Two-mile queue for thousands to pay last respects

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The Independent Online

Some were avowed royalists, dressed in black and carrying plastic Union flags. One confessed to coming to "gawp at a sad fairytale". Others simply shared a quiet tear as the gun carriage and coffin passed by in the procession of 1,600 servicemen and women pacing in the sunshine to a funeral dirge.

Amid the pageantry of a state ceremony, a cross-section of 21st-century Britain turned out on the streets of London yesterday to see the Queen Mother, for many the embodiment of the 20th century, borne from St James's Palace toParliament.

In all, some 250,000 people lined the route to Westminster Hall, adjoining the House of Commons, where the Queen Mother will lie in state on a 7ft catafalque, draped in purple felt, until the funeral at Westminster Abbey on Tuesday.

Formality and self-conscious sentiment were present in equal measure. On top of the coffin lay the Queen Mother's Crown, made for her coronation in 1937 and featuring the priceless Koh-i-Noor diamond. Alongside it was a wreath from the Queen with the message: "In Loving Memory, Lilibet."

Within two hours of the arrival of the coffin, solemnly accompanied by the dead Queen consort's grandchildren and great-grandsons, a crowd of at least 5,000 had gathered to pay their personal respects by filing through Westminster Hall.

By mid-afternoon the queue snaked for nearly two miles across Lambeth Bridge and along Albert embankment, in scenes reminiscent of those that followed the death of George VI, the Queen Mother's husband, in 1952. Officials in charge of Operation Tay Bridge, the codename for the royal funeral, said they were considering extending last night's 6pm closing time.

As spectators stood 15-deep at the Cenotaph, the memorial in Whitehall where the Queen Mother had attended all but four of the Remembrance Sunday ceremonies since 1945, opinions about the significance of the day were as diverse as the mourners themselves.

Daniel Sorrows, 47, from Kennington, south London, a "sometime communist and lifelong republican", said: "She was the last redoubt of imperial Britain. I might not agree with it but I felt the need to see it consigned to history."

At the opposite end of the spectrum was Yvonne Browne, 52, the vice-president and chairman of the Women's Institute in Sandringham, Norfolk. The Queen Mother was president of the branch for 65 years and attended each January to take tea and cakes over a report on its activities.

Mrs Browne said: "The Queen Mother was someone I met and each time she was friendly, interested and charming. It is something about her which didn't change.

"I just felt the need to be here. This for me is a magical moment, a unique and historical event."

Others admitted the lure of the biggest funeral march-past since the death of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 and the convenient arrival of the Easter holidays had drawn them to press themselves up against the crush barriers.

Alistair Stein, 32, a researcher from New York, had sandwiched himself between two statues outside the Ministry of Defence. He said: "I guess I'm here to gawp. To me it's a sad fairytale – the soldiers, the princes, the military bands. To an outsider, this is an extraordinary spectacle."

The gun carriage, last used for the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, wound its way along The Mall and Whitehall followed by 14 royals – the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and Princes William and Harry among them, alongside the Princess Royal in a break with protocol.

Spectators stood silently as a dozen separate detachments of the Armed Forces, from the Royal Marines to the Grenadier Guards, marched by – the latter in such close step they sounded like tapdancers.

But beyond the pomp there was also genuine emotion. As the coffin draped with the Queen Mother's personal standard was received into Westminster Hall, watched by the Queen and politicians, Prince Charles was seen to cry.

As the Royal Family made its way back up Whitehall in limousines, applause started. Meanwhile, several thousand people were preparing to queue for hours to go whence the Royal Family had come. As one man near the line's end put it: "I'm glad the Royal Family look after themselves. I wouldn't want to do this too often."