First time he met her, Queen Elizabeth II left him tongue-tied, says timber merchant Chuck Venables. And after waiting in line for more than 12 hours on Friday evening to bid her farewell, he was similarly lost for words.
“It’s difficult to sum up,” the 61-year-old from western England said. “It’s almost otherworldly.”
There is something ineffable about a monarch’s lying in state.
In the vast chamber of Westminster Hall, where the coffin of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch is on view, ordinary people are for a few moments transported to the realms of the extraordinary.
They have walked miles, waited hours and gone through the bright lights and beeping scanners of airport-style security to get inside.
“No liquids, makeup or chewing gum,” says one of the volunteer Scouts marshaling the final meters of the queue.
But once that’s over, there she is.
Her small coffin on a rich purple platform called a catafalque, surrounded by soldiers arrayed in royal red, bear-skinned heads bowed. The Imperial State Crown, the orb and scepter sit spotlit and sparkling.
“It was like a medieval tableau,” said Christine Elliott, 72, of seeing the lying in state on Friday evening, having waited in the autumnal air for 14 hours to do so. “The colors were wonderful.”
The queen’s subjects come, anoraked and often exhausted by the wait, to say their goodbyes. Some blow kisses, others stand and bow.
This weekend, mourners will be joined by heads of state in paying their respects to the queen in person.
But the rest of the time, she is there, as she was for 70 years, for her people.
“To me, it’s always been the queen,” says Joan Gogay, 74. “I remember handing out sausage rolls at the coronation.”
She had come from Lincolnshire in eastern England to London at 3:50 a.m. Friday. It was after 10 p.m. when she got into the hall.
“Sometimes you think, ‘Is it worth it?’” says David Fairweather, a friend Ms. Gogay made in the queue. “But when you get into the hall, the word is majesty. It was majestic.”
Those filing past weren’t troubled by time. When a monarch lies in state, time is measured in taps.
Two taps of the sentry’s cane on the ancient stone floor signals a change of guard, ushering in a clink of spurs and swords. The flow of people pouring past stops and stands a little taller.
Two more taps and the departing guards raise their swords before their faces and march away, leaving the candlelit coffin behind them.
The watch changes 20 minutes later and the soldiers, like windup figures in a cuckoo clock, switch position again. Otherwise they are still.
“Everyone gasped,” said Maria Davies, a retired chef from North London, “and then immediately returned to silence.”
Before they leave the ancient hall, many turn for one last look.
Because, said Laura Fairweather from Essex, “It’s never going to happen again.”
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