LONDON, England — The chimes of Big Ben went silent Wednesday morning as Britain gave its final farewell to Baroness Margaret Thatcher, its first and only female prime minister and one of the most influential political leaders of the 20th century.
By 9 a.m. Wednesday a line of mourners, many in top hats and black tails, had formed outside St. Paul's Cathedral.
Andrew Lockett, a retired Navy commander who served on the HMS Endurance during the Falklands conflict, was among those waiting to enter the cathedral.
"Thatcher came to power at a difficult time. The country was going toward anarchy," Lockett said. "She served up for us a solution that was not always popular. However uncomfortable it was, it had to be done. She had the courage and conviction to do it. She didn't feel she needed to be popular."
Outside the cathedral grounds people had set up camp the night before for a prime view of the funeral cortege, said Chief Inspector Matt Burgess of the City of London Police. Two hours before the service was set to begin there had been no major security incidents, Burgess said.
"The main concern is the weather," he said, indicating the heavy gray sky that drizzled intermittently all morning. "I don't want it to rain."
Thick crowds pressed against the barricades lining the procession route from the Palace of Westminister to St. Paul's. Ludgate Hill, normally a busy central London thoroughfare, was empty of traffic save for the redcoated, bearskinned soldiers awaiting the cortege. Snipers peered down on the crowd from the roof of the Thameslink train station. Onlookers ushered to the front of the barricade an elderly veteran who seemed to be stooped forward toward the weight of the medals pinned to his black coat.
Protesters and journalists from around the world were among those in the crowd. Yet the bulk of people there seemed to be those who had come to pay tribute to the late prime minister, or at least to be part of history.
"When I had my first vote, it was for Maggie Thatcher and the Conservatives in 1979," said Linda Davies. The project manager from outside south London has drifted "somewhere further toward the center" in her politics since then, but wanted to be at the service to pay her respects, and to counter the opposition from protesters.
She distinctly remembers meeting Thatcher in 1979 in South Wales when she was a 19-year-old law student. Thatcher was so tiny, she recalled: "You never think that of a big politician."
Dressed in a well-worn coat, Davies came alone on Wednesday. "Whether you loved her or hated her, you knew where you were with her. That's a breed of politician we don't have nowadays," she said.
"We very rarely — if ever — will do a funeral like this again" for a politican, she said. "I think it's right and proper to nod my head as she goes by."
At Ludgate Circus, a busy central London intersection, a section of maroon- and green-bereted veterans faced off directly across the street from the pre-approved protest section. There, a few hundred demonstrators waved placards critical of Thatcher's legacy ("Rest of us In Poverty," "Tory Scum"). A line of Metropolitan police stood between the demonstrators and the street.
"I had a real problem this morning, 'cause most of my wardrobe is black and I had to find something that isn't black," a red-jacketed man was overheard telling a friend. One woman waved a rainbow flag; a man dressed in a latex devil costume danced through the crowd.
Others had more sober assessments of the Thatcher legacy.
"I'm one of the children who had my milk snatched when I was at school," said Paula Mitchell, 48, referring to the wildly-unpopular cuts to free lunch milk instituted during Thatcher's time as Education Minister. "It's her policies that made me a socialist. I think it's a real travesty that there can be all this public money spent for someone who destroyed the lives of the working class."
Originally from Ireland, Helen Healy, 48, remembers the Northern Ireland hunger strikers who died during Thatcher's premiership. "I thought there was something uniquely callous about that," said Healy, a picture editor who lives in London. "Her conviction politics meant she lacked any kind of empathy."
As the protesters began to cheer, farmer George Martin of Peterborough looked on in disapproval. "You can only be an anarchist in a democracy," he said. "Look at that placard — 'Tory scum.' I wonder how many Tories she knows?"
Martin, who would only divulge that he was born during the reign of King George VI, recalled the Britain of the 1970s as a rough place, with rolling blackouts, "rubbish in the street" and an economy stifled by unions. He voted Conservative in 1979, and was there in a black coat and flat-brimmed hat to pay his respects to "Maggie."
"There's a protest banner there held together by bits of tape. That's how Britain was in 1979 — held together by bits of tape," Martin said.
As the gun carriage bearing Thatcher's flag draped coffin came into view — rolling slowly up Fleet Street behind rows of red-coated guardsmen — mounted police officers and a military band with black-shrouded drums played a funeral dirge. The protesters' screams and whistles grew louder. A veteran across the street shouted for the crowd to join him in a cheer to drown them out.
At the moment the carriage passed Ludgate Circus, the protesters, as planned, turned their backs. Police in riot gear raced in. Someone threw roses — white and yellow — at the coffin. The gun carriage rolled on, bearing a Union Jack-draped casket topped with a bouquet of white flowers and a handwritten card reading "Beloved Mother."
When the carriage had passed, the demonstrators began to chant "What a waste of money!" The crowd dispersed.
"It was emotional, innit?" someone said. "I didn't think it would be."
In front of a congregation that included Queen Elizabeth II, Prime Minister David Cameron, former prime minister Tony Blair and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the Bishop of London said Thatcher was at peace after "the storm of a life led in the heat of political controversy."
In line with Thatcher's own instructions, the service was kept simple, with no eulogy.
Cameron called the proceedings, which were one notch down from the state funeral reserved for British monarchs, a "fitting tribute to a great prime minister respected around the world."
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