People keep calm and carry on queueing to see Queen lying in state | Queen Elizabeth II

The ever-expanding, endlessly patient queue to pay final respects to the Queen was nearing its 5-mile maximum length on Thursday, as yet more people arrived from around the country to join what has become perhaps the defining image of the mourning period.

The culture department said the line to file past the flag-draped coffin in Westminster Hall was taking in new entrants in Bermondsey, on the south side of the River Thames, almost at its final capacity point at nearby Southwark Park.

The waiting time, which had crept up all day, was estimated to exceed nine hours, the update said.

The first full day of the late monarch’s lying in state seemed to vindicate predictions that a huge number of people would want to join in the ceremony, even if waiting times had not yet approached some of the more alarming conjectures of up to 30 hours.

The rain held off in London, but the wristband-wearing line, which stretched west from parliament, over Lambeth Bridge, and then east along the river – assembled under almost permanently grey skies. Nighttime temperatures were expected to drop to 11C by dawn on Friday.

Those who settled in for what would almost certainly be the longest queue of their lives did so with a mixture of camaraderie, determination and, of course, patience. They were aided by a so-far robust infrastructure of portable toilets, cafes opening all hours, and hundreds of volunteer marshals.

“It’s all change for the whole country, whether it’s pound coins, or banknotes, stamps, passports,” said Julie Nicholson, 49, who was queueing with her 11-year-old daughter, Maya, who she had taken out of school for the day.

“I left a message with the teachers,” Nicholson said, picking up her pace as the line lurched ahead. “So hopefully we won’t get in trouble.”

Maya (left) and Julie Nicholson queueing on the South Bank.
Maya (left) and Julie Nicholson. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

The previous night the pair had visited Buckingham Palace, which was still drawing significant crowds, and seen the floral tributes splayed across Green Park. Standing in line to see the Queen’s coffin was the final tribute they wanted to pay. “We’re used to sitting down every Christmas and watching the Queen’s speech,” Nicholson said. “That will never happen again.”

There is a separate system of time-stamped tickets for people with disabilities or other impairments, for whom many hours in a slowly moving line would be impossible. Still, many in the main queue required stoicism, such as Carl Burton, 67, who had packed painkillers in case a back problem flared up.

In a common refrain from those waiting, Burton was clear that he wanted to be there, if not entirely sure what mental message he hoped to convey before the coffin. “Just a thank you, really, for 70 years of service,” he suggested.

Carl Burton.
Carl Burton. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

Downing Street praised the patience and fortitude of those queueing. “It’s not a surprise that such a large number of people want to honour Her Majesty in this way,” Liz Truss’s official spokesman said. “We have large numbers of people on hand, and it’s great to see everyone pitching in together.”

Once inside, mourners were directed in a bunched line down the stone steps at the rear of Westminster Hall, the 11th-century heart of the parliamentary estate. In front of the Queen’s coffin, raised on a platform called a catafalque, and topped with the royal standard and the imperial state crown, people paused for a few seconds, generally giving a nod or a brief bow. Some were obviously upset, being comforted by their companions.

With carpets laid on the stone floor, in the days before the Queen’s funeral on Monday the hall will remain in near constant silence, broken only by a loud tap of a staff every 20 minutes to mark the changing of the ceremonial guard.

Each 10-strong detachment was principally formed from the ancient regiments of the Yeomen of the Guard and the Gentlemen at Arms, with the Royal Company of Archers, who served as the Queen’s bodyguard in Scotland. Among those joining the duties on Thursday were Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, and Alister Jack, the Scotland secretary, who are members of the Royal Company of Archers.

Many other MPs, peers and parliamentary staff, who did not need to join the queue, filed past with their guests.

For those obliged to wait, the queue was an ever-changing phenomenon, with predicted waiting times always uncertain, but some people who joined before dawn on Thursday made it inside in less than five hours.

By early afternoon the line was notably smaller than its later peak, properly beginning some way further west, between Blackfriars and Waterloo bridges.

Standing there, Rafi Raja, a 35-year-old team leader from Bradford, said he had decided to come after his friend, Malkit Bharj, 57, a casting director from east London, intercepted him on his way home from a trip to Tunisia and suggested they queue together.

Malkit Bharj and Rafi Raja.
Malkit Bharj and Rafi Raja. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Raja recounted his particular associations with the late monarch, including the fact that the first engagement gift his mother received after arriving in England from Pakistan was a tea tray bearing the Queen’s face. He even met her, aged nine, when she visited a restaurant in Bradford.

“She was a very nice looking lady, very charismatic and polite,” Raja said. “Someone told me to curtsy but I didn’t know how to do it. She tapped my cheek, which was nice of her. I don’t think the generation that comes next will be as great a person as her.”

Sara Gonzalez-Centeno.
Sara Gonzalez-Centeno. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

Bharj said he had been watching the coverage on TV and, “felt I must go – I felt a pull”. He invited Raja to stay on his couch and accompany him, not least as the friends had not managed to see each other since before the Covid pandemic.

They were joined by Sara Gonzalez-Centeno, 30, and originally from France. Now a London-based documentary film-maker, she was interviewing others in the queue for a project.

“The Queen is very different than France. We chopped their heads off. It’s interesting how everyone can queue for hours to pay homage. It’s very British,” she said.

Rosamund Edwards, a 54-year-old solicitor from London, said she had been waiting for a lull in her workload, and had decided to attend “even if it means working extra” to catch up.

She considered arriving at 6am, but eventually turned up at 10.30am, from which point she anticipated an eight-hour wait.

Edwards said she grew up in the Caribbean and that the monarchy “was part of my consciousness for all my childhood”.

Rosamund Edwards.
Rosamund Edwards. Photograph: Sean Smith/The Guardian

However, as with all things connected to the royal death, while at times it could appear to be a pursuit shared by all, not everyone was as committed.

Molly Hill, 27, who works for an accountancy firm, said she had come to watch the line, rather than participate in it. “You can spot a queuer I think; they have a certain look about them,” she said. “It’s a moment in history and it’s exciting to see how many people want to get involved and pay their respects.

“But I think, at the end of the day, you’re just looking at a coffin and I’ve seen the Queen alive.”

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