Greenwich plans big party for millennium: Matthew Brace travels to south-east London to find the significant reality of an imaginary line

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Indy Lifestyle Online
London's tourist board is backing Greenwich's proposal to hold 'the best end-of-millennium party in the universe' to celebrate the dawn of 2000.

The borough has bold plans to stage 14 months of exhibitions, concerts and other major events from December 1999 to January 2001 and has been trying to bolster its claim to be the most appropriate venue for international festivities.

For more than 100 years Greenwich has been the world's time-keeper, after the formation of the Greenwich Meridian, an imaginary line by which time is measured.

Leading lights in the borough are trying to secure funding from the Government's Millennium Commission, a body set up to administer the pounds 1.6bn which will be donated from the National Lottery.

The London Tourist Board and Convention Bureau, responsible for handling at least 17.5 million visitors a year, has pledged its support for the festival, saying Greenwich was 'a suitable focus and location for this to take place'.

Robert Chenery, head of development at the bureau, said yesterday that the area was rich in heritage and was an obvious choice for the festivities. 'It's one of the most significant heritage sites, not only in London but also in the country and, to be honest, there are no similar proposals anywhere in London.'

The area boasts a number of historic monuments including the National Maritime Museum, the Old Royal Observatory and the Cutty Sark.

However, Greenwich does have its rivals. A consortium of the Kensington museums is commissioning work towards capital projects to boost their vision of a futuristic Albertopolis, and another group is trying to nurture development plans for an arts complex to be built alongside the existing South Bank complex.

Neither is planning a festival, but funds are being sought for capital projects which, if accepted by the Commission, could take money away from Greenwich.

Those pushing the Greenwich festival plans say nothing so spectacular will have been seen in the capital since the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Festival of Britain a century later.

The new year celebrations for the night of 31 December 1999 will be a major musical event with concerts and fireworks televised live and broadcast around the world to millions of viewers.

Much activity during the 14-month celebrations will take place on the Greenwich Peninsula, a derelict wasteland forming the eastern wall of the Thames at Docklands, which the council considers a prime site for development.

A millennium clock is planned, which will stand on the line and count down to the new year. Also straddling the Meridian will be a planetarium. The National Maritime Museum stands to gain extra exhibition space in the shape of the Neptune Hall. The Royal Arsenal in Woolwich will be transformed into a heritage site, and a major building for leisure activities will be built on the peninsula.

Greenwich has made a presentation to the Royal Parks Review about using Greenwich Park for some of the festivities. Research carried out on its behalf by Price Waterhouse estimated that celebrations held there could attract 12 million visitors and make a profit of almost pounds 17m.

The council also recently released results of a survey which indicates that even with the minimum of activities going on, more than 3 million extra people will visit. This should help the borough's attempt to gain a below-surface station near the Cutty Sark for passengers using the planned Lewisham extension of the Docklands Light Railway.

The bid is being led by the Greenwich Waterfront Development Partnership, whose steering group includes Greenwich council, the Department of the Environment and the University of Greenwich.

The festival is one of four areas to which the money could be allocated.