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ENGLAND
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England's Queen Mother: Part 6: The Lying in State
Posted on Jun 11, 2002 - 08:43 AM by Anonymous

Getting close to 200,000 people have queued in a cold biting wind for up to eight hours and through the night to file past the Queen Mother's coffin in Westminster Hall. It was a spontaneous outpouring of respect that caught the authorities by surprise. However, they rose to the challange and were clearly touched and delighted by the response. Tonight, the crowds are already massing outside Westminster Abbey for tomorrow's funeral. Here we bring you an eyewitness account of the Lying in State.

Farewell Ma'am

Put simply, they were not ready for it. Not only was the short processional half mile crammed with a half million people, thousands of whom were quite unable to see the procession, but the numbers who queued to pay their respects in Westminster Hall on Friday afternoon overwhelmed the official arrangements. They had reckoned without the people. The media both printed and, most especially, broadcast had persuaded the Palace and everyone else that this was going to be a low-key affair in no way comparable to the great outpouring of naked grief at Diana's funeral. The decent, respectful people and downright ordinary people of quiet Britain proved them wrong, quite wrong.
As the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh waved to crowd on their way back to Windsor I made my way across Westminster Bridge. My object, the queue forming at the gate to the Victoria Tower Gardens at the West end of Lambeth Bridge (the Thames is here enjoying one of its meanders so the western end is on the titular north bank). We were a steady stream and I reached my place in the queue at half-past noon and within the first hundred or so of people intending to file past the catafalque in Westminster Hall.

Heading across Lambeth Bridge to the back of the queue
I found myself in a mixed little bunch. Three people in their late twenties and early thirties just ahead, a tall young man named Clive (who later proved himself a delicate hero) an excited middle aged couple and two of their friends who had come overnight prepared with sandwiches and fruit, a mother and her two teenaged children plus friend who was setting off on a holiday early the next day and a middle-aged lady who was quite alone but felt that she should be there. In the lovely London sunshine we made common cause on Lambeth Bridge and thought nothing of the fact that we would have to wait until two o'clock before we could even think of entering Westminster Hall. Gradually we became aware of the presence of the London Bobbies. There they were, with white gloves, suddenly and somehow unobtrusively standing at regular intervals and smiling between us and the road across the bridge which carried the relentless London Traffic from Victoria to Lambeth and Southwark. Once there, they were asked the inevitable question where do I join the queue? With quiet sympathy but determined authority they directed the enquirer to the Albert Embankment.

The growing queue on the Albert Embankment
It was one o'clock and two Bobbies walked past us and one of them pointed downriver saying "Look, the queue is stretching back to St Thomas" . We followed his gaze and the wonder in his voice was mirrored in our diffidently acknowledged sense of our own luck. The queue was fast filling the Albert Embankment. People were pouring past us heading for the end of that queue. Then, quite on cue, the gates to the gardens were opened. We moved quite quickly but of course there were the opportunist queue jumpers who sought to take advantage of the sudden movement. Our little group were approaching the gates when two "ladies" pushed their way in front of us. As one, we politely pointed out to them the direction in which lay the back of the queue. Our gentle hint was rewarded with an unpleasant gesture and look - the only black cloud to briefly cast a shadow on our day.

There was another queue jumper. She again came from the forward direction and just seemed to drift into the queue. As luck would have it, her drift cast her up right in front of Clive who could not resist the temptation to gently lay his hands on her shoulders and wheel her out of the queue. It was a beautiful and balletic movement which left his 'victim' completely nonplussed - for a minute or two. She soon found safe harbour in another part of the queue. By the time that we reached the refreshment tent run by the Women's Royal Auxiliary Service her persistence had earned our grudging respect and she became our "Lady QJ".

Our Lady QJ takes a rest
As we waited in the gardens and watched the ever-growing queue across the river reach and encroach upon Westminster Bridge we were visited by Black Rod himself. Splendid in black with a magnificent gold chain of office across his midriff (Clive seems to have been the only one to notice his equally magnificent whiskers) he explained to us that the Hall was being prepared and that it was hoped that we could begin to file past the Queen Mother's coffin at two o'clock. He looked across the river and quietly said that he would not walk the length of the queue but would wait to greet all newcomers at the entrance to the Gardens.

The head of the queue in Victoria Tower Gardens
He was as good as his word. At precisely two o'clock the people at the head of the queue were ushered into the tent containing twenty Books of Remembrance. The first members were then led along Millbank and Abingdon Street by a ten-man white gloved traffic police escort and handed over to the care of staff from the Houses of Parliament. The long line of tribute was under way. The opportunity to sign the Books of Condolence was unexpected and the source of universal pleasure in the queue.
Volunteers from many of the youth organisations supported by the Queen Mother were also on hand. In particular, they looked after a patch of ground in the gardens which had been laid with tarpaulin held in place by four small Union Jacks. This was for any floral tributes that members of the public might bring with them. Many did and as we moved off there was already a row of bouquets along one side of it. A gentleman ahead of me was carrying such a bouquet. As we started to move along one of the young volunteers approached him and asked offered to place it for him. To his great embarrassment and our delight the poor gentleman explained that it was not for the Queen Mother but for his own grandmother. She was in hospital and unable to come to pay her respects. He would be visiting here immediately after he had left Westminster Hall with this tangible link to the lying in state.

Many brought a simple floral tribute
We moved relatively quickly in the bright sunshine towards St Stephen's entrance. Across the road Westminster Abbey rose splendidly above the newly admitted traffic and stood stark white against the blue Spring sky. Members of the police and Palace of Westminster constantly asked us as a matter of interest at what time we began to form the queue. It was clear from the wonder in their voices and faces that we were far more than they had anticipated.

Security was very strict. Along the route through the gardens and a small, polite, notice informed us that anyone carrying bulky packages would not be admitted. Outside St Stephen's entrance two members of the Palace staff handed out small plastic bags into which we were to put our keys and loose change. In a tent outside the entrance a bank of six x-ray scanners screened bags and persons. Behind them stood a phalanx of armed police and a forest of walkie-talkies.

Through the door and into a completely new world. A flight of steps led to the high entrance platform beneath the Great Window. At the top a policeman in his white gloves smiled a welcome and gently welcomed me to the place. The stunning silence and equally stunning light just took the breath away. The Sunshine, filtered through the blue, gold and silver of the Great window bathed the whole silent hall in a luminosity that was both timeless and magical; and there, resplendent in the precise centre of the Hall, was the catafalque bearing the Queen Mother's coffin. The bright colours of her Standard blazed out in the luminous light. Her crown sparkled in the flickering light of the five tall candles. As I turned to descend into the hall Big Ben, high above, chimed three o'clock. The sound was gentle, solemn, and rippled through the hall. My mind briefly registered that this was an additional experience that only some of us would enjoy.

It is impossible to describe the emotions and responses as I walked down the twenty (specially carpeted) steps to the floor of this great Mediaeval Hall. My eyes never left the catafalque and I felt as if I was floating in the light. I felt completely alone with it. There were people a little way in front of me and, I suppose, just behind me. In the body of the Hall I stood to look up and noticed for the first time the four members of the Household guard, silent, unmoving, their heads bowed, ostrich plumes falling forward at each corner of the dais. Their breastplates gleaming as they clasped the hilts of their unsheathed swords with white-gauntleted hands.

Four steps lead to the gold-edged purple shroud and which covers the seven-foot high catafalque. I stood there for I know not how long and simply gazed. It was a completely new and wonderfully strange experience: Timeless, magical, magisterial and awesomely, utterly peaceful. I will always remember it but I can never adequately describe it. I had no sense of time. Nobody tried to move me on. It was the peace, the silent peace was overwhelming.

I moved to the north end of the Hall and looked back. The magnificent hammer-beam roof with its carved flying angels somehow now seemed in perspective. This, the greatest surviving example of mediaeval carpentry hovered above the Queen Mother with a protective air and everything seemed right. At the door I experienced a compelling reluctance to leave and stood there in the company of others who clearly felt that same reluctance. Eventually I went outside but felt compelled to turn and look back through the door. I was not alone. Finally, I walked up the ramp to the gates into New Palace Yard.

Westminster Abbey

It is now no secret that the public response was completely unexpected. The original arrangements were to allow the public pay their respects between 08:00 and 18:00. By mid-afternoon on Friday those plans were in shreds. The hall has stayed open through the night on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in order to accommodate the people who wish to pay their respects. The queues have reached three mile sin length and the waiting times up to eight hours. On Saturday, a cold east wind swept up the river from the North Sea but proved no deterrent. Members of the St John Ambulance Brigade moved through the crowds passing out foil blankets as protection against the cold.

The good humour never deserted the queues nor those there to marshall them. London's Town Crier was there on Saturday, ringing his bell and crying "Oyez, Oyez, Oyez". Nearby, there stood a policeman with a megaphone whose duty it was to let the people know how long they would have to wait. He prefaced his announcement with "Oh yeah, Oh yeah, Oh yeah"! Two of his colleagues were handing out the plastic bags for keys and coins. One of them had a sign pinned to his box which read "Nearly there" . His colleague also had a sign on his box and this read "Don't believe him". It is an appropriate illustration of how the passing of this frail old lady has shown us that there is still much decency and good humour in Britain. There were two of her great characteristics also.

You can either jump to specific articles in the series or scroll through them sequentially using the following sets of links:

The funeral arrangementsHer Ancestral Tree Her Celtic AncestryHer Bruce Ancestry The Grand Ceremonial ProcessionThe Lying in State

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A friendly London Bobby answers 'that' question yet again


 

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