U.K. prepares to party

You only get the chance to celebrate a new millennium every 1,000 years — and the last time the people of Britain made a real mess of it.

They had an excuse, of course. The Danes were sacking and pillaging the entire country. Moreover, doomsday preachers had so convinced the people the end was at hand that many stopped planting crops and set their animals free, loosing famine on the land.

Not the right time for a party. So this go around, Britain is pulling out all the stops and inviting the world to take part throughout the year 2000.

The millennium officially starts when the clocks in the Greater London borough of Greenwich tick past midnight on Jan. 31, 1999, and not a second sooner. This tiny borough has been ‘the home of time’ since 1884 when the rest of the world agreed the line of longitude running through Greenwich would be the prime meridian — the dividing line between the western and eastern hemispheres, the place where each day ‘begins.’

Consequently, this birthplace of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I on the south bank of the Thames just east of central London has been chosen as the focal point for a year of countrywide celebrations ushering in the third milnnium.

Its centrepiece will be the massive Millennium Dome, expected to cost about $1.9 billion Cdn. Steel girders, 100 metres high, will support a fabric roof covering an area as big as two football stadiums. With a diameter of 360 metres, it will be the largest building of its kind in the world, capable of handling crowds of 50,000 at a time. It’s estimated the Dome will entertain 12 million visitors during the year, 2.4 million of them from foreign lands.

With time as its central theme, the dome will serve as a window to the future, exploring education, health, science and the environment with a flourish designed to out-Disney Disney. In perhaps the most spectacular of its 14 themed areas, for example, you will enter the Body Zone, a towering sculpture of a tenderly embracing couple, and travel through eight storeys of high-tech displays dealing with human evolution.

Media and sports czar Rupert Murdoch has poured $30 million Cdn. into a virtual reality Serious Play Zone, where visitors can beam themselves into a West End musical, a big-league soccer game, or even take on a chess master.

The Living Island will take visitors to a typical British seaside — but, at this one, it won’t be raining.

London-based visitors will reach the dome in a 15-minute ride on the Jubilee line. The largest subway station in Europe, capable of handling 22,000 passengers an hour, is being built at the site.

Meanwhile, some $3.5 billion Cdn. is being lavished on the rest of Britain for projects designed to make it a better place not just to visit but to live in the third millennium. To usher in the year 2000 in style, the Millennium Commission has been given a big chunk of lottery profits to distribute to worthwhile projects. Not everyone who applies gets funding, of course. The commission turned down a man who wanted a millennium wooden leg and also rejected a plan to bury all the electrical lines in the land returning the British countryside to its pristine past.

But seven million British school children are already at work collecting seeds to plant trees across the country, and itÕs a rare town or city that won’t have a new or enhanced art gallery, science museum, community centre or town green. More than 400 historic churches are getting outdoor floodlights to help them greet the millennium and show off their architectural magnificence.

In London, there’s a start-ling millennium project rising on the south bank of the Thames, opposite the Houses of Parliament. The $31 million British Airways Millennium Wheel will be the worldÕs biggest ferris wheel when it opens in mid-1999. It will offer a bird’s-eye view of central London to 1,200 people at a time, seated in 60 glass capsules, each symbolizing the minutes in an hour. At 170 metres high, the wheel will dwarf even Big Ben. Headsets will describe the passing scene as the wheel revolves in a 20-minute cycle.

Elsewhere, many projects will be ready well before the millennium:

  • In Scotland, The Big Idea in Ayrshire traces the history of explosions, Stirling Castle is being restored and a 500-km cycling path developed in Fife.
  • At Doncaster, slag heaps are being turned into the Earth Centre, an eco-park focussing on sustainability of the planet.
  • In County Down, Northern Ireland, the muscle power of 1,000 local people is being used to quarry and erect a 10-metre granite monolith to be known as the Strangford Stone.
The year 2000 will kick-start in Britain with 30,000 people gathering at the Millennium Dome Plaza for a sound and light spectacular beamed around the world by satellite.