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Column One: Gushing dignitaries gather to give Queen a light

IT MUST be hard to maintain your dignity when you're a Guardsman of the Queen, you're having a bad bearskin day, you're too big to fit through the automatic sliding door and you have to wave one arm in front of yourself like a blind man to open it in the first place.

But that was the delicate mission given to two of the Army's finest, and tallest, yesterday as the millennium flame made its most bizarre transfer on its progress to the Big Event. The light which began life in Sunderland in May arrived at platform eight of King's Cross Station in London on the 15.43 from Durham.

As the two very large men in red stood at attention, it emerged from the train in the hands of a rather small man in red - Ross Wares, the mayor of Sunderland.

The flame will tomorrow be used by the Queen to light the blue touch paper for the "biggest beacon in the world" at the climax of a nationwide orgy of pyromania. But how the flaming thing got this far is positively baffling. It was paraded through the streets of Sunderland before being used to light a beacon at the Christian Millennium Celebration at the Stadium of Light (geddit), home to Sunderland Football Club.

It was then used to light a miner's lamp, before being taken to the Durham headquarters of the National Union of Mineworkers, where it has remained. Actually, two lamps were lit for caution, which was just as well because one was blown out by a stadium worker.

In the meantime, a number of lights have been cadged from this source to be distributed around the realm for lighting many of the 1,300 beacons that will burst into life on Millennium Eve, according to the organiser, Beacon Millennium.

London will have the Mother of All Beacons. Sponsored by British Gas, the 25-ton monster the height of two double-decker buses and the width of a tennis court will float on a barge near the Tower of London. But this centre-piece will not be lit by the flame. Her Majesty will light a fuse with it that will symbolically activate a laser beam that will fire across the Thames notionally to ignite the beacon. Only it will not. The process will be completed by electronics. "It's theatre," confessed Bruno Peek, of Beacon Millennium.

Never mind. In the background yesterday Eddie Baker, keeper of the miner's lamp flame, explained that the Stadium of Light was built on the birthplace of the Venerable Bede who established the Christian calendar that is ultimately responsible for millennium madness. "It is the birthplace of Christianity in this country," he said.

At least someone seemed to know what was going on.