Diana 1961-1997: The crowd - First a gasp at the coffin, then a wailing, an eerie keening

Glenda Cooper, Ian Burrell and Lucy Ward mingled with the million who lined the funeral route
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The vast police operation in central London swung into action yesterday as an estimated million people gathered in the capital while thousands more lined the 77-mile route to the Princess's burial site in Northamptonshire.

In the early hours of the morning, 3,500 officers from Scotland Yard started to take up their places along the four-mile funeral march to Westminster Abbey. About 30,000 people had camped out overnight.

They came in their thousands. From Kensington to Hyde Park, at Constitution Hill and along the Mall, they were 10 deep: mostly silent, and grieving.

Yet as the gun carriage began its journey, moving through the gates of Kensington Palace, a sound was heard that nobody could recall hearing in Britain before. First a gasp at the sight of Diana's coffin, and then a wailing, an eerie keening. As rose petals were strewn by the crowd before the cortege, there were cries of "Diana, we love you", while others broke down.

We are not used to such naked expressions of grief and pain. But for those who had stayed all night, keeping a candlelit vigil for Diana in Kensington Gardens, it seemed an entirely natural response.

Beverly Hurdle and her boyfriend, John Hoibak, had sat on the pavement for eight hours with not even a sleeping bag to keep them warm. "We're not royalists, we wouldn't have done it for anyone else," said John, a 32-year-old telephone engineer. "It wasn't that she was the Princess of Wales, but what she did - her charity work. She seemed more natural than the rest."

"It sent a shiver down my spine. It was scary," said Beverly, a 29-year- old chef. "And we were so close, I felt as if I could almost have reached out and touched the coffin. It was so special. I'm so glad we came."

In the morning, the public's spirits had been lifted by their common sense of purpose and their determination to witness Diana's final journey. Faces in the crowd were grey, and people hugged each other for comfort in their grief. Their notes and flowers, the overwhelming symbol of this very national mourning, adorned every fence along the crowded route.

But the mood changed as the funeral procession began. At each stage of the route, people gasped at the sight of the coffin. Mourners wept in Hyde Park as the cortege passed South Carriage Drive, while others, shaking, stared into the distance.

A single, red, heart-shaped balloon was released over the coffin and floated away in the autumn breeze as the procession curved down Apsley Way before passing under Wellington Arch and on to Constitution Hill. Many threw flowers while others cried: "We loved you so much."

"You could have heard a pin drop. I couldn't get over the dead silence," said Gillian Burke, 48, a typesetter from Billericay in Essex. She said she was delighted that the procession had been focused entirely on Diana and not other members of the Royal Family. Her best friend, Gillian Nicholson, 48, a sales executive also from Billericay, said: "All walks of life were here. It was all nationalities who have stood out here for hours in the sun. It takes a very special human being to do that and Diana was a normal human being. One of us."

Sandy Wilson, 38, a business analyst originally from Australia and now living in Hammersmith, west London, said it was an occasion which she hoped would have a "profound effect" on the consciousness of Britain. "Maybe people will become more humanitarian," she said. "We have to carry on what Diana has started."

Watching amid the crowd at Buckingham Palace was district nurse Jean Brown, 40, of Peterborough, who said: "You can never prepare yourself for death, even in my job. It's still shocking. You don't want anyone to die, you want them to live. You always wish for another day."

Pete Voss, 34, a postman from Leicester, said: "As soon as I heard the announcement that she was to be buried, I told my gaffer I wanted this Saturday off.

"I'd met her when she came to a handicap centre, where I shook her hand. I didn't just feel like someone in the crowd. She gave me eye contact - it was 'You are a person. Hello'. She's taken royalty into the 20th century."

"Even the horses' hooves are quiet," said a child in the 10-deep crowd as the funeral cortege approached slowly along the Mall. As the coffin passed, followed by Diana's sons, brother and former husband, there were gasps and cries of "Oh, the poor boys".

Retired nurse Eve Thackaberry, 62, from Rainham, Essex, and her daughter, Mandy, 16, had felt compelled to pay their last respects after queueing for nine hours on Tuesday to sign a book of condolence at St James's Palace. "To live in hearts you leave behind is not to die. May your sleep be peaceful," she had written.

Margaret Rogers, a hospital catering superviser, had been taught patriotism and respect for royalty by her father, an Eighth Army veteran. Now, at 55, she had lost much of her faith in the Royal Family, but not in Diana.

"I felt stunned. I wanted to come and be here overnight to have some calm time to think."