The park in South East London is nondescript… not one of the big ones, the Royal ones, those used to pageantry and pomp.
We don’t see Southwark Park on the telly. It isn’t where tourists would usually head from the Tube.
Circled by terraced houses, council homes and tower blocks, it rarely plays host to anything.
Yet this week it became our newest national landmark. This the beginning of the end of… The Queue.
This open, windswept space, alongside a kids’ playground and joggers, is now where you come if you want to pay your respects to the Queen.
You have to join this wriggling, writhing, living attraction which has taken on a persona all of its own.
At the very beginning – of the end – stands steward Lokesh Pala. He has posed for 30 selfies in the past hour alone. Yesterday, the 27-year-old was the slightly shy, living embodiment of The Queue, in a bright hi vis jacket.
He was the arriving horde’s first nod that they were in the right place.
By last night, the line was five miles and 24 hours long – yet people still came. It was not just about reaching Westminster Hall, where the late Queen Elizabeth II lies in state.
No matter how much respect was felt for HRH, how high the esteem in which she was held, the queuers slowly realised they were there just as much to be in The Queue as to honour their former Queen.
For a country that loves a queue and which is as renowned around the world for its civilised queueing almost as much as for its royals, what a moment. Somehow The Queue itself has come to embody many of our feelings about this momentous week, when the country has come together.
People from all walks of life are within its twisting, turning barriers, from Hull council estates to Hollywood mansions, of all political
persuasions, of all ages and ethnicities.
Its unifying sense of purpose is alluring. To be in one place, with one aim, together, is comforting and strangely compelling. And what a fine queue it is: steady, dignified, polite, caring… all the qualities Her Majesty held dear. The late Queen herself could not have designed it better.
“Lying-in-State, Queue Starts Here” Lokesh’s handy flag-attached-to-a-backpack reads. He turns round as yet another couple ask him to pose.
“People are really coming,” he shrugs, slightly bemused. “They
really love the Queen.”
At one point, around lunchtime yesterday, people were asked to stay away. The message went out that The Queue would be closed for six hours. Capacity had been reached.
The official advice is that no one should try to join The Queue again until midday today. But no one is paying heed to it.
There’s even a sign saying it’s closed but a woman simply stops, photographs it, and walks past. “It’s just to put us off…we’re not put off, we’ve
travelled,” she mutters. People stream by unchecked. No one attempts to turn anyone away.
Despite this new decree, The Queue remains a welcoming place. It also remains The Place To Be, and Be Seen.
In The Queue, which snakes for around two hours before even exiting the park – indeed, the coveted wristbands don’t come for around a mile later – the atmosphere is jovial. Friendships are immediate.
Harvey Dulay, 53, and his family, from Birmingham, met Barbara Rutter, 68, from near Wolverhampton, at Birmingham’s New Street station.
She was alone. “This is our new family member,” Harvey beams,
gathering her in for a hug. “I don’t know if I’d have carried on on my own, being it’s so long,” Barbara admits.
“You’ll get home safe with us,” Harvey reassures her. “It’s a beautiful queue and beautiful people,” shrieks an excitable Zaida Jardim, 58, from Harrow-on-the-Hill, North London.
She’s high on sausage rolls, which she swapped for cheese rolls with Mary Hopkins, 54, from Essex.
The strangers have been chatting about holidays. Zaida promises to get a bag of nuts out shortly.
Arthur Critchley, 75, and David Haldon, 74, are so deep in
conversation that they’ve lost their respective wife and friend.
Arthur can only offer a Waitrose meal deal, but it’s not about what you’ve got in The Queue. Your company is all people want.
“We’re chatting about the North, where we’re both from, his daughter’s wedding, when we were younger,” says David of his new pal.
Arthur admits he has already
realised that The Queue is a destination in its own right. Even if they never actually get to see the late Queen, it won’t matter too much.
“It’s so pleasant,” he remarks. “Usually, in a queue, it’s about getting there. This is the destination in itself.
“We are all here out of respect and love for this lady… it’s a common purpose. If we don’t get to the end, I’ll be mildly disappointed but I will have enjoyed the effort.”
The word pilgrimage comes up a lot, uttered by all races, those of all religions and none. There’s a sense that the endurance of The Queue in the late Queen’s name is the best way to pay respects.
Neelam Verma, 57, from Essex, says: “We can do this for her. If we turn away later, we have done our best to play our part. This is endurance for her.”
But she and husband Davinder only brought “woollens” so they might not make it overnight, she admits.
Ian Dillon, 53, from Cambridge, is here in his splendid purple wedding kilt with wife Rosemary, 60. She’s so caught up in the sense of history that she’s recording the sounds of The Queue – including, disarmingly, me reporting on it.
“It’s a moment in time,” she says by way of explanation.
Terrence Houlahan, 56, is here on a Penny Farthing bicycle that he rode from Bishop’s Stortford in Hertfordshire. It took him three hours.
The New Yorker feels it adds a sense of Britishness to the occasion.
To be honest, that sense is already here in abundance, with or without a Victorian bike.
It’s apparent not just in the Union Jacks but in the quirk, the flasks of tea, the sarnies, the stoicism.
It’s dawning on most folk that you couldn’t pay a more patriotic tribute to Elizabeth II than queuing for as long as humanly possible with absolute decorum and grit. And Brits do that so well – almost better than we do state pomp.
There are few whoops. That wouldn’t be very British.
Mainly, the atmosphere is gentle, unremarkable, placid, mild… much like the weather. “Any drama yet?” I ask. No, really, none.
The Queue is just getting on with it. Nothing to see here, it shrugs.
Only at the gates, where chunks are released to cross the road, do cheers finally rise from the massed ranks of The Queue.
“Thank you, thank you!” The Queue cries to the stewards. “Hold that traffic… we are coming through!”
But on the other side, the decorum returns.