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The queen's queue: Thousands gather in miles-long line to pay their final respects

“It’s our 49th wedding anniversary,” said a woman who lined up with her husband. “We could have had a weekend away.”
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LONDON — While soccer may be the United Kingdom’s national sport, it’s sometimes said that it could just as well be “queuing” — such is the Britons’ willingness to wait in line for long periods without complaining.

That would make this week’s lines of thousands of people waiting to pay tribute to Queen Elizabeth II the equivalent of a national Olympics. Given the opportunity to say goodbye as she lay in state before her funeral Monday, they came in the thousands, united in the need to bear witness to the country’s longest-reigning monarch and express their admiration for a woman many saw as the nation’s grandmother. 

By Thursday evening, the river of humanity waiting to file past the late monarch had reached almost 5 miles.

Peter James, 70, got a train from Sheffield in northern England to London at 4:40 a.m. Thursday (11 p.m. ET Wednesday). He and his wife, Julie, 68, joined the line near London Bridge and made fast progress.

“She was our queen. She served us for 70 years. This is the least we could do,” he said. “We thought the queue would be long, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

Julie added: “It’s our 49th wedding anniversary. We could have had a weekend away, but he had other ideas once the queen had died.”

In Westminster Hall, where the body was taken from Buckingham Palace on Wednesday, a continuous armed guard watched over her coffin, draped in the red, yellow and blue royal standard and the imperial crown. 

People join the queue in London on Sept. 15, 2022, for Queen Elizabeth II's Lying-in-State.
Sometimes, the line, or "queue," moved briskly. Patrick Smith / NBC News

While many were steeled for a grueling overnight vigil by the River Thames, with police warning that mourners could wait up to 30 hours, the line was moving along briskly Thursday, in places a fast walk just short of a jog.

Clad in her Union Jack scarf, Julie Price, 65, of Builth Wells in Wales, about 200 miles from London, had come armed with sandwiches, apples and chocolate cookies — or, in local parlance, biscuits. But as she and her husband approached the end point sooner than expected, they faced the prospect of eating it all or throwing it in the trash.

“I’ve got a pork pie in my pocket ready,” her husband said.

The art of joyful queuing

Debrett’s guide to etiquette says: “Even today, grumbling in a queue is one of the great British joys,” going on to add that “for visitors to the U.K., the art of queuing must seem esoteric at best and infuriating at worst.”

But far from being curmudgeonly, the line for the queen was polite, even joyful. The event was reminiscent of the London Olympics in 2012, when the city was overwhelmed by a feeling of togetherness. Mourners chatted amiably with police officers and the many marshals along the route, comparing reports of wait times and exchanging candy.

Those waiting to bid farewell chatted about experiences and shared sandwiches, took pictures of one another and bonded over being part of an event of global proportions. 

Cafes along the river were doing a roaring trade in cups of tea and bacon sandwiches, while broadcasters from around the world set up their positions along the river and had their pick of historic landmarks in front of which to place their correspondents.

One of the youngest people waiting in line was Bess, who dangled from a baby carrier, curiously surveying the unfamiliar surroundings of Lambeth Pier, directly opposite the Houses of Parliament on the south bank of the River Thames. Born in December, she was named after Elizabeth II.

“She was a wonderful woman. It’s the last time we will be able to say there’s a queen in my lifetime. It’s saying goodbye to someone with all that wisdom,” said Bess’ mom, Lydia Bewley, 37, an actor from Kettering, a market town in the English Midlands. She joined the line at 7:30 a.m. at London Bridge and by 11 a.m. was about to make her way across Lambeth Bridge and into Westminster.

“It sounds cheesy, but it’s a connection to my grandmas, who are gone now. And I want her to know who her name was inspired by,” she said, referring to her daughter.

And far from putting up with the length and the ordeal of the wait, she was actively enjoying it.

“It’s important to queue. It’s part of the process. Someone said there was only an hour left, and I was disappointed. I would prefer it to be two or three hours.”

Michelle Larsen, 42, a stay-at-home-mom from Eugene, Oregon, was here with her mother and her daughter.

People join the queue in London on Sept. 15, 2022, for Queen Elizabeth II's Lying-in-State.
At other times the queue moved more slowly.Patrick Smith / NBC News

She booked the flight and the hotel a week ago after the news broke that the queen was under “medical supervision.” Elizabeth died an hour later.

“I think it’s the history here versus American history. And also she was such an incredible lady. We will always be able to say we were here,” she said while walking past the London Eye. “This is the only person in the world we do this for.

“People have been so nice. The marshals are so helpful. We were prepared for a longer wait. It’s all part of the experience — better than staying at home watching it on TV.”

The line grew throughout the day. By 2 p.m. (10 a.m. ET) it had reached 4.4 miles, according to a government-run YouTube tracker, snaking all the way out of central London and into the southeastern neighborhood of Bermondsey. That raised the prospect that people might wait many more hours, but the mourners were undeterred.

People file past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the Royal Standard with the Imperial State Crown and the Sovereign's orb and scepter, lying in state on the catafalque in Westminster Hall on Sept. 15, 2022, in London.
People file past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II, draped in the royal standard with the imperial state crown and the sovereign's orb and scepter, lying in state Thursday on the catafalque in Westminster Hall in London.Yui Mok / AFP - Getty Images

Niza Ashwood traveled from Gloucestershire, in western England, to London. Originally from Chile, she moved to Britain with her son in 1997. She stopped passersby in Green Park, near Buckingham Palace, and asked: “Where is the queue to see the queen?”

“I’ve lived here for many years, and it’s to show gratitude to her and the country for receiving me with open arms,” she said. “I feel so proud to be half-British. She was a lovely lady.”

The queen visited Chile when Ashwood was just 2 years old in 1968. Her own mother spoke fondly of the visit until she died in January this year, age 94. Like so many others waiting in line, she sees the qualities of her mother reflected in the queen, amplified by her death.

“It’s not a pilgrimage. It’s not sad. It’s part of a journey,” said Julie James, of Sheffield. “I think she will always be a part of our lives.”