Queues, crushes and no champagne

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The Independent Online

One amazing night was what the organisers promised, and what they delivered - a night of such amazing disorganisation that by the time they got to Greenwich, thousands of people who had looked forward to being guests at the Party of the Millennium were wishing they'd stayed at home.

One amazing night was what the organisers promised, and what they delivered - a night of such amazing disorganisation that by the time they got to Greenwich, thousands of people who had looked forward to being guests at the Party of the Millennium were wishing they'd stayed at home.

The show began at Stratford station, with the Crush zone - a hyper-realistic recreation of life in the overcrowded hell of London Underground at rush hour.

"Move back please," said a ticket inspector as hordes of people in evening wear waited to be let through one narrow gate. "There are young children at the front here in danger of being slightly crushed."

We had nowhere to go. Behind us, thousands more were arriving, clogging up every part of the bitterly cold station, pushing the rest forward by weight of numbers.

A privileged few had been sent their passes already, others had to queue for them on the station forecourt - but the two groups became hopelessly confused, and many people stood in line for two hours or more. There was only one security scanner, and a long wait to join special trains running non-stop between Stratford and North Greenwich.

Those of us lucky enough to be at the front of the queues were greeted at the Dome by waiters carrying free champagne on trays and a brass band playing samba music.

Pat Brown and Betty Lindley were already enjoying themselves, having come down to London from north Wales with their husbands, Tom and Harry, who were performing in the show as part of Cor Meibion Fflint, the Fflint Male Voice Choir.

"The men have worked really hard on this, they've been rehearsing every day since Tuesday," said Pat, a credit controller, who had entered the party spirit with a plastic tiara and a scarf decorated with glittering Year 2000 logos. "Us girls have had a whale of time - we went shopping, mostly!"

They both agreed that the Dome was an "overwhelming" spectacle. "We have never seen anything like this before," said Betty, who is retired.

Her friend still had reservations. "It would have been better if they had given us a proper building," said Pat. "Then we could say to the children, 'That's what they built for the millennium'. Something like Sydney Opera House, you know? Instead of this tent. In a couple of years it will all be gone, won't it?"

As she talked, the televised sight of the Prime Minister arriving with his wife prompted a discreet stampede for the main entrance. They could have called this the Presidential zone, as the couple moved speedily through the crowd under a halo of flash bulbs.

Their children were somewhere else in the building, hidden away from the cameras. There were no VIP areas, the organisers had boasted - but Mr Blair had brought his own, in the form of mountainous security guards. One of them walked straight through the slender woman beside me, sending her reeling.

"I was that close to him," she said to her partner, a little in shock. "Those men were so rude. Do you think they're always like that?"

She sought comfort from a passing drinks tray. "Cherie's prettier in the flesh though."

By the time the Hagues arrived, many guests had decided that celebrity spotting was much more fun than learning responsible fiscal management in the Money zone. Drinking and dancing to the band had even greater appeal: in the midst of a crowd a blonde woman who must have been cold in her short red dress was being swung around by the Pearly King of the Old Kent Road.

The rest of us were now stuck in the Dry zone. The bars had been cleared away at ten o'clock so that we could enter the arena - but for more than half an hour the doors to that space remained closed. Guests queued again, sobering up quickly.

Inside, Stephen Fry was the compere. He raised the biggest cheer of the night by joking that the Queen was still stuck at Stratford.

"No, mother, not Stratford-upon-Avon," he said, pretending to be on a mobile phone to home. "The organisers would have to be mad, incompetent and stupid for that . . . actually, you might be right."

Midnight brought a brief burst of "Auld Lang Syne", with little riotous behaviour. People seemed subdued and unsure how to behave in such splendid surroundings, as though they were at a party in a cathedral. Outside, we could hear the fireworks thundering along the Thames and the distant crowds cheering. For all the pomp of the Dome, it felt as though there was a much better party going on elsewhere.

Afterwards, some were in the mood not to sing but to complain, bitterly. Mary Chalaye of Horsham had started the evening at a hotel in Essex with more than a hundred others whose tickets had been provided by a sponsor. They left the hotel in coaches and were at the station punctually, as requested by the organisers. It was chaos.

"People were fainting or in distress because of the sheer amount there," said Mrs Chalaye. "There were little children caught up in the crush, and when the announcer said 'Happy New Year' over the tannoy he was booed."

The Chalaye family were still at Stratford three hours after arriving there, said Mary's daughter-in-law Kaleigh. "It was freezing. None of us could feel our feet. There were people with us who had come from Japan and New York for this and it was just embarrassing."

Just after 10pm, with time running out, they were among those ushered out of the station and onto new coaches, which were driven at speed with a police escort through red lights and under the river to the Dome.

"When we did finally get in here all the bars were closed and there was no food," said Mary Chalaye. "They wouldn't even give us a glass of water, and we hadn't had a drink since half past five. There was a quarter bottle of champagne in the little silver bag they handed us when we eventually went into the main arena. I was so thirsty that I drank it down straight away, which meant I had nothing left to toast the new millennium with at midnight."

Even after the show, with glasses of free champagne lined up in rows on a table, she was close to tears with frustration at having the once-in-a-lifetime occasion ruined.

"We all felt so flat, not in the mood for it at all. If I could have burned this place down I would."

Had the Chalayes not been at the Dome they would have held a family celebration at home in Sussex, with Mary's three-year-old grandson Charlie. "I wish we had. This was supposed to be such a special night, but it has been terrible."

About 1,000 families were given the chance to join VIPs at the Dome after being nominated as local heroes by their community or winning competitions.

The Smiths from Hounslow had been looking forward to it for months, but their big night was also ruined by transport horrors. "It was murder," said Brian Smith, a computer systems manager. "Behind us in the queue at Stratford was Greg Dyke of the BBC, going frantic into his mobile phone. He was absolutely steaming, and so were we."

They arrived at the Dome five hours after setting off and, like the Chalayes, were refused drinks from the closed bars. Instead they were hustled into the arena to see the show, with only the toast-glass of Tesco bubbly to see them through the next hour and a half.

"The edge has been taken off the whole thing," said Brian's son Nick, a college lecturer.

"We didn't have time to see the zones at all. The show was spectacular after midnight, but there wasn't much of a build-up, we didn't really know what was going on until Big Ben suddenly started chiming. The only consolation is that we didn't have to pay to get in, or I would have wanted my money back."

His wife Helena was supposed to be celebrating her birthday. Instead she was wondering how to get home, and picking at cold cajun chicken on one of the plastic trays of canapes we had each been given. "Look at this," she said, totally fed up. "Even the food's crap."