Travel: UK - Millennium Park life

Forget the mayhem of Greenwich. How about Lee Valley for your New Year celebrations? By Frank Partridge
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The Independent Culture
Only 267 days to go, and the nation's party animals are beginning to fret. Where can you go to celebrate the arrival of the new millennium without having to spend much of the day finding a parking space and half the night with a heaving throng of bibulous strangers whom you've spent the last few decades trying to avoid?

That is surely the fate awaiting those who journey to Greenwich, the longitudinal centre of the Earth, and thus the "official" birthplace of the new millennium, on 31 December. Yes, the fireworks and lasers will dazzle, the sound system will shake the birds from the trees, and just being there will provide a measure of compensation for the queuing and jostling, but what happens at about 2am on 1 January 2000, when it's time to go home?

Will carriage-loads of Mind Zoned revellers be whisked back to their resting-places on the sleek new Jubilee Line Extension? No - it won't be ready. Will the Docklands Light Railway take the strain? Don't count on it. A quest for an alternative celebration site could be the simple solution.

Begin with one of the new series of Ordnance Survey Explorer maps, which show for the first time the meridian's 250-mile route through England on its way from one Pole to the other. Entering the country near the Humber Estuary, and leaving it near a sewage outflow at Peacehaven in East Sussex, the line passes through some of our bleakest and flattest acres. In the Wolds and the Fens, England is not so much green and pleasant as all-consuming grey, and further south the fields have been sacrificed to the garish yellow of oil-seed rape.

But when the line slips a mile or two east of Ware in Hertfordshire, something magical happens, which is immediately apparent when you open OS Explorer No 174. As if by celestial plan, the meridian's route into London skirts one vast body of water after another, like a string of pearls largely unsullied by a thousand years of creeping urbanisation. Linked by the capital's second river and a series of man-made waterways, these former gravel pits escort the meridian to its spiritual home at Greenwich, forming the centre-piece of one of the capital's little-known treasures, the Lee Valley Regional Park. Conceived in the Sixties as a north-easterly "lung" for London, the park contains as much water as the Norfolk Broads. Its tentacles reach as far south as East India Dock basin on the banks of the Thames - a mere laser-beam's range from the Dome itself, and therefore an ideal viewpoint from which to watch the midnight mayhem.

You can get there from the Lee Valley by simply selecting your mode of conveyance and following the signs to what, for one night at least, can justifiably boast to be the centre of the Earth. Work is well advanced on upgrading the towpath and other links in the chain so that soon it will be possible to walk or cycle or even sail from Stanstead St Margarets, deep in the Home Counties, to one of the former hubs of Empire - 23-and- a-half miles away - uninterrupted by road traffic.

But for lovers of wide open spaces seeking a perching spot on 0'00, the Lee Valley provides at least two more rural alternatives. High above the Essex town of Chingford, a path through the woods leads you to the 300ft- high Pole Hill, where an obelisk commemorates the international agreement of 1884 that put Greenwich at the centre of every atlas. (The French were reluctant to go along with it, preferring Paris as the point of zero longitude, but even they came round to our way of thinking in time.)

Pole Hill, 19 miles from the Dome, is the furthermost point from which you can see it, but being little more than a clearing in the trees, it may lack a little for festive atmosphere. Better to head a few miles further north, into the park itself. The focal point, where one of Britain's 4,000 millennium beacons will be lit, is at Waltham Abbey, a pleasant town just north of the M25, where a church and a market existed some 700 years before anyone thought of dividing the globe into east and west. The line is marked in several places, notably by a colourful gateway into the abbey gardens, depicting the sun, moon and stars.

As you head north of the park's information centre, a subway takes you into Cornmill Meadows, one of only four sanctuaries in Britain for fast- declining dragonflies. Here, a mile-long avenue of trees follows the line, with granite artworks celebrating Travel and Discovery at either end, the two blocks salvaged from London Bridge when it was demolished in 1968.

The park authority is now doing all it can to exploit the geographical coincidence of having the meridian running through its heart. Parishes and towns are being urged to raise money to light beacons, and it's hoped that the valley's section of what will become the 260-mile national Meridian Way will be thick with sponsored walkers. They may spot a rare visitor: the booming, heron-like bittern, between four and seven of which are known to winter in the park's expansive reedbeds.

There are, inevitably, blots on the landscape: nowhere so close to London could avoid them. The Lee Valley is no Peak District, no Glencoe. As you look down from the Hayes Hill Visitor Farm, the foreground is disfigured by a large electricity sub-station; the horizon is criss-crossed by pylons.

But the planners have done all they can to tap the capital's main resource - people - while never quite succumbing to the sprawl itself. If you can't face the prospect of the world's biggest knees-up, take a trip to the quieter pleasures of Waltham Forest, and all the while remain, quite literally, at the very centre of things.

By car, Waltham Abbey and the Lee Valley Countryside Centre lie just off the M25, between junctions 25 and 26. By train, frequent services from London's Liverpool Street station stop at Waltham Cross, Cheshunt, Broxbourne, Rye House and St Margarets - all within the Lee Valley Park.

The new edition of 1:25,000 scale OS Explorer 162 traces the Meridian from east London through Greenwich to Kent and OS Explorer 174 traces the line from Hertfordshire through most of the Lee Valley Park to east London.

For more information call the Lee Valley Information Line (01992 702200) or visit: