on Southbank Walkpath, and it feels chilly. It’s 13.26pm and I try to take a selfie with everyone in it and fail, twice.
The stewards, as they are all day, are very cheerful. We chat briefly with a tall policeman from Nottinghamshire. It’s very busy and lots of people are walking past the queue. I wonder what they’re thinking about the sanity of the queuers. We know we are sane. In our group opinions differ on the architecture of the National Theatre.
Under Waterloo Bridge the British Film Institute play their PR card, and welcome it is too. They’ve opened their toilets to the queuers. I take the opportunity. They’re warm and smell nice. On exit I see the queue moving quickly. I eventually catch up on our group, as does Eugene, and finally Olivia.
Eugene is feeling peckish and leaves the queue to join another queue (‘that’s not a queue’) for a hotdog. We keep moving and turn left at the London Eye into Jubilee Park and Garden. Lay Bie is a little anxious as to the whereabouts of Eugene, but just before we exit the park, he arrives, with a delicious looking hotdog, with all the trimmings. Lay Bie takes a bite. On Belvedere Road firemen are giving out free water.
We have been taking pictures all along the route and start to share them through WhatsApp, and with friends, family, and on social media.
As we approach Westminster Bridge Road, those with bags deemed too large are directed to turn left to the bag drop. No one in our group needs to. The queue has stalled, and we are held. We ask a marshal how long we have left. He says about 5 hours. ‘Really!’ Optimistically we choose not to believe him.
Eventually we can move again and turn right towards a resplendent Big Ben. I attempt another selfie.
But we can’t cross the Thames here and, after the first showing of our wristbands, we head down some steps to the south bank of the river. The Houses of Parliament radiate in the afternoon sun. We’ve become a bit separated and those lagging behind pause for a photo. Eugene proves himself better than me at selfies.
We’re now walking past the National Covid Memorial Wall, adorned with thousands of hearts, containing the names of those lost. A reminder of what we have all been through, and we share our Covid stories. I apply Chiqui’s seat tactic and move on a bit to find an empty bench. I sit for a while to rest. My legs, feet and back are aching.
We pass the monument to the Special Operation Executive, and I snap a picture.
The media presence is becoming more apparent, and there are lots of tripods, large cameras, and smartly dressed people on the grass between us and Lambeth Palace Road. We are passed by two uniformed men with ‘Police’ and ‘Heddlu’ on their back. The police, from all over the country, have been brilliant.
We are held as the queue clears across Lambeth Bridge. On the other side of the river we can just make out the flow of the ‘snake’ in Victoria Gardens.
We are released and file on to the bridge. Movement is intermittent but it is a chance to enjoy the view down and up the river, feel the warmth of the sun, and the pleasant breeze. The river is in full flow. The flotsam and jetsam passes underneath. I replace my trainers for smarter shoes and put on my black tie. I ask Janet to check that it looks OK.
Having been made aware that we are not allowed to take food or liquids into Westminster Palace, I venture back down the queue a few yards and find some willing recipients of the last of my humbugs. Simon is trying to offload some wine gums. Clare hands round her packet of Percy Pig sweets. I decline and say that we must make sure no oinkment is taken in. Alas just a couple of groans. (Clare later tells me, ‘I bought the Percy Pigs when I was hesitating about whether or not to do the queue and thought they might perk me/others up at low moments, but there weren’t too many of those.’) We meet a very cheerful scout, acting as a marshal, who arrived at 3pm and she offers well received encouragement.
Across the bridge now and another wristband check, before going down some steps into Victoria Gardens. A couple of friendly marshals are offering free snacks, which had been handed in at the end of the queue and sent back. We now enter our second snake, which is in two parts, split by the Buxton Memorial Fountain.
I see again the ladies who were enjoying crisps and wine at the Tower Bridge snake. They are now on gin and tonic. The sky is a blue and the Union Jack flies over the Palace of Westminster. News comes through that David Beckham was in the queue a few hours ahead of us. Good man! We pass the fountain and enter part two of this snake.
We’re moving steadily, and there are opportunities for toilet stops. But hands, scarfs, and masks are deployed when the breeze wafts in the ripeness of the portaloos.
We are nearly there now. The marshals warn us again that we are nearing the point where no food or drink can pass. There’s a flurry as people take out what they have, and either cram their mouths or try to pass their leftovers to someone else. I finish off my hula hoops but simply cannot manage the last club biscuit. It is handed in and sent back to the snack table at the start of Victoria Gardens. Simon is still trying to offload wine gums. Olivia is a little concerned. Does some of her make-up qualify as liquid?
We’re out of the snake now and pass the ‘The Burghers of Calais’ statue. There are more warnings about liquids and sweets. It is revealed you can’t take mints in either. Olivia is still anxious. We stop and take a last team picture.
We emerge from Victoria Gardens and turn right on to a road that runs alongside Abingdon Street.
Janet and Chiqui wave and call across to their husbands on the other side of the road. The mood is changing, and there is much more of a police presence.
Ahead are marquees and airport-like security checks. Our group is split up as we are directed to our respective channels. I put everything in a tray, which gets scanned, and I then walk through a scanner. Something sets it off and a police officer checks me over. She can’t find out what triggered the scanner and I’m allowed to move on.
I feel somewhat isolated now as our group has been dispersed. It is about 6.45pm. Just over twelve hours since joining the queue. I turn to the right and enter the Palace of Westminster through St Stephens Entrance. All is quiet as I ascend some stairs and get directed into one of four lines.
Silence, of sorts. Feet shuffle. Sometimes the click of a walking stick, the hum of an electric wheelchair. A faint whisper. I turn left. In front is the space of Westminster Hall, and the timber hammer-beam roof. The vibrancy of uniforms, hats, and helmets. Those guarding the Queen with heads bowed. The symmetry. The coffin draped in rich colour, the Royal Standard, atop the catafalque. The sparkling of the Imperial State Crown. The candlelight reflecting on the Imperial Orb and the Imperial Sceptre.
We edge forward down the steps, and I reach the front of the queue. Another man is to my left, thick set, with a backpack. I notice the Yeomen of the Guard nearest me tracking him with his eyes. The man strides forward and the guard ever so slightly leans in his direction. But the backpack man takes the knee. I suspect the Queen was his ‘boss’. I move forward with another woman to my left. She also takes the knee then wobbles as she tries to stand. She’s alright and moves on. I turn to face the coffin, bow my head, then put my hand on my heart, thinking of why I am here. A matter of seconds. I turn left towards the exit, and walk slowly, but just before leaving the hall I look back at Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II lying-in-state.
Team Q has been split up, but WhatsApp messages start coming in. Chiqui’s telescopic stool passed security. Olivia’s mascara, hand cream, sunscreen and cuticle oil did not. (Michelle later reveals ‘I completely forgot there was a lipstick in my bag from a previous outing which the policeman at security clearly saw but let through’. Olivia’s response, ‘No way! My guy was ruthless.’) Chiqui and Janet meet their husbands and go off to enjoy dinner. Some hang around to try and catch the arrival of King Charles, who is due to stand vigil in Westminster Hall. When his car does arrive a forest of phone cameras prevent a clear view.
I make the short walk to Westminster tube station. When I board the train, I quickly find a seat. So, so welcome, but I only have one stop and have to haul myself up at Embankment. Crossing over to the Northern Line, a train arrives, and joy of joys, there are seats free.
I arrive home around 9.30pm, ish, and go straight on to the YouTube live stream, finding the moment I was in Westminster Hall. Some of Team Q also post screen shots of when they paid their respects to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
What an incredible day. As Michelle later says, ‘… living out Elizabethan values of kindness, perseverance, friendship and goodwill.’