LONDON — While football may be Britain’s national sport, it is sometimes said that it might as well be queuing — such is the willingness of Britons to queue for long stretches without complaint.
It would make thousands line up this week to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II the equivalent of a national Olympiad. Given the opportunity to say goodbye as she to state before his funeral on Monday, they came by the thousands, united in need to bear witness to the nation’s longest-serving monarch and to express their admiration for a woman many considered the nation’s grandmother.
By Thursday evening, the river of humanity waiting to flow past the late monarch had reached almost 5 miles.
Peter James, 70, caught a train from Sheffield in northern England to London at 4:40 a.m. Thursday (11 p.m. EST Wednesday). He and his wife Julie, 68, joined the line near London Bridge and made rapid progress.
“She was our queen. It has served us for 70 years. It’s the least we can do,” he said. “We thought the line would be long but were pleasantly surprised.”
“It’s our 49th wedding anniversary,” she added. “We could have had a weekend but he had other ideas after the Queen died.”
At Westminster Hall, where the body was taken from Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, a continuous armed guard watched over his coffin, draped in the red, yellow and blue royal standard and the imperial crown.
With many armed for a grueling nighttime vigil by the Thames, with police warning mourners could wait until 30 a.m. Thursday, the line moved quickly, in places a brisk walk just before a jog.
Dressed in her Union Jack scarf, Julie Price, 65, from Builth Wells in Wales, about 200 miles from London, had come armed with sandwiches, apples and chocolate biscuits – or in local parlance, biscuits . But as she and her husband approached the end point sooner than expected, they were faced with the prospect of eating it all or throwing it in the trash.
“I have a pork pie in my pocket, ready,” her husband said.
The art of queuing happily
Debrett’s Guide to Etiquette said“Even today, grumbling in a queue is one of Britain’s great joys,” adding that “to visitors to the UK, the art of queuing must seem esoteric at best and at worst exasperating”.
But far from curious, the line for the queen was polite, even cheerful. The event was reminiscent of the London Olympics in 2012, when the city was overwhelmed with a sense of togetherness. The mourners chatted amiably with the police and the many marshals along the route, comparing wait time reports and swapping sweets.
Those waiting to say goodbye discussed experiences and shared sandwiches, took photos of each other and bonded as part of an event of global proportions.
The cafes along the river carried on a roaring trade in cups of tea and bacon sandwiches, while broadcasters from around the world set up their positions along the river and had their pick of historic landmarks in front of which to place their correspondents.
One of the youngest people in line was Bess, who dangled from a baby carrier, curiously surveying the unfamiliar surroundings of Lambeth Pier, just opposite Parliament on the south bank of the Thames. Born in December, she is named Elizabeth II.
“She was a wonderful woman. This is the last time you will be able to say that there is a queen in my life. It is to say goodbye to someone with all this wisdom, ”said the mother of Bess, Lydia Bewley, 37, an actress from Kettering, a market town in the English Midlands, joined the line at 7.30am at London Bridge and by 11am she was about to cross Lambeth Bridge and join Westminster.
“It sounds corny, but it’s a connection to my grandmothers, who are gone now. And I want her to know who her name was inspired by,” she said, referring to her daughter , Bess.
And far from enduring the length and ordeal of the wait, she actively took advantage of it.
“It’s important to queue, it’s part of the process. Someone said there was only an hour left and I was disappointed, I would prefer it to be two or three hours.
Michelle Larsen, 42, a stay-at-home mom from Eugene, Oregon, was here with her mother and daughter.
She booked the flight and hotel a week ago after news broke that the Queen was under ‘medical supervision’. Elizabeth died an hour later.
“I think it’s history here versus American history. And also she was such an amazing woman. We can always say we were here,” she said as she passed the London Eye. “He’s the only person in the world we’re doing this for.”
“People have been so nice, the marshals are so helpful. We were prepared for a longer wait, it’s all part of the experience – better than staying home watching it on TV.
The line grew throughout the day. As of 2 p.m. (10 a.m. EST), it had reached 4.4 miles, according to a government-run YouTube tracker, meandering from central London to the south-east district of Bermondsey. It raised the prospect that people are still waiting many hours, but the mourners were undeterred.
Niza Ashwood traveled from Gloucestershire, in the west of England, to London on Friday. Originally from Chile, she moved to Britain with her son in 1997. She stopped passers-by in Green Park, near Buckingham Palace, and asked, “Where’s the queue to see the Queen?”
“I have lived here for many years and it is to show my gratitude to him and to the country for receiving me with open arms,” she said. “I feel so proud to be half British. She was a lovely lady.”
The Queen visited Chile when Ashwood was just 2 years old in 1968. Her own mother spoke fondly of the visit until her death in January this year, aged 94. Like so many others in line, she sees her mother’s qualities reflected in the queen, amplified by her death.
“It’s not a pilgrimage, it’s not sad, it’s part of a journey,” said Julie James from Sheffield. “I think she will always be a part of our lives.”