British revel in their own capacity for mourning

Thousands ignore the long wait, make the most of the sunshine and prepare to see Queen Mother's coffin
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The Independent Online

Sergeant Pat Kielty strolled down Millbank yesterday and removed a sign that announced a wait of 30 minutes to reach the entrance of Westminster Hall. "It's actually an hour and 50 minutes from here," the officer announced to those waiting to pay their last respects to the Queen Mother. "The good news is that you're at the head of the queue. I've been told it's now a 14-hour wait from the end which is at Cannon Street in the City.''

The crowd, who looked exceptionally jovial for a group of mourners, gasped, no doubt silently congratulating themselves on having got up at some dreadful hour in the morning.

Many were enjoying their grand day out in the pale sunshine. Some had made friends with their queuing neighbours and there was talk of telephone numbers being exchanged. According to Sergeant Kielty, by the time two single people had reached Westminster Hall, they had got on so well they agreed to go on a date. Jacqui Martine, 53, from Stock, Essex, who had been queuing with three friends for five hours, said: "It's been wonderful, worth every minute. I wouldn't have missed it. It's part of history and I think she was a wonderful lady. We will never see the likes of her again. I think her wisdom and the example she set was quite exceptional. She put the great into Great Britain. The queue has been calm, patient and orderly. I haven't heard one person moan about the wait."

Violet and Keith Bannister, both 68, who had left their home in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, at 6.30am, had been queuing for four hours, and had only just reached Lambeth Bridge. "It's a nice day out," said Mr Bannister. "We've met a lot of lovely people from all different parts of the country."

"The lady in front lent me her gloves, that shows the kindness of the queue," said Mrs Bannister, adding the death of the Queen wouldn't inspire such devotion. David Maciolek, 46, a builder from Stroud, said: "I don't mind waiting at all. It's been very pleasant and jokey. We're all here for the same reason, to pay our respects. I thought it was the right thing to do. She helped the nation through the war, and I wanted to give the Queen support."

By 10.30pm, 135,000 people had filed through Westminster Hall since the Queen Mother's coffin arrived on Friday. The WRVS had given out 30,000 gallons of free tea, coffee and squash from a tent in Victoria Tower Gardens, manned by a pool of 270 volunteers. They also sold sandwiches and snacks to those who didn't have the foresight to bring refreshments.

Christine Baehr, 58, a volunteer from the New Forest, Hampshire, had got up at 4.15am to start her shift. "It's been very satisfying. People have been very appreciative."

St John Ambulance staff handed out foil blankets overnight to people who had not heeded the police's advice to come suitably dressed.

Members of the Venture Scouts, who were supervising the signing of the Books of Condolence, also in the gardens, had lent 20 of their windproof jackets to people in the crowd as temperatures fell in the early morning. "We got all but two back," said Daniel Hayward, 21, a Venture Scout from Wimbledon, south London. "We also lent out our baseball caps and got all of those back."

Andy Trotter, Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said only about 200 officers had been needed for the "good natured, orderly and charming" crowd.

He said: "Their sanction today is assist the crowd and direct the traffic." He said he was surprised at the dignity and determination of the crowd. "It's gratifying and uplifting in many ways. Officers have been very proud to have taken part."

The Deputy Assistant Commissioner added that he had only heard of one incident of queue jumping. "They pointed out how inappropriate it was, and that person ­ through embarrassment ­ left the crowd. It was a very British way of handling it."

Westminster Hall was to remain open until 6am this morning when it will be closed for two hours. Viewing will finally end at 6am tomorrow, the day of the Royal funeral.