The party starts here

With the Millennium approaching, estate agents in Greenwich think houses on the Meridian could be worth pounds 6,000 more than their off-line equivalents.
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The Independent Culture
Priests, Philosophers and prophets have all been called upon to interpret the coming of the new Millennium. Now staff working at the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich are being asked by local householders to settle a more prosaic fin-de-siecle conundrum. Maria Blyzinksy, the Observatory's curator of astronomy, says she has already fielded a dozen enquiries from people wondering if the value of their house is going to increase as the Millennium draws closer.

"Because the Meridian Line passes through the Greenwich Observatory, people seem to think the nearer they are to Greenwich the more desirable their properties will be," says Blyzinsky.

It seems that as we approach the century's end, the idea of living on the line from where all time is measured, and in Greenwich, where the Millennium will officially begin, is firing our pagan imaginations. Of more earthly fascination is the hope that official confirmation that your house lies on the Meridian line will boost its value. "I can't say that, but they might make a quick buck renting it out for a Millennium party," says Blyzinsky. Nevertheless, Millennium experts and local estate agents estimate that such a property could be worth as much as pounds 6,000 more on the open market.

Claire Heathfield, a 23-year-old City stockbroker, had no need to contact the Observatory before she bought her house last year. Greenwich Council had already marked the point at which the Meridian cuts into the house with a plaque on her sitting-room wall. The Property's deeds also note the exact location of the Meridian. On the road outside there is a line of metal studs which follows the path of the Meridian into her house. At night, just in case there was any doubt, a green laser beam traces the Meridian from the Observatory, over the roof of her house and then out across the Thames.

For Claire all this is very important. "I've been looking forward to the Millennium for 10 years. For me, Greenwich is going to be the only place worth being on New Year's Eve 1999. To be living on the Meridian will make it something extra special."

Her party plans are well under way. "I'm drawing up a list of people to sit around my dinner table. I thought we could all paint our faces as clocks and then dance a conga along the line outside the house and through the park to the Observatory." Because the Meridian slices her bed in two, on a particularly restless night she will cross into the east and west hemispheres many times.

Claire Heathfield's house is one of only six or seven Greenwich properties which can lay claim to being on the Meridian. Four are in the same road, Feathers Place. The Heathfield four-bedroom property was built in 1744 by a river merchant. It has original wood panelling throughout and at its core is a perfect example of a Newell wooden spiral staircase. The corkscrew turns of the stairs leading on to compact rooms create the impression of living on a tall ship.

While admiring the property's character, it was its Meridian position which persuaded Claire to stomp up the pounds 180,000 asking price.

Dr Kristen Lippincott, the director of the Millennium Project at the Royal Observatory, predicts the commercial value of owning a Meridian home will increase the closer we get to the Millennium. "The high rents and photo-opportunities must make it worth a few thousand pounds more but I wouldn't spend pounds 200,000 on a house just because it lies on a line. It's not a sound business proposition."

Therefore, Dr Lippincott thinks, there must be something spiritual about people's interest in the Meridian and their desire to live on or near it. "People are fascinated by beginnings and endings. I think the line is one of those tangible constants. People are very interested in man-made structures of time and space." This is reinforced by the success of books like Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and more recently Dava Sobel's bestseller, Longitude, which charts the search for a means of determining a fixed position for Longitude. Dr Lippincott suggests that as the Church becomes less important in many people's lives, they have begun to find more significance in the Meridian Line and other abstract concepts of time and space.

"A lot of people come here just to stand on the line, it's a kind of quasi-religious experience," says Dr Lippincott.

Claire Heathfield, who moved to Greenwich from neighbouring Blackheath, does not describe herself as a particularly religious person nor someone who is searching for the meaning of time.

The only connection, she can think of, between herself and the Meridian is that as a stockbroker dealing in the "emerging-markets" she needs to have a firm grasp of the time zones of the world.

Other people who find themselves walking the Meridian or even considering the purchase of a Meridian property are more likely to have been guided by the subliminal influence of the National Maritime Museum's own marketing campaign which keenly exploits the central role of the Meridian to the Millennium celebrations. It also has responsibility for the Old Royal Observatory. At the end of March the Museum launched its 1,000 day countdown to the Millennium and banners around the Old Observatory proclaim: "Greenwich Meridian 2000. The Millennium STARTS HERE."

The Millennium Exhibition, to be sited on the Greenwich peninsular, is also helping to attract house-buying interest in the area, as is the extension to the Jubilee Line.

Local estate agent Miles Cavey owns Meridian Estates. He says that Greenwich properties are being sold quicker than it takes to write up the details. Even one-bedroomed pounds 40,000 council properties, "unsellable" two years ago, are going for twice that much. Says Cavey: "I had one property in Tunnel Avenue, backing on to the Millennium site, which was gazumped twice." And the owners of a property which went on the market before Greenwich won its battle to host the Millennium Exhibition, who asked for a second valuation, had it marked up substantially, he says.

"Anything a little bit unusual in Greenwich at the moment seems to be worth something," adds Cavey.

One man who will not be taking advantage of any favourable market conditions is 69-year-old Bob Johnson, Claire Heathfield's next door neighbour. His house is also crossed by the Meridian, although the Council hasn't bothered to mark it with a plaque. "I don't know why I didn't get one," he says, "I suppose I must have been away when they dished them out."

Not that he needs a plaque to tell him his house is on the Meridian. He often sees tourists walking along the studded Meridian line across the road and over the last year parking has become a real problem. "I suppose it's going to get worse as we approach the Millennium," he says. More significantly though, in the last year Mr Johnson has received a steady stream of increasingly generous offers being made for his house. They're mostly from passing members of the public who push notes through his letter box asking him what it would take for him to part company with his home. None have tempted Mr Johnson to find a quieter part of town in which to live. "I don't think I'll be going anywhere, money doesn't mean that much to me now. I like living here and if I sold up I'd only have to find somewhere else."

For those looking for a Meridian house to see in the Millennium there are alternatives. The most obvious is to find a house on the Meridian outside Greenwich. The Meridian circles the world and passes through thousands of homes in other parts of the UK. "But," says Ms Blyzinksy, "no-one seems particularly excited about living on the Meridian in Hull or Peashaven."

A more promising fact is that the Greenwich Meridian is not the original one. The first, and arguably real line of Meridian, is 19ft to the east of the one from where we measure time today. The first, called Bradley's Meridian, because the line was taken from where James Bradley, the third Astronomer Royal, set up his telescope, was the accepted Meridian until 1850. The Ordnance Survey, whose first map was published in 1801, still uses it today as their Longitude 0.

Another ploy is to wait until after everyone has celebrated the Millennium in 1999 before attempting to buy a house on the Meridian. Strictly speaking the Millennium doesn't begin until January 1, 2001. But to long distance party planners like Claire Heathfield this is all just a distraction. "Everyone will be celebrating the Millennium on December 31 1999 and I'll be joining them. It doesn't matter what you tell people."

Such conjecture also seems rather pointless to Bob Johnson. He too expects to be celebrating the Millennium in his home on whatever year they call it. He's been celebrating New Year's Eve in his Feathers Place house since 1931 when he was three. "I'd like to climb up the hill to the Observatory with everyone else, but I had a mild stroke in 1994 and I'm not sure I'll make it to the top. I'll probably just invite some friends round and watch the fireworks from here." !