Britain's longest queue snakes through London as Britons say goodbye to their Queen

People queue next to the Tate Modern while making their way to Westminster Palace to pay respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II on Sept 15, 2022. PHOTO: AFP
People queue on the South Bank to pay respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II on Sept 15, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON - In the oldest part of Parliament, Queen Elizabeth II's coffin lies guarded by iconic "Beefeaters" and other members of Britain's military elite – the silence in cavernous Westminster Hall broken only by the sound of metal and boot on stone when the watch changes at 20-minute intervals.

On either side, people in T-shirts and jeans, or work suits, or shorts and sandals, babies in prams and adults in wheelchairs, move slowly past the catafalque. There's bowing and quiet tears as they offer their respects.

The death of the country's longest-serving monarch has been followed by days of backward-looking pageantry mixed with soul-searching about the future, as Britain confronts an economic crisis and uncertainty about its place in the world after Brexit.

But in what might be London's biggest ever queue, which on Thursday snaked almost 6.4km out of Westminster and along the bank of the Thames river, there is a more optimistic narrative.

There are hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, prepared to queue for hours ‒ many overnight ‒ for a glimpse of the late Queen lying-in-state.

They gather in groups of two or three, stop-starting and sometimes even power-walking as gaps appear, and there are moments of excitement when marshals hand out bright pink wristbands that signify the goal is getting nearer.

The ad hoc ritual was "one of the most moving parts of the week", the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said in a televised BBC interview at the scene.

Long course

The government laid out a route of about 16km, including zig-zags, to accommodate queuers over four days, before the Westminster Hall is closed to the public hours before the state funeral on Monday.

Those joining the line since it opened on Wednesday were not put off by warnings, yet to materialise, that they may have to wait up to 30 hours.

"We're British, so of course we know how to queue," said Ms Shermaine, who travelled up from Dorset in south-west England. She and her friend Amanda, who also asked not to give her surname, commented on how cheerful the mood was.

Others spoke of a great coming together, a feeling of unity and a collective experience that was uplifting even at a time of national loss.

'Moving'

On social media, the queue has become known as the "other Elizabeth Line", a play on the name of the cross-London train line that opened just months ago.

People standing in the queue in Victoria Tower Gardens as they wait in line to pay their respects to the late Queen Elizabeth II on Sept 15, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

That Britons love queueing is something of a cliche, but various studies have shown that people take etiquette seriously.

One by University College of London professor Adrian Furnham found that British queuers see skipping the line as the ultimate faux pas, and that spacing less than 15cm can cause anxiety.

On the South Bank, still hours from the final destination, people hold each other's places in line when someone has to go to the bathroom or supermarket. Small talk is another unwritten rule – there's a tacit understanding that attempts to make conversation should be reciprocated.

Help needed

It is still a massive operation to keep things running smoothly, with 1,000 volunteers, stewards, marshals and police officers on hand at any one time. More than 500 portaloos have been set up, and there is a large screen showing videos of the Queen to stave off boredom.

"I did this 20 years ago for the Queen Mother, it wasn't as organised as this," said Ms Jane Schofield, 59, a former member of the Royal Navy who travelled from Yorkshire, northern England. Despite there being fewer people in 2002 – about 200,000 – the queue was less organised and took longer, she said.

Entering Westminster Hall, the atmosphere instantly reverts to the formal. Some people curtsied at the coffin, which is draped with the Royal Standard and has the Imperial State Crown, the Orb and the Sceptre on it. A mother carrying a baby in a sling wiped her tears from its head as she left.

On Monday, the four-day lying in state comes to an end and world leaders will gather at 11am local time for Queen Elizabeth's funeral.

For Britain's new king and new prime minister, that will inevitably mark a return to the question marks hanging over Britain, that a long queue and the hundreds of thousands in it had briefly pushed aside. BLOOMBERG

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