Neither the rain nor the darkness descending across the U.K. did anything to dissuade the hundreds, possibly thousands, of mourners from making a beeline for Buckingham Palace on Thursday evening. Within hours of Queen Elizabeth II’s death being publicly announced, the streets around the palace were cordoned off to cars (except London’s iconic black cabs, many of whom parked up nearby to pay tribute) and flooded with people of all ages and backgrounds.

Although the Queen died at Balmoral, her home in the Scottish Highlands, Buckingham Palace, as the world-renowned symbol of the British monarchy, immediately and understandably became a focal point for both her subjects and the press.

Opposite the Palace, in the exact spot where just months ago the Queen’s family sat on specially-erected bleachers to watch a concert and parade in honor of her 70-year-long reign, a row of media tents had been hastily assembled, with broadcasters, producers and crew sheltering under them as the rain grew steadily more intense. Along the length of the Mall (the main boulevard leading up to the palace) and dotted throughout the assembling crowds were journalists, presumably from around the world, who stopped passers-by for interviews, asking them what the Queen had meant to them and why they had wanted to pay their respects in person.

A collective sense of anticipation hovered throughout the crowd, as though we thought our monarch might step out onto that famous balcony one last time, to bid her loving – and beloved – subjects farewell before striding, irreversibly, from mortality and into history. But Buckingham Palace remained dark and impervious. With no guidance on how or where to channel their shock and grief in the immediate present (after all, just two days ago the Queen was still on duty, officially appointing her fifteenth Prime Minister) the scene became carnivalesque, as friends embraced, couples kissed and an unofficial brass band struck up a tune of “God Save the Queen,” prompting an impromptu singalong. But for the sea of black umbrellas and sombre faces, it almost felt like a music festival.

As the sun set the throngs grew denser, pushing up against the palace gates to lay flowers, quietly reflect and, yes, snap selfies (this is the social media age, after all). Barriers had been erected and police tried to maintain some crowd control, urging people to lay down their bouquets and go. But almost nobody moved, eager to soak in the truly once-in-a-lifetime moment of the passing of such a historic figure. “She’s been there all of our lives, since we were born,” one man said sadly to his companion. “My grandmother used to love her.”

In many ways the 96-year-old Queen herself was considered grandmother to a nation. But she was also, as one radio host aptly put it, “the living embodiment of the state.” A figurehead of the United Kingdom and a link between past and present. When Princess Elizabeth was born in 1926 television had barely been invented but by the time of her death the scenes outside her London home were being broadcast live around the world from people’s phones.

Now, with the only British monarch much of the world has ever known gone, the U.K. prepares to enter a new era. No doubt the country hopes her successor, King Charles III, will usher it in with as steady a hand as his mother’s.