LONDON (Reuters) - It was almost like being at two weddings for guests at the marriage service of Prince William and long-term girlfriend Kate Middleton.
When we entered Westminster Abbey -- ushered in through cool, quiet cloisters that felt a million miles away from the noisy crowds we knew were gathered outside -- those members of the press lucky enough to have an admission card met a surprising sight.
Most of us expected to see row upon row of formally dressed guests, sitting quietly in their seats, waiting patiently for the ceremony to start.
Instead, the atmosphere was like a garden party. Groups of guests chatted in the aisles, surrounded by huge trees taken from the royal gardens which made the centre of the abbey feel more like a French boulevard than a church.
Light glittered off rows of chandeliers and off enormous stained glass windows. It was surprisingly warm.
I had expected a building that has witnessed royal coronations for nearly a thousand years to be chilly, drafty - even damp. Instead, the air felt soft and cosy.
We walked along the plush red carpet that Kate and William would later tread as husband and wife.
Everyone chatted amiably. William and Kate’s friends and family mingled with a broad range of guests that included royalty from around the world, global celebrities like Elton John and David Beckham, and shopkeepers from Middleton’s hometown.
I met the partner of one of Middleton’s uncles as we queued for the bathroom.
“The word surreal doesn’t begin to describe it,” Leah Lowinger said.
We were all strangely cocooned in the abbey. Only during pauses in the music could you hear the faint cheer of the crowd or the distant peal of the abbey’s bells. There were no Union Jacks, no waving crowds, just a sea of colourful hats.
Only one screen in the abbey -- that closest to where we journalists were seated in Poets’ Corner -- was showing the goings-on outside, and the ambassadors and foreign dignitaries seated near us craned their heads for a peek.
Like most people, we -- and they -- could barely see anything of what was happening in the abbey until the service began when the other screens, which until then showed a still picture of flowers, began broadcasting the service.
Guests peered out from between feathers, scrolls and hat brims to try to see what was going on.
As soon as Prince William arrived, the mood shifted. The informal atmosphere gave way to one of intense seriousness -- it was almost as though the entire room was holding its breath.
The abbey became still and silent. The sweet, fresh scent of lilies of the valley, planted in containers throughout the abbey, wafted through the air.
Suddenly everyone was much more restrained. Even the singing felt cautious -- although I gamely tried my best with the hymns.
There was no chatter, no real moments of levity. It all felt incredibly grand, but also a little sombre -- perhaps because it was so hard to see or hear the couple, or because of the formality of the occasion.
Although I have been to many weddings in churches, this was the most overtly religious and formal of any I have attended, and this gave it a strangely impersonal air. Or maybe that stems from not knowing the couple and being with hundreds of others in a similar position.
Robbed of much of the ability to see the couple or speakers directly, and with no end-of-service kiss or drama, it will be the smell of the flowers -- and the fabulous, goosepimple-inducing fanfares that I will remember most.
As one guest said as we were leaving the Abbey: “As a country we do know how to do ceremonies.”
Editing by Paul Casciato