This is my personal experience lining the processional route during Baroness Thatcher’s funeral.
I dislike mornings—with a passion. I will only wake up at 6.30am for something or someone extraordinary, and I did this morning to attend Margaret Thatcher’s funeral in the City. It is actually something I have always planned to do, in fact I have been teased for years about my promise that I would line the streets at her funeral to pay my respects, and when I arrived there about 8.30am this morning I found many more people who had planned to do the same thing.
By that time the sidewalks before St Paul’s Cathedral were all packed—some people had camped out overnight or arrived at the break of dawn—but I found a good viewing point a little further down Ludgate Hill, right across the Old Bailey (the street, not the court).
My impromptu neighbours for the occasion was a group of very nice older people who included a lady who had actually attended Winston Churchill’s funeral in 1965, a little further up the hill. She remembered that it was a very gray day (it was November) and that the atmosphere was very sombre. Although the weather was also a little gray today, and drizzly, the atmosphere was not so sombre but grateful and patriotic, with lots of supporters about.
Royal Marines line up Ludgate Hill up to St Paul’s Cathedral.
I am not sure where the protesters were but there were none in our little portion of the procession route. Instead there were people with small union jacks, and I spent some time talking with my neighbours about how Maggie had restored freedom to the country, and how as a grocer’s daughter she instinctively understood the English people. We also took note that Ludgate Hill, where we were standing, had been the site of so many other historic occasions through the centuries: Churchill’s funeral, Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Wellington’s and Nelson’s funerals, the celebrations after the victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, and of course the old coronation route from the Tower to Westminster Abbey (sadly abandoned).
While we were waiting our little group actually had a little scare because part of the barricade where we were standing had to be eliminated, and people were moved away to make way for the band of the Royal Marines. Luckily we managed to keep our spots and the Marines stationed themselves right by us where they periodically played funeral dirges and ballads, with drums dressed in black, up until the moment the gun carriage arrived.
The band of the Welsh Guards.
Before that, however, there was a lot of processional activity. After the Royal Marines there was a detachment of sailors from the Royal Navy, then the Welsh Guard regimental band (above), and another detachment of Welsh Guards with their guns. Many of us also hoped that Her Majesty’s car would drive our way en route to St Paul’s but as 10.45am approached—the time she was scheduled to arrive at the cathedral—we realized that it probably wasn’t going to happen.
In fact someone said, quite accurately, that Her Majesty would not want to steal the moment by passing before the gun carriage: she is just not that kind of person. We actually realized she had arrived at St Paul’s when we heard cheers up the hill and heard God Save the Queen play in the distance, and saw a few blobs of black walk up the steps towards the central open doors of the cathedral.
The Royal Marines band that immediately preceded Baroness Thatcher’s coffin. Note the black-muffled drums.
We finally knew that the gun carriage bearing Maggie’s coffin was approaching because of spontaneous applause in the distance. Applause was actually the most memorable part of the whole experience. People began to snap pictures as another Royal Marine band appeared playing a funeral march (above), and behind them the King’s Troop guards on their horses. But as soon as the shining gun carriage with the Union Jack-draped coffin moved in front of people, most put their cameras away and began applauding (I tried doing both).
The gun carriage was pulled by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery.
It was actually very emotional to see the coffin move up the hill accompanied by cheers and clapping. The sound of applause moved up the hill like a wave, and most amazingly once it reached the cathedral it seemed, just like a wave, to crash upon the great classical front and then move down again, as applause roared back down to where we were. There was a moment when the entire Ludgate Hill crowd was actually applauding all together. A minute after that someone led a hip hip hooray for Maggie across the street.
At this point we had to strain our necks and eyesights to see the flag-draped coffin move very slowly up the steps of the cathedral (below) but we still experienced the full evocative force of the great muffled bells of St Paul’s tolling slowly and solemnly as Maggie’s remains entered the church. Then the great doors were closed.
Baroness Thatcher’s coffin is carried inside the great central doors of St Paul’s.
Oddly, it was at this point that we heard the only sound of protest, or rather some reaction to it. Someone across the street on the Old Bailey sidewalk, where they were standing 10 deep, had shouted something that I did not catch, but I did hear the many loud boos and response to it and the cry of a very loud voice bellowing “Taake him awaaay!” which must have happened since a few moments later there was a great cheer and applause from that group. And then another hip, hip hooray.
However this last hip-hip hooray might have been for the troops coming back as the military players walked back down the hill to the loud cheers of people who were still filling the street, and the Royal Marine band near us left us also. After bidding goodbye to the people I had been standing with, I tried to make my way up Ludgate Hill which was still full of people and I found a small void among the crowd in front of the cathedral.
A few people were listening to the service going on inside on small radios, and one small group sang aloud the hymns in tune with their radio. Their rendition of I Vow to Thee My Country was actually very good, and it really made you feel closer to the ceremony inside St Paul’s (sadly there were no giant screens outside).
The great doors opened back around midday and, preceded by the great processional cross, Maggie’s coffin slowly appeared into view again. As it was taken down the steps between wings of brightly scarlet-clad Chelsea Pensioners and Household Guards there were more spontaneous applauses (below). Then the great cathedral bells began ringing peals rapidly and loudly as the coffin was placed in the hearse and was driven away, again to more applause. At this point, I even managed to see Her Majesty coming down the steps and speaking to Mrs Thatcher’s family before leaving.
Chelsea Pensioners and the Household Guards lined the steps as Baroness Thatcher’s coffin left St Paul’s.
Then it was all over. The crowd began slowly dispersing, and I really had to leave as my feet were truly killing me, especially from standing on tiptoes to witness this last part (I am not very tall). But I was so glad I attended, to fulfil an old promise I had made, to come and honour in person someone whom I deeply admired and whose beliefs I share—one of the very few people I would sacrifice my morning sleep and wake up for at 6.30 in the morning.