We turned out of the side street onto Hyde Park Corner. I asked a workman leaning against the scaffolding of the building being renovated: 'Excuse me, how do we get to…'. Just then the Underground disgorged a train full of people who flooded across our path. 'Just follow the fella with the flowers,' said the workman, guessing our intended destination.
I was surprised at how many single fellas with flowers there were, along with couples of all ages and nationalities, families with push chairs, gaggles of young teenagers and children. All heading, that Friday morning, to Buckingham Palace to give tribute to the Queen who had just died. Not the kind of thing I ever envisaged myself joining, but we had found ourselves in the capital at a supremely historical moment.
We had learned of her death as we sat in the lounge of the recenty renovated BAFTA headquarters at 195 Piccadilly the previous evening. The head barman stood, along with his staff, and rang a handbell to gain attention and silence. He made the announcement, then raised a toast to the Queen. Outside, the rain thundered down with the odd flash of lightening adding to the general feeling of a significant moment. Later the same evening, as the rain gathered force, we failed to connect a shortage of taxis with events at Balmoral. Then we learned cab drivers, for a large part of the evening, had been lining up in The Mall, with its approach to the palace, as a sign of respect for the dead monarch.
'We will go early,' said my husband the next morning. For him that usually means 10am. However, according to the news, people had begun to gather at the Palace from 4am. By the time we actually arrived, around 11am, there were thousands already in place. Some were seated on the low surrounding wall of the imposing Victoria Monument. Others walked around laying flowers, to the background murmur of respectful conversations. Everyone appeared to be behaving impeccably (no litter anywhere, for example) as a large contingent of police was being marshalled into position for a change of shift, and to man the barriers going up for when the new King arrived.
Nearby, barricaded off from the loitering crowds, a long line of small, brightly-lit marques housed TV reporters from around the world, going about their business framed against the sombre background of Buckingham Palace, where the Union flag was flying at half mast and would remain until the King arrived, when it would be replaced by the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom.
Leaving The Mall, we walked past historic buildings very securely guarded, which, at first, we failed to identify as St James's Palace, where on Saturday members of the Privy Council (former Prime Minister Gordon Brown prominent among them) gathered to approve the proclamation of Charles as King. Further on, I shouted a warning to a bearded young man with Rasta locks who missed seeing a car turning briskly out of its parking space and heading straight towards him. He leapt aside in time to feel the car brush his back, and waved his flowers in thanks. 'The spirit of the Queen lives on!' he cried – 'Even if I die!'
That night the usual mixed, mostly young crowd in Joe Allen's busy restaurant appeared not in the least bit subdued. How many of them, and of the Friday night throngs crowding the streets, actually remembered the Queen's accession to the throne on that long ago day in 1952? Not many, we thought. We did, of course. And for us, it wasn't just another reign coming to an end, but an era. The era which had shaped and dictated both of our lives.
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