LONDON (AP) — Westminster Hall is both a scene of constant movement and the quietest place in London.
The coffin of Queen Elizabeth II on its purple-draped platform — a catafalque — is the fixed point at the center of the vast medieval hall, the oldest part of Britain’s Houses of Parliament. Around it, people flow in two lines in a silent river of humanity.
The first mourners were admitted Wednesday evening, after the queen’s casket was borne to the hall in a solemn procession from Buckingham Palace. The hall will be open round-the-clock until Monday morning, when Elizabeth’s funeral will be held in nearby Westminster Abbey.
It was a chance for ordinary Britons — plus a sprinkling of dignitaries and tourists — to pay last respects to the country’s longest-reigning monarch, who died Sept. 8 at 96 after 70 years on the throne.
The mourners moved at a steady walk, down steps under the great stained-glass window at one end of the hall, then past the flag-draped coffin that’s capped with the diamond-studded Imperial State Crown and a wreath of flowers. There were parents with children, couples hand in hand, veterans with medals clinking on navy blue blazers, lawmakers and members of the House of Lords.
Some wore black dresses or dark suits and ties, others jeans and sneakers. Most had waited many hours to get there, in a line that snaked for several miles along the River Thames, but the journey past the casket took just a few minutes.
From outside came the muffled chatter of everyday life, the occasional siren from the busy streets. Under the soaring hammerbeam roof inside, there was only the muffled sound of shoes on a carpet newly laid over the flagstone floor.
“The overwhelming atmosphere was very somber but beautiful as well,” said Roma Quinn from Kent in southern England. “Her crown was glistening. And it was just really lovely and very respectful.”
The movement stops every 20 minutes so that the ceremonial guard around the coffin can change.
On Wednesday, Beefeaters from the Tower of London and members of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms in magnificent plumed helmets stood guard. When they changed shift, the hall briefly rang with the clanking of breastplates.
After filing past the casket, most mourners paused to look back before going out through the hall’s great oak doors. Some wiped away tears; others bowed their heads or curtseyed before returning to the world outside.
One sank onto a knee and blew a farewell kiss.
Ann Nottle, who came from Wiltshire in western England, said the experience was “absolutely overpowering.”
“They changed the guards over and then we were allowed to walk past the queen’s casket,” she said. “It was so tiny. ”
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