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In the line to see Queen Elizabeth II, mourners make history and friends

LONDON — Hundreds of thousands of mourners from across and beyond the United Kingdom are waiting more than 10 hours on foot for just a few precious seconds with the late Queen Elizabeth II — the only monarch most have ever known, and the last queen of England many are expecting to see in their lifetimes.

On Friday, the line — referred to in England as the queue — to see the queen lying in state at Westminster Hall hit five miles and had to be paused, as wait times stretched towards 24 hours. The separate accessible queue closed permanently the next day after reaching capacity.

The public had been promised long days, chilly nights and sore calves, but still showed up. More than a dozen devotees NPR spoke to in line and at the hall's exit all agreed that the experience, however draining, was well worth it.

"It's been really strange actually, because if you tell a Brit that they're going to be queuing for that long, they'd rather say 'Why?'" laughs military veteran Chris Jay, about 10 and a half hours into her wait. "But obviously the queen [is] such an important part to many people in the U.K. and especially those that have been in the armed forces and served and given the oath of allegiance to the queen. I just felt compelled to come down here."

Some people came from other parts of the U.K. and Europe, others traveled from places as far away as Canada and the U.S. Their precise motivations and feelings about the monarchy varied, but they shared much in common: appreciation for the queen's dedication, eagerness to participate in history and a mix of uncertainty and optimism about the future of the monarchy under King Charles III.

"Everyone was in really high spirits," said Ashleigh Harvey as she finally exited the hall after about 13 hours. "I think so many people were honored to be here for however long it was going to take in the queue, and everyone had accepted that and was more than happy to wait as long as it took just to pay our respects."

The mood was mournful but also joyful, as people gathered together to celebrate the queen. Some dressed for the occasion, like the rugby coach wearing a Union Jack button-up vest and the history buff dressed as a 17th-century royalist, cloak and all. And despite the reported safety issues and crowding concerns, many line-goers bonded with their neighbors and described the shared sense of community as a highlight of their experience.

"I've made friends in this queue — we've exchanged numbers, we've shared food ... there's a group of us who will meet up after this," says 54-year-old Teresa Bhatti. "We've enjoyed every single second of it."

By contrast, the atmosphere inside Westminster Hall was quiet, serene and reverent, people said. That part of the line went by much faster, with less time to process the inevitable flood of emotions. And at least one woman could be seen wiping tears away as she exited the gates.

Ying Shum and Joe Yuen, who moved to the U.K. several months ago, said they were touched by the experience.

"Very meaningful, especially [because] we are from Hong Kong," Shum said. "And I think most of the people who came here are willing to spend 10 hours, 20 hours — doesn't matter, because the queen has already spent 70 years for her service."

The moment is historic but also personal

People praised the queen for her contributions to the country, particularly for doing her duty for so many years and for being a reliable and reassuring presence in both good and bad times.

She has been a feature of millions of peoples' lives, from bank notes to military medals, explains Bryan Hunt, a civil servant in the Home Office who has been volunteering on the line.

Hunt says he briefly met the queen at a garden party several years ago — he vividly remembers how special she made him feel, as well as "her piercing blue eyes and how tiny she was."

Sandra Napier, who decided to join the line while on a pre-planned visit from Northern Ireland, said the queen wasn't only beloved at home but around the world as an ambassador. She was especially moved by the queen's 2012 trip to Northern Ireland, when she shook hands with former IRA commander Martin McGuinness in what Napier described as a significant gesture of reconciliation and peacemaking — something she said the world still needs.

"The world is in a bit of a precarious situation post-COVID, economically, Ukraine-wise, and I think this has really given people a positive focus and coming together," she says of the event.

Some people said they braved the long hours because they wanted to participate in an event that will be remembered for generations to come. Everyone had their reasons, and for some, it was largely emotion.

"I just feel as though I need to be here for her," Bhatti said.

People will miss the queen, but are optimistic about her successor

It's hard for people to imagine England without a queen, now and for the foreseeable future. Many described King Charles III as having large shoes to fill, but say they're reassured that he's been preparing for this responsibility for decades.

Rosie Beddows, who was in line with her husband and son, says she thinks that with Camilla by his side, Charles will take the country forward in a perhaps more environmentally friendly manner. And she thinks William and Kate will make a "stunning" prince and princess of Wales and future leaders.

"I think the monarchy is in a very strong position, and if you just look at this queue, this is what monarchy means to the British public," she says, a comment echoed by many others.

Of course, not all Britons support the institution, which (especially younger) people see as antiquated and colonialist.

Heather Labanya, who is half Zambian, acknowledges there are a lot of views of the monarchy in the U.K. and says she has personally worked to separate the queen from the institution that she represented.

In particular, she mentioned that independence fighters, including the first president of Zambia — a former British colony — had respect for the queen and her role in its democratization.

"I've always felt able to hold the understanding of all these composite parts," she adds. "But the way my parents also raised me was to try to look forward and continue to hold that rich history that we do have as a family, as a culture, with a forward looking at how can we rebuild a future that includes everybody."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.