‘The nation’s grandma has gone’: Tears and tributes at Windsor Castle following Queen’s death

A sea of flowers, candles and notes filled with both grief and gratitude appeared

Colin Drury
Friday 09 September 2022 21:44 BST
King Charles greets well-wishers outside Buckingham Palace

When she woke up on Friday morning, Rahila Akhtar says she still felt in shock. “It was just emptiness,” she said. “The only thing I can compare it to is when my mum passed away four years ago. It was the same sense of ‘what now?’”

On a sombre day outside Windsor Castle, the 49-year-old was one of the thousands of mourners who came to pay their respects following the Queen’s death on Thursday.

Through morning and afternoon, they kept arriving, turning the ground around the famous Long Walk gates into a small sea of flowers, candles and notes filled with both grief and gratitude. “You will never be forgotten, Ma’am,” read one simply.

“We have a million things to do today because we’re going on holiday tomorrow,” said Akhtar, a microbiologist who lives in Windsor and had come with 22-year-old daughter Aishah. “But we felt it was so important to pay our respects and to say thank you for everything she has done for our country.”

What would her mother think knowing the Queen’s death had evoked similar emotions in her daughter to that of her own passing? “Oh she’d understand,” came the reply. “She was as big a royalist as me.”

For fast-approaching a thousand years, Windsor Castle – said to be the Queen’s favourite residence – has been home to the monarchy. Yet rarely can it have seen an outpouring of grief quite like this.

Tears, bowed heads and hushed tones were everywhere. Even the weather, swapping between rain and shine, appeared unable to make up its mind if it should reflect the public mood or offer respite from it.

Rahila and Aishah Akhtar came to say ‘thank you’ (Colin Drury)

“It’s like the nation’s grandma has gone,” said Timothy Lee. “And I think it will take time to begin to process that. I almost sense bafflement. She’s been here so long we don’t know how she can’t be here anymore. It gives me chills thinking about.”

The 45-year-old retail designer from Hampshire had taken the morning off work, and told his team to do the same should they feel the need. “I think, for a lot of people, it will be very difficult to concentrate today,” he said.

His wife Charlotte, a nurse, had become a royalist after meeting the Queen Mother while on a school trip to Buckingham Palace when she was just 16. “I was just this schoolgirl but she genuinely could not have been more interested in me,” the 46-year-old said. “She asked so many questions. She made me feel the centre of her universe, and they say Queen was exactly the same.”

Timothy and Charlotte Lee: ‘We don’t know how she can’t be here anymore’ (Colin Drury)

Another mourner, indeed, had some experience of just that.

As a paramedic, Chrissi Frewer had been stationed inside Windsor Castle for Prince Philip’s 90th birthday celebrations back in 2011. Today, she still remembered with unerring clarity how a colleague was sat with his feet on the vehicle’s dashboard when the royal family, quite unexpectedly, drove slowly past.

“She gave him such a stern look that his feet immediately came down,” the 42-year-old laughed. “I’ve never seen anyone move so fast. And then she made real eye contact with all four of us. She smiled and gave a wave. It made me feel 10 feet tall. I will never forget it. She had such authority but also enough humility to really acknowledge us.”

As Friday progressed, the mourners continued coming. Yet – in a way that one suspects the Queen may have appreciated – a sense of normality also returned to this royal town.

Thames Water workers could be seen fixing pipes just by the castle entrance, while gardeners got on with tending the property’s sprawling grounds. A cafe owner declared it important to stay positive. “It’s good for business, at least,” she said eyeing the crowds. “And we need that right now.”

Chrissi Frewer cluches a bouquet of flowers outside Windsor Castle (Colin Drury)

Perhaps, however, the last word should go to two more people among the mourning crowd: Megan Blacklock and Suzanne Brown.

Aged 81 and 77 respectively, the pair – who were here on a prearranged coach trip from their native North East – are among the minority of Britons who have experienced life under another monarch, the Queen’s father George VI.

“I remember her coronation – my family bought a TV especially to watch it,” said Brown, a retired headteacher. “We had a lot of hope she’d be a good Queen – it was the second Elizabethan Age and all that – but I don’t think anyone could have possibly imagined how good, or how long she’d reign.”

The death, interjected Blacklock, had brought home thoughts of her own mortality.

“At my age, you think about that anyway,” the retired managing director said. “But this is another reminder you can’t live forever.”

No one can, she added: “not even the greatest Queen.”

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