Queen Elizabeth death and funeral: 9Honey’s royal reporter Natalie Oliveri shares behind the scenes experience of covering the Queen’s death in the UK | Opinion

For many years, newsrooms around the world had been preparing for the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

In the final period of the monarch’s life, concerns about her health increased after sporadic mobility issues forced multiple last-minute cancellations, while there appeared to be a decline in her overall appearance since the death of her beloved husband in 2021.

At 96, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when. But regardless of how much preparation goes into the planning of what would be the biggest news story of a generation, the reality is always somewhat different.

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The last photo taken of Queen Elizabeth II, two days before her death, at Balmoral Castle on Tuesday September 6. (AP)

The Queen’s grandson-in-law, Mike Tindall, summed it up recently: “You never predict it. A 96-year-old lady, you know, at some point it’s going to happen but you’re never ready for when it does.”

Three weeks on, the death of Queen Elizabeth still seems surreal.

And as 9Honey’s royal reporter, I had the honour and privilege of being able to cover the story, and moment in history, on the ground in the UK.

Here’s how it unfolded for me.

The wake-up call

The week of September 5 was always going to be a big one for the British royal family.

It started with Prince Harry and Meghan’s return to the UK for charity events on the Monday, just three months after the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, and was expected to culminate with Prince William and Catherine’s three children starting their new school on the Thursday.

In between, the Queen would appoint Britain’s new prime minster from Balmoral Castle on Tuesday.

Queen Elizabeth II in the Drawing Room before receiving Liz Truss at Balmoral Castle on September 6. (Getty)

While events proceeded as planned, no-one had expected for Queen Elizabeth to take her last breath two days after she was photographed with Liz Truss.

It was 10.40pm on Thursday September 8, Sydney time, when I got the text that would set me en-route to London.

I had been asleep for about an hour. “Sorry to break your sleep. Queen not well. It’s not looking good.”

It was from my boss and 9Honey’s editor, Shauna Anderson.

The immediate dread that set in was nearly overwhelming had it not been for the surge of adrenaline that I was experiencing half-asleep, yet jolted awake by the call I had been expecting, though hoping wouldn’t actually come for years.

Prince William, Prince Andrew and the Earl and Countess of Wessex arrive at Balmoral Castle on September 8. (Getty)

Yes, the Queen was old and we knew she was suffering mobility issues but now it was getting very, very real.

Buckingham Palace had issued a statement that was unprecedented in its honesty. The palace was usually unwilling to provide a commentary on the Queen’s medical matters, which were seen as private.

“The Queen’s doctors are concerned for Her Majesty’s health,” the palace said.

She was under “medical supervision” and “comfortable”.

Most worryingly, the Queen’s children and grandchildren had rushed to be by her side at Balmoral.

The world’s biggest breaking news story had begun.

By midnight Sydney time, I was packing my suitcase for the UK. I had been mentally packing my bag for months just in case this happened but the speed of the Queen’s decline took me, and so many others, by surprise so I didn’t have one ready to go.

But around 30 minutes later, I was ready to leave.

The Royal Banner of Scotland above Balmoral Castle is flown at half-mast following the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday September 8. (AP)

It was just after 3.30am on Friday (6.30pm London time, Thursday) when Buckingham Palace confirmed Queen Elizabeth II died, with the BBC then making the official announcement on television.

King Charles III issued a statement saying he and the royal family “mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished sovereign and a much-loved mother”.

My flight to London was booked, departing Sydney at 3.40pm that same day.

London mourns

After flying via Fort Worth, in Dallas, I arrived in London just after 10.30am on Saturday.

As I was mid-air, King Charles had given his first live televised address as monarch from Buckingham Palace.

The city I had been to twice before felt different, subdued really. My taxi driver, like so many, was finding the news hard to process. He admitted he had shed a tear or two over the loss of the Queen, sharing a similar sentiment that she was like the world’s grandmother.

A memorial to Queen Elizabeth II in London. (Natalie Oliveri)

Nearly every shop and public landmark had tributes to the Queen in their displays.

The images ranged from the Queen in her youth, official portraits to informal photos. It seemed like everyone wanted to show their respects to Britain’s longest-serving Queen.

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From Heathrow Airport, Piccadilly Circus, The Royal Albert Hall, Marks and Spencer, H&M, TK-Maxx, Tube stations, bus shelters and cafes, it was hard to find a business or place that didn’t have some reference to the monarch’s passing.

A memorial to Queen Elizabeth II in London, at Fortnum & Mason. (Natalie Oliveri)

British retailers famed for their iconic shopfronts, including Fortnum & Mason and Harrods, had blacked-out their windows with paint. This was a city in mourning.

Flag poles had black mourning ribbons attached and flags everywhere were half-mast.

The gates of Kensington Palace, where Diana, Princess of Wales had lived, became a shrine to the Queen.

One of the notes pinned to the black gates was from Malaysia’s royal family, someone else had left a miniature handbag, a symbol that had been become synonymous of the Queen.

The gates of Kensington Palace with floral tributes to Queen Elizabeth II. (Natalie Oliveri)

In the early evening hours after my arrival came the unthinkable. Prince William and Catherine, now the Prince and Princess of Wales, reunited with Prince Harry and Meghan for an impromptu walkabout to thank mourners outside Windsor Castle.

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Having just visited the Diana statue at Kensington Palace where Prince William and Prince Harry had come together just over a year before, I thought it fitting that they were once again united in grief.

That moment would set the tone for the coming days. It was a huge period of change, we had all entered the unknown with many more surprises to come.

The waiting game

I could smell the flowers before I even saw them.

Green Park, close to Buckingham Palace, had transformed into living and growing memorial to the Queen.

Rows and rows of floral tributes, cards and photos snaked their way around trees as mourners slowly made their way through the colourful display, in no rush to lay their bouquets and leave.

Floral tributes to Queen Elizabeth II at Green Park in London. (Natalie Oliveri)

I had seen the scenes on television but nothing had prepared me for how delightful the smell would be – uplifting despite the sadness of the occasion.

There were few tears from those within the park. This was not like when Diana had died in 1997, her life cut short in tragedy at just 36.

READ MORE: ‘I wasn’t prepared for how emotional seeing the Queen’s coffin would be’

While people were sad the Queen had died, most were happy to celebrate her incredible life and legacy and speak about their experiences of her over the decades.

It would be a sentiment I would experience for the next 10 days, until the day of her funeral when the finality of her death would hit home.

Floral tributes to Queen Elizabeth II at Green Park in London. (Natalie Oliveri)

First, the late monarch’s coffin would make its final journey from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall after arriving back in London from Edinburgh on the Monday evening.

I was outside Buckingham Palace, in The Mall, on Tuesday September 13 to witness the procession of the coffin that would be followed by the King and the Queen’s other children and her grandsons Prince William and Prince Harry ahead of the lying-in-state.

A big part of covering the experience, on the ground, meant being amongst the crowds and not in the designated media zones.

Natalie Oliveri on The Mall during Queen Elizabeth’s coffin procession on Wednesday September 14, 2022. (Natalie Oliveri/Getty)

By standing shoulder to shoulder with those who had travelled from all over the UK, and even from across the world, to be part of that moment only then can you get the full experience of what it was like to be there.

But the reality is waiting in the same place for hours and hours on end, in order to keep that prime spot. And when you’re on your own that often means no toilet breaks, no food breaks.

Inside ‘the bunker’

Of course, it was not just me working on this story. Back in Sydney, dozens of equally hard-working colleagues had been at it since news broke of the Queen’s deteriorating condition.

Many worked for days without a break. Because that is the reality of a story of this magnitude. It becomes all consuming.

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In London, myself and two other colleagues who had flown London for the occasion, Tim and Tara, joined our UK-based staff Karishma and Kieran. Days later, we were joined by another of our bosses, Kerri, and as a team we worked out of a hotel in Kensington that Nine had virtually taken over for the fortnight of royal coverage.

The Nine News and 9Honey team in London. (Karishma Sarkari)

We had a war room of sorts, a bunker downstairs where – when not out filing from the road – we would be hard at work on our laptops, liaising with the team back in Australia to ensure every angle of the story was presented thoroughly and accurately.

Televisions were set up broadcasting not only the BBC, ITV and Sky News but, essentially, we had Nine’s own rolling covering on our screens to keep across what was being reported back at home and from the Today Show and news’ live spots outside Buckingham Palace.

Juggling time zones was a constant issue, making sure audiences had the latest information as soon as it came in.

That also meant doing live radio interviews or television crosses via Zoom from my hotel room, often between 11.30pm-2am, and sometimes again at 7am, to suit Australia’s clock.

Scramble to Sandringham

The new Prince and Princess of Wales visited Sandringham on Thursday September 15 to view floral tributes left at the gates of the royal family’s country home and the place where they spend Christmas.

I was on a train from London’s King’s Cross station at 8am, after a last-minute dash to get tickets to Norfolk, a two-hour journey from the capital.

The Prince and Princess of Wales view flowers outside Sandringham House. (WireImage)

With a stop at Cambridge before arriving at King’s Lynn station, where the late Queen would disembark before getting into a car for the final leg to the estate, I was outside the gates along with hundreds of locals.

Crowds were already large but once word had gotten out that Prince William and Catherine would soon make an appearance, numbers swelled.

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Again choosing to stand within the crowd, I jostled for position as close to the barriers as I could get, keenly aware that had my earlier train not have been cancelled I would have had a better spot.

Catherine, the Princess of Wales, speaks to well-wishers outside Sandringham House in Norfolk on Thursday September 15, 2022. (Natalie Oliveri)

But luck was with me and an hour or so later, the Prince and Princess of Wales arrived and after taking time to read and look at the memorials, they started to make their way up and down the line.

Catherine stood less than a metre from where I was and I was able to capture, on camera, her honesty about being moved by the outpouring of grief over the past few days including how her three children were coping.

Getting such a candid moment from a member of the royal family is a reporter’s dream and for me, personally, to see the Princess of Wales so up close at such an emotional time for her and her family was powerful to witness.

9Honey’s Natalie Oliveri at the Norwich Gates outside Sandringham House in King’s Lynn Norfolk, after the visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales on Thursday September 15, 2022. (Natalie Oliveri)

As expected, her natural beauty was even more prominent in person. I will never forget the intensity of Catherine’s hazel eyes, darkly lined by eyeliner and framed by lashings of mascara. And the pearl and diamond earrings she wore, gifted from the late Queen, were even larger than they appear in photographs.

Before leaving Sandringham, I dashed to the church of St Mary Magdalene where the royals attend Christmas mass each year. It was with a twinge of sadness that I stood on the steps where the Queen had for so many years, keenly aware we would never see her at another Christmas again.

The final goodbye

Two nights before the funeral, my colleagues and I went to Tower Bridge at night to see the structure lit up in purple in honour of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Close to the bridge we saw the long queue of people waiting to view the Queen’s coffin lying in state, standing in the cold but cheerful all the same.

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It was strange thinking that just three months before the monarch had been on the balcony of Buckingham Palace marking her historic seven-decade reign.

Tower Bridge lit up in purple for Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee with the line of people waiting to see the coffin lying in state. (Natalie Oliveri)

Though some at the time had said the occasion, especially that final day when she was dressed in vibrant green and surrounded her three heirs, felt like Her Majesty was attending her own funeral such was the celebration of her life at the Jubilee pageant.

On the day of the state funeral, Monday September 19, I was to be at Windsor Castle to cover the final leg of what had been a long journey to the monarch’s final resting place.

My train had left Paddington station at 5.50am and I arrived at Windsor Castle just before 6.30am.

I joined a lengthy procession of people making their way from the station to the Long Walk on foot where, in many hours’ time, the state hearse would pass on its way to St George’s Chapel.

Natalie Oliveri at Windsor Castle just after 630am on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. (Natalie Oliveri)

I was surprised to find much of the four-kilometre avenue already filled with people. Many had camped overnight, others had got there early like me and came ready with picnic blankets and chairs to settle in for what was to be a long day of waiting.

Part of a reporter’s job on the road is writing, filming vision and taking photos and sending back that content for those in the office to push out. That often means writing on the run – while on board planes, trains and from cafes or other public spaces with access to Wi-Fi.

But doing so while out in the field is near impossible when there is no phone service or internet. And that was the reality for my day at Windsor, due to the estimated 100,000 people in the crowd also trying using their phones.

The cortege carrying the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II passes through the Long Walk at Windsor Castle. (Natalie Oliveri)

The hours passed by easily though, again hearing stories from those next to me about why they were there, what the Queen meant to them and their thoughts on the future of the monarchy under King Charles, Camilla and the Wales’.

We watched as the funeral was broadcast on television screens set up down the Long Walk, we bowed our heads and stood in silence as Her Majesty’s coffin was loaded onto the hearse ahead of its arrival at Windsor.

And then the procession reached us and there was silence, apart from the sound of the horses hooves as the party moved through the gates and into the castle for the committal ceremony.

Mourners watch the state hearse of Queen Elizabeth II as it drives up the Long Walk at Windsor Castle. (Getty)

The Queen was finally home at Windsor Castle and it was a fitting end to what had been a monumental farewell to a woman who put her country and subjects above all else.

Inside Westminster Abbey

The rush of the past 10 days meant there was little time to feel personal emotion about the passing of the Queen, even though she had meant a lot to me, too.

But I found myself overcome with sadness and appreciation, and the weight of the entire experience, when I visited Westminster Abbey two days after the state funeral.

It was Wednesday, September 21, and I had the incredible honour of being one of the first 20 members of the public allowed inside the Abbey as it reopened following the Queen’s service.

A photo of Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey which sat at the altar days after the funeral. The same portrait was also at the entrance, where this photo was taken. (Natalie Oliveri)

The visit was strictly reflective only with no photos allowed inside as the Abbey was still observing the official royal mourning period.

The white lilies and floral arrangements used during the Queen’s funeral were still in place and the smell inside was overwhelming in a beautiful way.

At the altar, a table with a black covering held a photo of Queen, wearing pink and her signature pearls. It was when I approached this table and curtsied to the photo that I had to blink away the tears.

READ MORE: Queen welcomed home to Windsor, ending historic reign on a high 

The Dean of Westminster was there to greet us and answer any questions people had about the funeral and the Abbey’s role in the historic event.

It was a very moving and very special experience walking up the nave where, just two days before, 2000 mourners had gathered to farewell Elizabeth II.

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II inside Westminster Abbey on September 19, 2022. (Instagram/Danish Royal Household)

I stood where the closest members of the Queen’s family had sat during the funeral, those chairs now packed away.

Leaving the Abbey, the finality of the Queen’s reign felt that much more real.

The experience of covering Her Majesty’s death has been a privilege like no other and that includes being part of an extraordinary team dedicated to giving the story the respect it deserves.

The reign of King Charles is still very new and he and Buckingham Palace appear to be making every effort to convey a sense of continuity and stability of the monarchy, for that is one of the institution’s greatest strengths.

Hearing God Save the King ring out across the UK for the first time in 70 years has been moving and strange.

And we should all feel privileged, in our own way, to have been part of this moment in history.

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