A week in London like no other

I have never thought of myself as much of a royalist...

But when the news broke that the Queen had passed away on Thursday 8th September 2022, it hit me harder than I expected.

I know people have many thoughts and feelings about the royal family, but regardless of what they might be, the week following her passing was remarkable for so many reasons.

I hope, regardless of your views, these notes might give a little glimpse into London for those who weren’t there.

The announcement came like a full-stop in the middle of a sentence you were enjoying reading. The national anthem interupted whatever was on TV.

Everything stopped.

Over the week, I felt a sense of emptiness, one that perhaps is shared by many. The nation has lost a key ingredient that we can never replace.

From singing along to a Queen medley in Covent Garden to witnessing the impeccable processions from the military, here are a few of my highlights.

A higher order

We live in a world where corporations are often considered the new religions. To some, queuing for trainers or a new phone may be the equivalent of visiting church on a Sunday.

I'm not saying there is anything wrong with that, but the last week was the antithesis of capitalism as religion.

The normal experience of daily city life — the bombardment of advertising, hunger for the latest tech gadget, and the desire to stand out and grab attention faded for a brief moment.

It was a week for people to come together, not purely to mourn, but to celebrate a life. It was a week where total strangers from all over the world shared in a piece of history.

It was as heartwarming as it was historical.

The centre of the world

The world's media surrounding Buckingham Palace

On the Friday evening after the news broke I wandered around London to soak up the atmosphere.

I strolled down the Mall to see members of the public laying flowers, quietly staring up at the gates of Buckingham Palace. Many thinking "we'll never see the Queen stand on that balcony again."

It was only when I reached the palace that I realised how significant this news was to the world, not just the UK.

I was taken aback to find the world's media hunched up in countless marquees surrounding the palace, each with lights on and cameras out, late into the evening, communicating back to newsrooms throughout around the planet about what was happening.

It felt like I was at the centre of the world.

Singing along to Queen in Covent Garden

Crowds gathered in Covent Garden singing along to Queen

I wandered into Covent Garden on that Friday evening.

Street performers are here every day — some juggle swords, some walk on tightropes, some eat fire. Some do all of those at once.

As someone who’s lived in or near London all my life I tend to breeze through — I've been there and seen that many times!

But something was different on that Friday evening. Initially I thought it might be a famous musician playing an impromptu gig, or a celebrity in the crowd. But there were hundreds of people huddled around a guitarist all singing. Singing at the top of their lungs, together, glued to the performance. Some, even, were in tears.

What was going on? How can you describe it?

People feeling emotional, brought together under the roof of a historical building.

People who had never met coming together singing along to songs they all know.

Perhaps it was the Queen, perhaps it was the music of Queen, perhaps it was an outlet after two years of lockdowns where gatherings like this were impossible.

I suspect it was a combination of all of the above, and a little alcohol on a late Friday evening.

Whatever the cause, it was togetherness.

A record breaking week

Perhaps it wasn’t anticipated how much of an outpouring of respect and gratitude the nation would show, but it was a week that broke records.

As far as I’m aware, the queue to see the Queen lying in state was the longest queue for anything, ever. The Queen’s flight from Edinburgh to London was the most tracked flight ever on Flight Radar. And I suspect the funeral was the most watched televised event in history.

The queue

The Queue with St Paul's Cathedral in the background.

The queue in particular was something very special.

Even the tracker to find the end of the queue was special.

Perhaps I will come to regret it, but I never found a chance to join the queue. I managed to find several excuses to walk along past the queue while I was in town though and it told me everything I needed to know about the experience: one of camaraderie, excitement, and British positivity.

People of every age, religion, race, and status were in the queue, huddled up and bracing themselves for a wait that bordered on being measured in days rather than hours.

The journey of the queue was a truly delightful route, and one I’d encourage anyone visiting London to wander along.

Snaking from Westminster over to the other side of the river, and following the Thames past some of our greatest landmarks including St Paul’s Cathedral, Southwark Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, the Tate Modern, and the London Eye.

Just as heartwarming as seeing the people in the queue, seeing the volunteers and police officers lining the route was truly wonderful.

London paying its respects

Piccadilly Circus showing the Queen on the news of her death in September 2022.

Shops, restaurants, pubs, cinemas, billboards, and even skyscrapers paid their respects last week.

A few that I witnessed:

  • Every store on Bond Street had their flags at half mast, and many covered their storefronts.
  • Apple Regent Street turned their large display off, and displayed a black flag outside.
  • Fortnum & Mason covered their world famous window displays, as did every department store I saw including Harrods and Liberty.
  • Digital billboards on bus shelters and at train stations went black with a picture of the Queen.
  • The famous Piccadilly Circus lights showed no ads, just the Queen. And then just “EIIR” on the day of the funeral.
  • The screens in Leicester Square, often used for promoting the latest movie premiere, turned black to feature an image of the Queen.
  • The London Eye stopped turning, the lights switched off.
  • Countless landmarks including The Shard and Tower Bridge turned their lights to purple, the colour of the Queen’s coronation gown.

It wasn’t just the physical tributes and absence of ads. Every station I listened to on the radio stopped playing ads for several days, and played more calming, mournful music. I assume some people may have found the quieter, sombre music to be somewhat saddening but I found it very calming. It encouraged me to take more time to reflect — both on the Queen and on my own life so far.

Police, medics, soldiers, volunteers

Police officers and police horses on Whitehall for the Queen's funeral.

I have never seen so many police in all my life.

I have always admired the seemingly flawless execution of major events in London.

If we know how to do anything in the UK, it's how to put on a show.

One has to assume there was so much security, so many levels of precaution and response prepared and ready to go.

When you consider the representatives from around the world — every major leader and political figure in town — the levels of security must have been more like that of a city under attack.

But London didn’t feel like a battleground, it didn’t feel like a war zone. It felt like a city with a lot of police, and a lot of people milling around. Primarily it felt like a city presenting itself beautifully.

Not only was the security seemingly impeccable, but the visibility of heavily armed and armoured forces was extremely subtle.

Instead, what visitors to the capital got to see were police in their most tasteful, traditional uniforms — the quintessential “bobby” in a tall hat, rather than soldiers ready for combat.

And that’s the police who were there primarily to protect the public and the proceedings. The police and military in the parades and ceremony were, as expected, utterly flawless down to every microscopic detail.


The Queen

I hope this sheds a little light on some of the moments of the week that you may not have caught on TV.

This week make me proud. Proud of the city I feel so lucky to live in. Proud of the people that make up our country. Proud to have a respect for tradition.

Proud to have a royal family.

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