On a quiet hillside, villagers light the spirit of the age

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The Independent Online

The supply of candles at the village stores gave out amid fierce late demand, and the celebratory meal was nothing more exotic than hot pot from the local pub, but there were plenty of compensations in the tiny Cheshire village of Henbury last night. For one, there was the spirit of communion.

The supply of candles at the village stores gave out amid fierce late demand, and the celebratory meal was nothing more exotic than hot pot from the local pub, but there were plenty of compensations in the tiny Cheshire village of Henbury last night. For one, there was the spirit of communion.

Miles from the brash celebrations of Britain's cities, the 150 villagers whose champagne and fireworks fizzed on a chilly hillside said nothing quite like it had visited them before. They heralded in a new age toasting their peculiarly British venue - the Henbury Millennium Green, to which they trooped in a torchlight procession, children and adults murmuring excitedly.

The three-acre green is funded by £25,000 of Millennium Commission money, plus an equal amount raised by villagers, with land provided by local landowner Sebastian de Ferranti. Parts of its three acres are strikingly Dome-like in structure, but the similarities with Greenwich stop there.

Henbury's own undulating green has been shaped by nature, not outside contractors, and the community spirit on which northern England prides itself has nurtured the land with trees, benches, a sweeping gravel path and logs for children to play on. A wildflower meadow will also blossom here, in the shadow of the 150-year-old church of St Thomas, before the millennium is many months old.

As the rest of Britain turned towards mammoth firework displays and distant global celebrations yesterday afternoon, they were still planting spruce trees on the green in preparation for their millennium party. "So many people work around here we never get the chance to meet," said Maureen Wood, who turned up to plant with her husband Derek and a spade for support. Their son, a forestry worker, had donated the trees.

Like all the best celebrations, there had been a last minute hitch; the one-ton sandstone sun dial which will remind Henbury's future generations of how a new millennium dawned did not materialise in time because a vital saw broke at the nearby quarry which is building it.

Villager Sir Francis GrahamSmith, a former director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and Astronomer Royal, who had already been out with his theodolite checking the sun's angle in preparation for the sundial, was unperturbed. After all, he said philosophically, "Sundials don't work at midnight."

And besides, the essential items were all in place - including the coloured tape which, for the disoriented who tumbled out of the Cock Inn to head for the party, marked out their route past the church to the green.

The steel firework launcher which was installed by mid-afternoon also behaved itself last night, thanks in no small part to a Millennium trial-run which took place here last Bonfire Night.

The number of children who congregated for the display surprised many villagers, who had felt that, like many small villages, it was no longer a place for the young. "We seem to have acquired a lot of young people and small children. It must be a demographic wave or something," enthused Sir Francis, one of the five-strong Henbury Millennium Green Trust.

The specific project for the millennial celebrations had been determined democratically. Villagers conducted a survey, which established that a green, rather than the tennis courts or bowling green originally considered, was the preferable way of marking this moment in time.

As midnight loomed, it was a time for satisfied contemplation, and gratitude. "We've a lot to thank the chaps at the Cock Inn for. They provided the meal for the hot-pot supper," said Sir Francis. "What we have as a community is really nice. It's really made a difference."

A pensioner in the Blacksmith's Arms, the other village pub, was less animated - "Bed by 10pm for me," he said - while a barmaid blushed as she admitted to no knowledge of the little al fresco gathering 200 yards away.

But the parish council chairwoman, Ann Cousin,whose husband had apparently stagemanaged much of the event with the help of the Henbury Millennium Celebration Committee, found the positive forces which the 2000 date has brought out in the village irresistible.

"It has brought us together as a community and that counts for so much," she said.

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