I was in line for 30 hours to see the coffin

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people will pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II during the four-day public wake. BBC journalist Kristian Johnson joined those who camped out the night before the public wake began to ensure they were first in line – and they made friends on a rainy night in London.

At 10 pm on Tuesday (13/9), the rain started to fall. People who had only known each other hours before huddled together. Their umbrellas offered little protection from the rain.

I was one of the lucky ones. My tent, pitched on the cool pavement of London’s South Bank, protected me from the rain. But even so, after only a few minutes outside, my jeans were soaking wet.

I wasn’t the only one.

“We have wet pants but dry feet,” said Sheila Morton, who was tucked under a sheet with her friend Lesley O’Hara.

Journalists were the vast majority of people in line on Monday, as Vanessa Nathakumaran proudly took her place at the front. She only carried one bag with her – and she had over 48 hours to wait before she could enter Westminster Hall.

When I joined her on Tuesday at lunchtime, I had secured position number 17 in line. Michael Darvill, 85, and his daughter Mandy Desmond, 55, were my new neighbors. They had already settled into camp chairs.

There were no books, card games and tablets to keep them busy, just conversation. It was a theme that everyone else seemed to unconsciously follow. No one was looking at the phone screen and not a single person had plugged in their headphones. There was a lot to talk about.

When the rain – which fell like a drizzle on Tuesday afternoon – got heavier and became a deluge, there were about 50 of us in line.

A man named Gary Keen walked along the line offering slices of pizza. Jacqueline Nemorin from Mauritius shared her pot of strawberries with the women sitting next to her. At the front of the line, a local charity arrived to hand out cups of tea and coffee.

Yaqub Yousuf, who lives near Lambeth Bridge, brought numerous supplies from his home to make life more comfortable for those in line.

“I saw these ladies completely unprepared so I decided to bring five chairs from my apartment so they could sit,” he said. “Then I realized they were going to be soaking wet all night, so I brought bags and blankets.”

A little further on, improvised songs from God Save the King began and candles were lit to remember the queen. Others ordered food through the Deliveroo app.

Truus Nayman first arrived in England in 1954 - a year after the Queen's coronation - BBC - BBC

Truus Nayman first arrived in England in 1954 – a year after the Queen’s coronation

Image: BBC

Even amid the torrential rain, Andrew Israels-Swenson continued to share stories with 85-year-old Truus Nayman. The duo hasn’t moved from a wooden bench they’ve shared since they first met that day.

Andrew, who flew in from Minnesota on Saturday night, said he felt as if he had won a “winning ticket” by securing an overnight seat on a bank.

Queue for the wake of Queen Elizabeth II - BBC - BBC

Line path for the wake of Queen Elizabeth II

Image: BBC

‘I am a monarchist at heart’

Truus, originally from Holland, told me he first arrived in England in 1954 – a year after the Queen’s coronation. “I’m a little more experienced at this sort of thing now,” she joked, “because my husband and I lined up when [Winston] Churchill died [em 1965]. We spent an entire night here.

“When Princess Diana died [em 1997], my son and I lined up at Kensington Palace to sign the condolence book. So when the queen mother died [em 2002], I queued alone. I’m a monarchist at heart.”

I crawled into my tent at 2 am, soaking wet from head to toe.

When I woke up two hours later, Michael and his daughter Mandy were still smiling, despite not sleeping.

“We got wet before 2am and haven’t dried since,” Michael said. “The water ran down the back of the chair, so we’re sitting in the water.”

Monica Farag was the sixth person in line - BBC - BBC

Monica Farag was the sixth person in line

Image: BBC

Fortunately, the rain had stopped when the sun began to rise. The change in the weather not only seemed to warm the bodies, but the spirits as well. People were drinking coffee and rubbing their bleary eyes as they realized they were only hours away from a historic moment.

Monica Farag, originally from the Philippines, was the sixth person in line. She didn’t have a chair to sit on, but the 61-year-old was still beaming at 7am.

“I’m so excited, even without sleep,” she said. “It’s a beautiful experience. This is the highlight of my 36 years in England.”

Just before lunchtime, I was told to pack my tent. The crowd behind us had swelled. The night before, the line was an organized line of people sitting next to each other. It was now five people wide as the newcomers began jostling for position.

Tempers momentarily heated up when someone tried to get in line. But finally, at 3pm, we were driven in groups of 20.

melancholy atmosphere

I joined Truus, Andrew, Michael, Mandy and Paul – my overnight neighbors – in a slow procession over Lambeth Bridge as we headed towards Westminster.

Although the rain had long since passed and the sun was shining, a gloomy atmosphere quickly set in as we passed Victoria Tower. The jokes and camaraderie of our night under umbrellas are behind us.

At 17:00, the doors of Parliament slowly opened and everyone was in complete and absolute silence. For the first time since I got in line, there wasn’t a single sound.

In the center of Westminster Hall was the queen’s coffin. A woman behind me burst into tears. Ahead of me, Andrew and Truus walked together, arm in arm.

I looked at the ceiling, approached the coffin and nodded. And in the blink of an eye, it was over. After 30 hours of waiting, the moment in Westminster Hall lasted no more than 90 seconds.

When I emerged again into the afternoon sun, one of my neighbors in line was waiting. “I was there for your final journey,” Paul said. “That moment when I bowed my head to that great woman… I would go through it all again.”

About Abhishek Pratap

Food maven. Unapologetic travel fanatic. MCU's fan. Infuriatingly humble creator. Award-winning pop culture ninja.

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