After five days of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, during which King Charles III has travelled the length and breadth of the UK, the procession of the late monarch’s coffin down the Mall on Wednesday was a moment to stop the clocks.
The usually busy streets of central London came to a standstill at 2.22pm as the Queen began her final journey from Buckingham Palace, the route flanked by tens of thousands of members of the public who had queued for hours for a glimpse of the cortege.
After days of making speeches and signing documents, the new King appeared lost in thought as he followed his mother’s coffin, marching steadily to the beat of a funeral drum. His two sons, William, Prince of Wales, and Harry, Duke of Sussex, followed.
For 38 minutes the procession wound its way past London’s landmarks, turning from the Mall through Horse Guards Parade and then into Whitehall, past the Cenotaph before reaching Westminster Hall where the late Queen will now lie in state for four days.
On Monday the 73-year-old King had joined a procession for the Queen along the narrow length of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, but Wednesday’s display of pageantry was of an entirely different order of magnitude, returning the focus of the final period of mourning back to the UK capital.
More than 1,000 soldiers, their weapons reversed and pointing to the ground out of respect for the Queen, marched alongside the coffin, which was placed on a gun carriage drawn by seven black horses.
For those unable to see the procession, its progress was marked once a minute by the firing of a ceremonial artillery gun in neighbouring Hyde Park, and the tolling of Big Ben at Westminster.
Along the Mall, which only three months ago had been filled with jubilant crowds celebrating the Queen’s platinum jubilee, people watched mostly in silence. Some shed tears. Others broke into spontaneous applause.
At a souvenir kiosk off Trafalgar Square, Dave Choo had done brisk business selling white flags bearing an image of the Queen for £10, but he said it was nothing like the jubilee. “It’s not the same,” he added. “People were so happy then. They bought flags with a big smile. Today the faces are sad.”
Those with a good vantage point on the Mall had queued for long hours, many catching dawn trains as they came from all corners of the UK for a chance to be present at the procession.
Asked why she had been moved to make such an effort, Paulette Worsey, a retired school counsellor from Dudley in the West Midlands, said the Queen had always treated her responsibilities seriously and her public with immense respect. “It’s our way of giving a little bit of that respect back,” she added.
Since his mother’s death, the new King has undergone a transformation in the British public’s imagination, starting with a pitch-perfect address to the nation last Friday that blended the political and the personal, including a touching encomium to his “darling mama”.
Polling by YouGov last weekend found the proportion of the British public that think Charles will make a “good king” has doubled, from less than a third in May to almost two-thirds today.
Despite social media zooming in on the King losing his temper with misplaced blotters and leaky fountain pens when signing official documents over the past week, the self-selecting sample of the public on the Mall were quick to defend the new monarch.
“There’s always some that want to nitpick, but he’s only human. He’ll be a good King,” said Catherine Dixon, a 67-year-old retired shopkeeper from Warrington who last attended such an event in 1977, when she came to London for the Queen’s silver jubilee.
It was just after 3pm when the Queen’s coffin, topped with her crown and a wreath composed of lavender, rosemary and pine taken from her castles at Windsor and Balmoral, was laid on the catafalque at Westminster Hall inside the Houses of Parliament.
The King and his wife Camilla, the Queen Consort, stood with heads bowed as Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, held a short service to receive the coffin, reading a passage from the Gospel of St John. “Let not your heart be troubled,” he began.
The King and Queen Consort left shortly after to shouts of “God save the King” from some of the assembled crowd: the final formality before four days of lying in state that will culminate in a state funeral on Monday that will be attended by political leaders and other dignitaries from around the world.
Before then, some 350,000 members of the public are expected to file through Westminster Hall to pay their respects to the Queen, or nearly double the number that queued to do the same with the late Queen Mother in 2002.
The government said it was prepared for the queue for Westminster Hall to stretch up to 10 miles, from the Albert Embankment past the London Eye to Southwark Park in Bermondsey. More than 1,000 officials are on hand to assist people struggling with waiting times of up to 30 hours as they seek to say goodbye to the Queen.
When Westminster Hall opened to the public at 5pm the queue was 2.8-miles long but spirits were high, with people often stopping to applaud and show their appreciation for police officers and members of the army involved in the massive security operation.
People spoke of a sense of community spirit, with groups of strangers forming friendly bonds, and keeping an eye on each other’s belongings as they performed coffee runs or visited one of the 500 toilets laid on for the occasion.
Summer Hickey, a 22 year old hospital receptionist from Farnborough in Hampshire, joined the queue at 7am, having travelled with her father. “I just wanted to pay my respects,” she said. “It’s a once in a lifetime chance to say thank you for everything.”