London sea of flowers deep with personal experience

LONDON — Twenty-five days before the death of Queen Elizabeth, I walked to Buckingham Palace on a long layover in London, halfway through a trek between Winnipeg and Ukraine.

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LONDON — Twenty-five days before the death of Queen Elizabeth, I walked to Buckingham Palace on a long layover in London, halfway through a trek between Winnipeg and Ukraine.

It was a drizzling, dreary sort of day, and there weren’t many tourists. A handful only, snapping selfies at the palace gates and moving on.

It’s surreal to remember that emptiness now, just over a month later, when everything around the palace has changed. It’s overflowing, bursting its banks with humanity, spilling visitors out into the jumble of streets at its margins. It’s the epicentre of the United Kingdom’s 10 days of mourning, moving inexorably to their close.

Every day this week, the scene around Buckingham Palace has become busier. Every day, new barricades have risen, channeling crowds into ever-tighter spaces as the preparations for the queen’s Monday funeral unfold. Every day more people arrive, and every day there are fewer places they’re able to go. But more keep coming, and there are still three days to go.

NATHAN DENETTE / CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Long lines of mourners form and lay flowers as people wait to pay their respect at the gates of Buckingham Palace in London. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press files)

Why are they coming? With no formal programming near the palace Friday, there wasn’t anything in particular to see: there are barricades, media tents, scores upon scores of security guards and police. There are great banks of portable toilets tucked into the parks around the palace. Everything in its place, ready for a historic mourning display.

For now, the visitors who do come walk, and they walk, and they keep walking. They walk for hours, milling across the street from Westminster Hall, where the queen’s casket lies in state, and ambling in a slow-moving crush past Westminster Abbey, where the funeral will take place. They shuffle past souvenir shops already selling memorial mugs.

What visitors to the palace Friday saw, above all, was each other — and the flowers.

Like everything else around these events, the flower-leaving is both spontaneous and managed. Around Buckingham Palace and other royal sites, signs in elegant black-and-white tell visitors where they are asked not to leave flowers and direct them to Green Park, on the palace’s north side, where they can.

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Flowers, cards and photos line Green Park, on the north side of Buckingham Palace.

Following these signs, the human sea shuffles onwards.

At the designated spot in the park, the flowers cover everything in colour. There are more bouquets laid at Green Park than could ever be counted. The flowers criss-cross the trodden grass in long rows, and make spreading pools around the trunks of stately old trees. Tucked amongst the flowers there are notes, and as visitors wander, they pause to read.

There are cards of all sizes, all descriptions. There are cards bought from stores, cards printed on computers, and thousands made by children. Some are from kids who are, perhaps, not quite old enough to know what’s going on.

“To the queen, I hoap you like my handwriting and my writing. I love you,” one card read, in shaky letters.

Many are intimately personal. Many reference other losses in the writer’s life.

“Thank you, Elizabeth our queen. And my dear friend Kate who died on Saturday. Keep her close and show her the way,” reads one small card, tucked into a bed of wilting white and pink blooms.

On a thank-you card: “To our queen, when you get to heaven could you please say hello to Donna my wife, I am sure she will have a cuppa and a marmalade sandwich waiting for you.”

MELISSA MARTIN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

There are cards of all sizes, all descriptions. There are cards bought from stores, cards printed on computers, and thousands of cards made by children.

Along the edge of a photograph of Queen Elizabeth, inside a silver frame: “We will all miss you. Can you please say hello to my Daddy if you see him.”

One woman wrote a long letter and slipped it inside a protective plastic sheath. She thanked the queen, praising her work ethic. It reminded the writer of her beloved husband, she wrote, who died in January after a terminal cancer diagnosis: “I will take comfort in the fact that you are now with your beloved husband Philip, and at peace.”

Some mourners left missives, explaining what they’d learned from the late British monarch.

A woman from China wrote the queen was the reason she decided to move to the United Kingdom, and thinking about Elizabeth gave her strength. Others credited the queen with teaching them “how to build a loving family” or “take care of each other.”

A long letter on butterfly-printed paper credited the queen for “most definitely” shaping elements of the writer’s character, including by her “strength — often in silence,” her humour and her “unwavering sense of duty, of knowing your place and your role and putting everything else behind that.”

The queen “means so much to me,” the writer continued.

“In decades of toil and troubled times, there you were, stoic, steadfast and ever present… It felt as though you were family, familiar and loving and caring.”

Another opened by considering how they’d met the news. “I never anticipated just how devastated I would be when the time came to say goodbye to you, yet here we are!” the letter mused. “In decades of toil and troubled times, there you were, stoic, steadfast and ever present… It felt as though you were family, familiar and loving and caring.”

For two hours, I wandered the flower sea, reading these notes.

Maybe we can understand something about the nature of this grief by the words people leave to a woman who most of the mourners never met, and next to none would have truly known. The words the card-writers left were for her, but they were also for, and about, themselves.

The people they’ve loved, the people they’ve lost. The qualities they admire, the type of person they want to be.

It’s the difference between the Buckingham Palace of a month ago, only lightly peppered by tourists, and the one today, so thronged by people that the grounds can barely contain them all.

They’re there to see history, of course, even in these days when history mostly looks like seeing themselves, and each other, at a moment of change that all lives must meet.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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