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Camping on concrete: My 30-hour wait to see Queen's coffin

By Amanda Caroline  •  September 16, 2022  •  15
Kristian Johnson
Image caption,
The BBC's Kristian Johnson joined people who camped out to ensure they made the front of the queue

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to pay their respects to the Queen, as she lies in state over the next four days. BBC journalist Kristian Johnson joined those who camped overnight to ensure they were among the first in - he was 17th in the queue - and made new friends on a drenched night in London.

At 10pm on Tuesday the heavens opened. People who had only met hours before huddled up together. Their umbrellas offered little respite from the rain.

I was one of the lucky ones. My tent, pitched on the cold pavement of London's South Bank, gave me some shelter from the downpour. But even so, after just a few minutes

outside, my jeans were soaked through.

"We've got wet bottoms, but dry feet," said Sheila Morton, who was tucked up under a foil sheet with her friend, Lesley O'Hara.

Journalists had significantly outnumbered people queuing on Monday, when Vanessa Nathakumaran proudly took her spot at the head of the queue. She only carried a bag with her - and she had more than 48 hours left to wait before she could get inside Westminster Hall.

When I joined her on Tuesday lunchtime, I had secured position number 17 in the queue. Michael Darvill, 85, and his daughter Mandy Desmond, 55, were my new neighbours. They had already settled down in camping chairs.

There were no books, no card games and no tablets to keep them occupied, just conversation. It was a theme everyone else seemed to unconsciously follow. No-one was staring at their phone screen and not a single person had plugged their headphones in. There was too much to talk about.

 

By the time the rain - which had fallen as drizzle on Tuesday afternoon - grew stronger and became a deluge, there were about 50 of us in the queue.

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

Yaqub Yousuf, who lives close to nearby Lambeth Bridge, brought endless supplies from his home to make life more comfortable for those in the queue.

"I saw these ladies completely unprepared so I decided to bring five chairs from my flat so they could sit down," he said. "Then I realised they would be soaked all night, so I brought bags and blankets."

A little further along the line, impromptu singalongs of God Save the King broke out and candles were lit to remember the Queen. Others ordered food on Deliveroo.

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

Even in the midst of the torrential rain, Andrew Israels-Swenson continued to swap stories with 85-year-old Truus Nayman. The pair hadn't moved from a wooden bench they had shared since meeting for the first time earlier that day.

Andrew, who flew in from Minnesota on Saturday night, said he felt he had won a "golden ticket" by securing an overnight spot on a bench.

'I'm a royalist at heart'

Truus, originally from the Netherlands, told me she first arrived in England in 1954 - one year after the Queen's coronation. "I'm a little bit of an oldie in this game now," she said, "because my husband and I queued up when [Winston] Churchill died [in 1965]. We did a whole night standing here.

"When Princess Diana died [in 1997], my son and I queued up at Kensington Palace to sign the book of condolences. Then when the Queen Mother died [in 2002], I lined up on my own. I'm a royalist at heart."

I crawled into my tent at 2am, soaked to the skin.

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

"We got wet before 2am and we haven't got dry since," Michael said. "The water went down the back of the chair, so we've been sitting in water."

Monica Farag
Image caption,
Monica Farag was the sixth person in the queue

Mercifully, the rain had stopped by the time the sun started to rise. The shift in weather not only seemed to warm bodies, but also spirits. People sipped coffees and rubbed their bleary eyes as it dawned on them that they were only a few hours away from a historic moment.

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

"I'm so excited, even though I'm lacking sleep," she said. "It's a beautiful experience. This is the highlight of my 36 years in England."

Shortly before lunchtime, I was told to pack away my tent. The crowds behind us had swelled. The night before, the queue had been a neat line of people sat next to one another. Now it was five people wide, as newcomers began jostling for position.

Tempers flared momentarily when someone tried to push into the queue. But finally, at 3pm, we were ushered forward in batches of 20.

Sombre atmosphere

I joined Truus, Andrew, Michael, Mandy and Paul - my neighbours during the night - in a slow procession over Lambeth Bridge as we edged towards Westminster.

Although the rain had long since passed, and the sun was now shining, a sombre atmosphere quickly set in as we snaked past Victoria Tower. Gone were the jokes and the camaraderie of our night under umbrellas.

At 5pm, the doors to Parliament slowly opened and everyone fell completely and utterly silent. For the first time since I joined the queue, there wasn't a single sound.

At the centre of Westminster Hall was the Queen's coffin. A woman behind me choked back tears. Ahead of me, Andrew and Truus walked together, arm-in-arm.

I glanced up at the ceiling, approached the coffin and gave a nod. And in the blink of an eye, it was over. After 30 hours of waiting, the moment in Westminster Hall lasted no longer than 90 seconds.

As I emerged again into the evening sunshine, one of my neighbours from the queue was waiting. "I was there for her final journey," said Paul. "That moment when I bowed my head to that great woman… I would go through it all again for that."