‘We’re Part of History’: An Overnight Wait to Bid Farewell to the Queen

LONDON — It was just after two in the morning when the couple from Bristol joined the end of the line, snaking beside the dark, rippling waters of the River Thames and through the hushed streets of London, to see the queen for the last time.

Joining the line of people waiting to see the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, lying in state in Westminster Hall, was not for the faint hearted. In conversations across Britain, it is simply “The Queue,” no further description needed. On Wednesday night, and into Thursday morning, it was three miles long and ever-moving, with initial waits as long as 30 hours, officials warned, making it a feat of endurance, an all-night and all-day marathon.

But Tracy Withers, who had started the journey from Bristol in western England at 10 p.m. on Wednesday, said that eventually getting to the finish line would make the wait worthwhile. “This is something that we’re not ever going to see again,” she said. She wanted, she said, to say goodbye.

The people in the line, thousands and thousands of them, had come from nearby, from London and surrounding counties, and from places far from the capital, like Lancashire in the northwest of England. Some came with their families, lugging chairs and wearing padded coats to ward off a fresh nip in the air. Others came alone, some in suits so they could head straight to the office in the morning.

But early Thursday morning, all were in the dark waiting, and waiting — and waiting — in what was likely to be the longest line of their lives, to pay their respects to the queen’s coffin.

Waiting along the Thames on Wednesday. There are plans for a line up to 10 miles long.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

With hours to burn, and not much sleep to be had, the mood in many stretches of the line was one of good-humored resignation and even camaraderie. Queue buddies befriended each other and shared bags of potato chips, or more adult refreshments like cans of gin and tonic. Along the route, which took on a ghostly sheen under the moon, cafes opened their doors past their usual hours to serve those waiting — though there were lines, of course, for them as well. And with the background of floodlit landmarks like St. Paul Cathedral across the river, many were clearly enjoying the view.

The queen’s coffin will be on view in Westminster Hall until Monday when a state funeral will be held. To get to the hall, mourners have to join a line that stretches along the South Bank of the Thames, past St. Paul’s, the Millennium Bridge, Southbank Center and London Bridge.

There are plans for the line to loop inside Southwark Park, in South London, accommodating a length of up to 10 miles; the government has said it will turn people away once it judges they will not have time to reach the coffin. In the meantime, it is releasing live updates on the length of the line, warning people to prepare for overnight waits and to bring food and drink. Public toilets, drinking water stands and first aid station had been set up for the occasion.

Everyone had their own reasons for joining the shuffling procession. But many expressed similar sentiments: a desire to honor the queen; the need to express, somehow, the loss and grief they felt; a sense of being part of a moment bigger than themselves.

“It’s a privilege to be here,” said Allie Davis, who had been waiting for about an hour. In that time, Ms. Davis and a friend, who had traveled from Surrey, south of London, had already bonded with a mother and daughter from Lancashire beside them. When she finally got to the end, to the coffin, she said, she would probably cry her eyes out.

On Wednesday night, and into Thursday morning, the line was three miles long and ever-moving, with warnings of initial waits as long as 30 hours.Credit…James Hill for The New York Times

“We’re not here for the monarchy — we are here for her,said Sujata Mahendran, about four hours into her wait, referring to Elizabeth. Ms. Mahendran had watched the royal procession earlier that day taking the queen from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall, which had given her with a sense of national pride. “It’s being British. That’s us, isn’t it?” she said, adding, tongue-in-cheek: “We do queue very well.”

As the hours dragged on, rumors rippled down the line over the question that had been consuming everyone: how long, exactly, was the wait? Six hours, people had heard, or no, at least 12 — or was it, perhaps, two hours a mile?

At one cafe, where some people sat slumped in chairs, Reena Mehmi was buying cappuccinos for her family while her father held her place in line. “We made a spontaneous decision to come,” she said, adding that the family had driven down from Bedford, north of London, at around 7 p.m. Wednesday. Everyone was feeling a bit tired, she said, but thought it was better to come overnight rather than risk an even longer wait the following day.

“I keep saying to the kids, we’re part of history — you’ll never get this opportunity again,” she said. She added that she remembered a visit to Bedford by the queen, who greeted people in the pouring rain. “Why should the cold stop us?”

Todd Sinclair, a Canadian who had come with two friends after dinner, said he had also lined up in the middle of the night to see Elizabeth’s mother lying in state in Westminster Hall after her death in 2002, and felt compelled to come again when the queen died.

The queen’s lying-in-state at Westminster Hall, in the Palace of Westminster, on Thursday.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

“When she died, it hit me — I was unmoored,” he said.

He described the awe he had felt in 2002, at the grandeur and solemn atmosphere in Westminster Hall at the time. “I’m not religious or necessarily a monarchist but I went: wow,” he said. He wanted to share that experience with his friends, he said.

His friend Victoria Koene, who was visiting London from Toronto, said she had more complicated feelings about the monarchy. But, she conceded, it was quite an experience to be in London, being part of a historic occasion. There was one problem, though: “We already ate all the snacks.”

As she neared a checkpoint under the towering wheel of the London Eye, staff began to hand out pink wristbands to let people leave the line briefly and keep their place. “Pink! She liked pink,” said Ms. Mahendran, somewhat wistfully.

At four in the morning, the weariness became more apparent in some stretches of the line. A mother cradled a baby, looking into the distance. People covered yawns and someone grumbled that people were pushing in. “It’s too early,” one man sighed. A woman spoke of runner’s exhaustion: “This is like a 5k.”

Simon Waters, from Southampton, on the south coast of England, joined the line with his family at 8 p.m. on Wednesday. Almost nine hours later, on Thursday morning, he walked into Westminster Hall to see the queen’s coffin, with the crown placed on top of it.

“You can’t just describe it,” he said. It had been a long wait, he added, but Mr. Waters looked very much awake. “It’s unbelievable.”

Behind him, a bakery started opening its doors. Soon the sun would rise over the line of people filing beneath it. It would still be some time before the couple from Bristol would reach the front — and in the meantime, more people would join The Queue.

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