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▏ Photos and words by Jamie Bellinger
On the afternoon of 8 September 2022, news began to break that Queen Elizabeth II was under medical supervision and that doctors at Balmoral Castle were "concerned" for her health. Hours later, news channels around the world interrupted their daily programming to announce that the monarch had passed away peacefully. The longest reign in British history had ended. The United Kingdom now had a King.
Through the evening, hundreds of stunned Londoners flocked to Buckingham Palace, unsure of what else to do. By 10am the following morning, I was there too.
On the morning of Friday 9 September, the atmosphere at Buckingham Palace was peculiar. Hundreds of Londoners had come to the area outside the Palace gates, joining the countless tourists who would be here on a late-summer morning regardless. But despite the size of this crowd, there was a profound silence. Church bells could be heard far off in the city. A dog barking in St James's Park or the roar of an engine half a mile away carried comfortably over the hushed congregation of people drawn to the home of British monarchy by some unspoken sense of patriotism, quiet mourning or mere curiosity. Most stood silent in contemplation. Many gazed at their phones, monitoring the latest updates. Some cried.
People wanted, perhaps needed, to be a part of this moment.
By mid-morning, the Palace gates were an ocean of flowers. Bunches bought from florists, or single roses. Some with teddy bears attached. Some with hand-written messages. Flags from every country. As the volumes grew, a queue to lay tributes at the gates stretched up Constitution Hill almost to Hyde Park Corner. A designated site was established for bouquets to be left in neighbouring Green Park instead. And still they came. The scent of fresh flowers carried through the parks like perfume.
"...souvenir vendors suddenly had flags with the Queen's portrait draped across their stands of sunglasses and iPhone cases, folds in the fabric still crisp from the boxes they had come in..."
Across the city centre, things looked and felt very different from normal. Mourning for the Queen was mixed with a quietly building sense of excitement for the new monarch, especially when Charles and Camilla arrived back at the Palace for the first time as King and Queen Consort. Hundreds lined the barriers — which had appeared as if spontaneously on every major thoroughfare — to welcome the Royal couple home.
From late on the first day, the machinations of state began to enact a plan of action readied years before. Flagpoles were erected on the iconic avenue of The Mall and in Parliament Square. Union jacks were hoisted. Royal troops paraded in the barracks and, before long, out in the streets too. On Regent Street and in Covent Garden, souvenir vendors suddenly had flags with the Queen's portrait draped across their stands of sunglasses and iPhone cases, folds in the fabric still crisp from the boxes they had come in.
But many shops shut their doors. Some covered their windows. Now was not the time for commercialism. Advertising, too, was put on hold for a while. City-wide, every billboard, every LED screen, every Underground escalator display — from the jumbotrons in Piccadilly Circus to roadside ads out in the sticks — all carried the same name. The same black-and-white photograph. The same two numbers, ninety-six apart, signifying a life.
On Friday 9 September, the first day after the event, soldiers could be seen marching, rehearsing and checking equipment in the various barracks close to Buckingham Palace. But over the weekend, these ceremonial activities moved out onto the streets. Everywhere you looked, soldiers on foot or on horseback were parading in formation. Lucky tourists who had come to the Palace hoping to see the changing of the guard from behind 13-foot railings were treated to something altogether more immediate.
On The Mall and the surrounding streets, you had the sense of walking amongst the moving parts of some great constitutional machine, a machine that had whirred fluently into motion the instant the announcement had come out of Scotland. Every participant knew their place and their role. Suppliers' vans materialised and PA systems were erected at St James's Palace and in the heart of the City of London, where official proclamations of Charles III's ascension were made. Railings, marquees, lighting rigs appeared as if from nowhere and I wondered how much of this stuff was stored somewhere in the Palace itself. Flags were temporarily raised to full-mast for the proclamation ceremonies, but lowered again soon after. Celebrating in a time of mourning is a delicate thing.
An image that will stick with me is that of two young soldiers, sitting on horseback in the quadrangle fronting Wellington Barracks. Emotion was written across their faces in a way that is so rare of military people on duty. It was an expression mirrored on the faces of many service personnel that weekend, at every rank and every station.
The boss was dead and they had every right to be moved.
"...you had the sense of walking amongst the moving parts of some great constitutional machine, a machine that had whirred fluently into motion the instant that announcement had come..."
With news of the Queen's passing, the world media descended on Buckingham Palace literally overnight. Within twenty-four hours, dozens of identical white marquees — familiar from Royal weddings and other state occasions — lined the grassy hemisphere that faces the Palace gates, known as Memorial Garden. From beneath each canopy, the latest updates and live scenes were beamed across the planet.
As the weekend came, the quiet of Friday dissolved away. Thousands descended on the area surrounding the Palace to lay bouquets, pay their tributes or simply see what was going on. The queue to leave flowers stretched throughout St James's Park. The sadness of the occasion began to mix with excitement for what was to come. What had begun as a time of shock and solemnity was beginning to feel more celebratory, almost reminiscent of the London 2012 Olympics.
Sitting on the steps at the foot of the Victoria Memorial on the Friday afternoon, I heard a pop. Two ladies next to me had opened a bottle of champagne. They raised a toast to both the late Queen and the new King.
As the days went on, life picked up pace.
The Queen's death had put the country into a kind of suspension, like when you dive into a swimming pool and the underwater space moves slower than the world above. But by Monday, London had lifted its head above the surface and preparations were underway for the next step in a highly choreographed routine.
The royal Rolls Royce (try saying that after a few gins) ferried the King constantly back and forth between government and royal offices, as he no doubt signed documents, met staff and was briefed on the whirlwind fortnight ahead. Other members of the family, including William and Kate, arrived back in London to great excitement from the crowds. Things moved so fast that often you didn't know there was somebody important coming until the guards stopped what they were doing to salute.
Preparations for the ceremonies chugged on. Tomorrow, on Tuesday 13 September, the Queen's casket would be flown back to the capital accompanied by Princess Anne, before being driven by funeral cortege to the Palace for one final night in her London home.
On the evening of Tuesday 13 September, a Jaguar hearse carrying the coffin of the Queen set off from RAF Northolt. On Hyde Park Corner, as on every street corner, crowds gathered ten-deep at the railings to witness the moment. Many, myself included, waited for five or six hours in the cold and the rain to be at the front. In those long hours I got talking to my pedestrian neighbours: an elderly couple who'd had the sense to bring chairs; a younger couple who had been walking by and happened upon the moment; a young man from Hong Kong who chatted excitedly with me about photography. People found ways to pass the time. We connected and engaged with strangers in the most un-Londonian fashion.
Some in the crowd, self-appointed sentinels, kept an eye on the procession's progress on their phones, sharing regular updates.
A short while after dark, the thundering of a helicopter overhead signalled that the convoy was close, followed shortly by police motorcycle outriders. Officers on duty turned to face the crowds and bowed their heads respectfully. Soldiers and military police took position. The chatter subsided. Silence fell. And then a sleek black Jaguar rounded the corner from the shadow of Wellington Arch and onto Constitution Hill. In the back were the vibrant colours of the Royal Standard, and the body of Queen Elizabeth II.
The car rolled away between the flickering beacons of the Commonwealth Gates which the Queen herself had opened two decades earlier. Heavy silence was broken by a steady, rising wave of spontaneous applause.
All 220 images I took can be explored at the link below.