THIS was a walk of about 3½ miles between two points that are only 1½ miles as the crow flies. Actually, it was less a walk than a stop-and-start shuffle and it took my friend Simkin and I nine hours to do it. That’s just over 2½ hours per mile. And if you’re measuring speed in hpm instead of mph, that suggests something’s afoot…
In this case, it was me. And Simkin. We were afoot. Along with several thousand other people.
What, Why & When
Her Late Majesty
The reason for this potentially torturous (and definitely tortuous) pedestrian progress was of course the Lying in State of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
So, Why Queue?
Well, it’s not every day that a monarch of 70 years reign kicks the bucket and besides, we queued for the Queen Mother’s Lying in State back in 2002 and we figured we might as well collect the set.
Flippancy aside, I went for a mixture of reasons. Partly because it’s an historic moment, partly to pay respects to a sovereign who performed her role well and partly because The Queue was an event in and of itself. I’m guessing Simkin’s reasons were probably similar but I can’t speak for him.
The rest of The Queue seemed to be there for a similar bunch of reasons, ranging from misty-eyed monarchists to selfie-taking narcissists with a fear of missing out and a whole gamut in between.
We went Queuing on the first night of The Queue i.e., Wed 14th September 2022.
Our Queuing Experience
Finding The Start
We’d heard the end of The Queue had reached the vicinity of London Bridge, so I met Simkin at Hay’s Galleria and we adopted the straightforward plan of heading upstream until we collided with the Queue. We had not gone very far when we encountered temporary barriers and Queue marshals, who let us through and directed onwards towards the physical end of the Queue.
We found The Queue just beyond the upstream side of London Bridge in Clink Street, beside the ruins of Winchester Palace. The time was 18:35.
To begin with, The Queue was quite stationary but that had more to do with a bin lorry reversing from Stoney Street and getting in the way than anything else. Soon, it had gone and we began to move forwards.
The Queue in Motion
The speed of The Queue was wildly inconsistent. One moment we’d be shuffling forward in what, for me, were frustratingly slow and small steps. The next we’d be rushing forwards at a half-jog because The Queue had unexpectedly accelerated away from us. Then, we’d stand still for several minutes. This had the potential to be really annoying but, amazingly, it wasn’t. And that, I think, is for two reasons:
1. Variety is the Spice of
Life The Queue
The constant change of rate meant that it wasn’t too boring. A change is as good as a rest as all that. If we’d had to stand still for hours on end, we’d probably have all collapsed. And marching round it briskly would have taken out some of the Queuers through sheer exhaustion. But the ever-changing stop/start, fast/slow variability provided enough variation to smooth things out overall. If we were bored standing still, a spate of brisk trotting enlivened things up. If we were tired, a stop gave us a rest. And so on.
2. The Atmosphere
The Queue had an excellent atmosphere. Everyone in it was Queuing voluntarily with a shared sense of purpose, and that camaraderie certainly helped. There was also a sense that it was an historic occasion and, while The Queue existed for death-related reasons making a carnival atmosphere inappropriate, there was certainly a powerful sense of taking part in something bigger than each of us. But, above all, as the hours dragged on, there was also a sense of shared ordeal and if there’s one situation in which Britons are permitted to drop their barriers and interact with strangers, it’s when bonding through adversity.
Snacks were shared, jokes were made, some mild ribbing of other Queuers occurred. One chap in front of us bought a massively overpriced and inferior quality hotdog from a stall that we passed and his rueful disappointment was a well of merriment revisited several times through the hours. When the usual cautious reserve of strangers has given way to gentle banter, that’s when you know you’re experiencing An Event.
We passed under Southwark Bridge and along Bankside, soon putting the Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern behind us to reach Blackfriars Bridge at 19:26. At this point, we had done just over half a mile and it had taken almost an hour to do it. The sun was now low in the sky, a great and glorious red orb, which was both pretty and problematic as we were facing towards it.
With green blobs of after-image floating across our fields of vision as the red cones in our retinas tapped out through overwork, we shuffled, strolled, strode and stopped by turn to convey us fitfully past the Oxo Tower, Gabriel’s Wharf and the South Bank. It was getting dark enough by now that the lights of the City of London across the river made for quite a splendid view.
At this point, we had yet to receive the wristbands that would permit leaving and re-entering The Queue without accusations of queue-jumping. Not that people couldn’t leave The Queue – there are plenty of food stalls etc on the South Bank, including that which purveyed the much-maligned hotdog. Attempts at queue-jumping weren’t really a thing with one singular exception and that was deftly self-policed…
An extremely drunk woman veered sideways into the queue directly ahead of us but, being too drunk to move quickly, was quickly bypassed. We all knew she had just pushed in – I mean, we’d had over an hour to get to recognise our Queue neighbours by this point – and an appeal for aid was made to the nearest tabard-wearing Queue marshal. The woman tried gamely to claim she was our friend but, since she had neglected to get our buy-in to this ruse, that deception went precisely nowhere. She was gently but firmly ushered away towards the rear of The Queue.
The Queue, meanwhile, pressed onwards past Waterloo and Hungerford Bridges to Jubilee Park, where we were steered away from the waterfront onto Belvedere Road on the landward side of County Hall. It was here that we hit the wristband-issuing checkpoint. It was 20:36.
The wristbands were numbered and colour-coded, with the colour changing after 10,000 bands. Henceforth, these would be our proof that we were in The Queue and in the right place in it, and able to return to that place if breaking out for food or a comfort break (Portaloos had been erected at several points along The Queue’s length).
At its southern end, Belvedere Road opened onto Westminster Bridge Road and we duly turned right into this. Ahead of us, Westminster Bridge stretched across the River Thames towards the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Hall but our route would not be so direct. A cluster of marshals and policemen directed us right again. Along the Thames opposite Parliament and beside the National Covid Memorial Wall.
We passed St Thomas’ Hospital and Lambeth Palace, just beyond which we came to a temporary halt. As we paused in the literal shadow of Lambeth Bridge, we found ourselves beside a tea and coffee stall being manned by a chap of effusively cheery demeanour. We also found ourselves beside convenient a cluster of Portaloos, much to the relief of some Queuers.
Then, suddenly, The Queue was moving again. We had to show our wristbands as we stepped up onto Lambeth Bridge, where another bevy of policemen directed us to cross the river. Their distinctive helmet bosses marked them as members of Devon & Cornwall Police, brought in to swell the police presence and assist the Metropolitan Police in maintaining order. Not there was any hint of disorder in The Queue; far from it. The whole thing was a paragon of patient plodding and waiting. Queuing properly for the Queen. In both execution and eccentricity, The Queue was quintessentially British!
Victoria Tower Gardens South
At the far end of Lambeth Bridge, we were made to show our wristbands again as we were directed through Horseferry Playground and into Victoria Tower Gardens South. This is a small park adjoining the Palace of Westminster and has a memorial fountain halfway along it. An elongated triangle, the park is about 90 m wide at its northern end (the far end from us) and about 300 m long. So, not very large at all. I once watched an air ambulance land in it and marvelled at how the pilot managed to miss all the trees.
The mass of people in the photo above were all traversing the length of The Zig-Zag, in which The Queue bounced from side to side in the park, squeezing a couple of miles’ worth of Queue into its miniscule area. Under ordinary circumstances, it would have taken four minutes to walk its length at a leisurely pace. It was going to take us five hours, beginning at 22:00.
The Zig-Zag moved slightly differently to the rest of The Queue, being more of a stop-start affair. This could and probably should have been interminable but somehow it wasn’t. Not only did it constrain us inescapably between our fore and aft Queue neighbours but, by its very nature, it now mean we had other Queuers on either side. We may not have interacted directly with them but this meant that we now had The Queue’s atmosphere surrounding us on all sides. That, in itself, was enough to buoy the spirits.
We spent four hours moving forward in short bursts but I swear it didn’t feel that long. I mean, it definitely felt like we were taking a long time doing it but, if I had had no device on which to check the time, I reckon I’d have guessed half that.
Still, Not There Yet
At the northern end of The Zig-Zag, when its end was in sight, The Queue suddenly stopped moving. As it failed to start moving again, Queuers became curious as to what the hold-up might be. The livestream of the Lying-in-State had switched to showing the building’s exterior, so something appeared to be up.
Eventually, a marshal came out and told those right at the end of The Zig-Zag that Westminster Hall would be closed for an hour so that those who would bear the coffin for the State Funeral could do a full-dress rehearsal.
Pfff! What’s Another Hour?
This was not favourite news by a long stretch but it was received with a weary acceptance. After 7½ hours of Queuing, no one – and I mean absolutely no one – was going to give up and stomp off in high dudgeon. No one was going anywhere unless The Queue moved forwards again or a medical emergency took them out.
We saw a few elderly people being escorted out of The Queue wrapped in thermal blankets, as the rigours of Queuing and the dropping night-time temperature combined to put them in a situation where the flesh was too weak to care how willing the spirit was. I felt for them; that must have been absolutely galling.
Old Palace Yard
A little before 03:00, a cheer went up as The Queue began moving again. We reached the very end of the Zig-Zag and passed into Old Palace Yard. Bins were provided at this point to dispose of all food and liquids, which would not be permitted inside Westminster Hall.
We then reached airport-style security, which was set up under a tent-like canopy with metal detectors of both the walk-through sort and those in which bags and the contents of your pockets go through on a tray on a conveyor belt. These were being watched and operated mostly by Police Scotland (another force there to help out), with an admixture a few uniformed individuals of the Parliamentary Security Department.
Moments later, we were entering Westminster Hall, at which point the quiet but constant hubbub of The Queue immediately dropped to hushed silence.
Guided by ushers, we split into two streams and passed on each side of the coffin, which stood on its catafalque, draped with the royal standard, with the Imperial State Crown sat atop it. Foot guards and Yeomen of the Guard stood vigil all around it.
Silently, the Queuers passed it by, looking up at it, or down with head bowed, as per preference; each alone with their thoughts. It took maybe thirty seconds to file past the coffin after nine hours of Queueing and on the face of it that seems mad. But I’m still glad I did it.
The Queuing over, we emerged into the streets of Westminster to find the military rehearsing for the funeral, and therefore blocking access in several directions. We took the route we could, which returned us to Horseferry Road (at the west end of Lambeth Bridge). It had now gone 03:30, long past the last trains to our respective homes. But that was okay; after nine hours of Queueing, I was starving and Polo Bar on Bishopsgate served a 24-hour breakfast. Bacon and eggs etc. called…