On the Thames, a jolly good show

Britain: The arrival of 2000 was a night to both honor and break with tradition.

January 01, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GREENWICH, England -- Big Ben's midnight chimes echoed through the land today as the British marked 2000, hours after the sun set on the empire and oceans they once ruled.

The country that ushered in the 20th century as the world's dominant power, greeted the new year determined to celebrate its historic place as an island-nation of poets, scientists and ordinary people who displayed extraordinary valor during the century's darkest days.

So the British headed to the future by staging one of the world's most extravagant New Year's celebrations under the $1.23 billion Millennium Dome along the Thames River, astride the prime meridian where time is measured.

Beneath the big fabric tent, about 12,000 of the country's movers and shakers gathered, led by Queen Elizabeth II, while at least 2 million revelers congregated along the banks of the Thames to watch a spectacular fireworks display illuminate the cloudy night sky.

It was a night to both celebrate and break traditions. On her way to the dome, the queen met a homeless man who was clutching a can of beer, took a royal launch and used a low-tech torch to ignite a high-tech laser to light a beacon the size of a tennis court.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Tony Blair fired a laser beam across the Thames to officially open the 450-foot-tall Millennium Wheel, which took its first slow turn without any riders aboard because of safety concerns over a passenger capsule.

"From us all here in Britain to people throughout the world, we wish you peace, we wish you prosperity in the new millennium," Blair said before leaving for the dome by a new subway link.

The dome show was an unusual mix of British pomp and pop, the religious and the secular. There was a simple recitation of the Lord's Prayer by Dr. George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a new calypso version of the country's national anthem, "God Save the Queen."

Emotional highlights were provided during a musical program that included the stirring work "Jerusalem," the spiritual "Amazing Grace," and mass singing of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love," a 1960s pop song transformed into a plea for peace at the dawn of 2000.

As the clock counted down on 1999, John Taverner's melodic new choral work, "A New Beginning," echoed through the dome, as choristers' voices faded into Big Ben's chimes that signaled the end of one year, and the start of another. The sound of the old clock was carried by the British Broadcasting Corp.

The capital was jammed with partygoers intent on having a good time. People were shoulder to shoulder, marching up streets closed to private autos. Police were everywhere, on foot and horseback, with reinforcements brought in by bus.

"This is the new year where we'll all make new lives, not new resolutions," said Denise Day, who attended the festivities with her 33-year-old twin sister, Martine, her mother, brother-in-law and two nephews.

The family stood by the base of the Millennium Wheel and marveled at the size of the structure and the enormous crowds that flocked to the riverside opposite Big Ben. They also considered their country's journey through the century, through two world wars and loss of empire.

"It's still a great little Britain," Peter Devlin said.

Wedged with thousands on Westminster Bridge was 73-year-old Thomas Hamilton, a World War II veteran from Northern Ireland who said he was surprised to live to see 2000.

"It's going to be a good year," Hamilton said. "I hope and pray things turn out well and we have peace forever. I've seen too much trouble in my days."

Over at the Spanish Galleon Tavern, established in 1698 in Greenwich, pub owners Shirley and Don Dirrane served hordes of customers who had begun arriving as early as 10 a.m. The couple was considering staying open for 36 straight hours.

"I got here at 8 in the morning and I won't leave until 8 in the morning, at the earliest," Don Dirrane said.

What was the secret to staying on his feet?

"A half a pint of Guinness an hour," he said.

"This New Year's is really different from all the others," he said. "It's the like of which our forefathers never witnessed. We don't know what it was like in the year 1000, but a thousand years from now, I think people will know what it was like for us in 2000."

Amid the crowds that showed up for a concert by the Royal Observatory was Ken Buckfield, a 42-year-old wearing a jester's hat and leading a procession of friends.

"It's not a New Year in the world until it's a New Year here," he said, pointing to a green laser that illuminated the meridian line.

He and the others admitted that they had never seen a New Year like this in Britain in their lives. "We had to do something different," said Bernadette Kelly-Corsini, "instead of just being British."

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