School makes way for history as children join the red and white wave on Oxford Street

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The Independent Online

For Callum Hall, aged 12, perched on the shoulders of his father, this was a moment of history that he would remember all his life, whatever it held for him. He could find only one simple word to describe the experience: "Brilliant,'' he said over and over again.

His father, Tony, from Romford, Essex, added: "Well, of course, he should be at school, but you just had to be here, didn't you? He's rugby mad, so I had to bring him. Isn't it fantastic?''

There were thousands of school-age children in the crowd yesterday, although most schools had told pupils that their absence would be construed as truancy.

Geoff Hudson and his wife, Rachel, from Market Harborough in Leicestershire, had brought their children, aged six and seven, after asking their school's permission. Mrs Hudson said of the World Cup win - and her presence at the parade - "It is a once in a lifetime achievement."

We could hear a great roar getting closer and closer, like a huge wave rolling up Oxford Street from Marble Arch. Then suddenly there the buses were, and the wave was breaking around us with an enormous roar and a whirring spray of red and white confetti.

On top of the bus were the grey-suited objects of this frenzy. The England rugby team grinned, waved and returned the applause with as much vigour as it was given. Some spoke animatedly into their mobiles, presumably not asking their mothers to guess where they were.

The crowd went berserk at the sight of them, hanging from every lamppost, window ledge and balcony, clinging to the railings of domes and towers that you never knew existed high above Oxford Street.

The wave carried you in its red and white wash down past Oxford Circus and Regent Street, gathering strength and momentum all the while, in cascades of confetti, toilet rolls and balloons. Outside the Liberty store a smoke machine blew clouds of dry ice and more red and white confetti on to the buses, and champagne was sprayed from windows on to the players who duly opened their own bottles to return the compliment. And as each in turn held the Webb Ellis trophy aloft, it gleamed against the grey winter sky.

It was, said one woman, "Just simply a moment of history - that's all there is to it.'' And she was gone, dragged away in the excitement before you could ask her name. The wave carried us all down to a packed Piccadilly Circus, growing stronger and denser every minute, and amid all the hooters and whistles and cheering and clapping and yelling every few minutes one single sound would rise up and take over: "Swiiiing Looow, Sweeeet, Chariot...''

One did wonder how many knew the second verse, but it seemed a bit churlish to ask.

Finally the wave broke into the sea of red and white that was Trafalgar Square, where many of the fans had been since the previous evening and where you couldn't believe that the singing and cheering could grow any louder. But it did.

At the back, her eyes both gleaming and misty, Shirley Batryn, 60, from Tunbridge Wells, was wrapped in a red and white flag to keep out the chill. "I was told that as a single elderly woman I should not go to Heathrow, and of course like a fool I listened to them and missed it. So that's why I'm here today. I just love rugby and I prefer it to football. I don't go to matches, I just watch it on the TV. I just wanted to come and support them because they did such a wonderful job. It's a wonderful atmosphere.''

Some of the biggest cheers came when Jonny Wilkinson was introduced to the crowd, and when his last-minute drop goal was replayed on the big screen. For a large number of the women present it was Jonny they were there to cheer. "I don't stand a chance, do I?'' said Les Foyster, 42, accompanied by his wife, Mandy, and daughters Stacey, 15, and Lauren, 13, all three of whom had "I love Jonny'' stencilled on each cheek. "He's so fit,'' shrieked Stacey and her mother in unison. Mr Foyster, from Kent, who just had a simple English lion on his cheek, added: "We love rugby. It's a much cleaner, more family-orientated game than football, and you can see how happy and easy-going it is here today.''

Even in the densest of crushes there was no sense of alarm or panic in an atmosphere of overwhelming good humour and celebration. The biggest danger was getting your eye poked by a flag on a stick, and people actually apologised when they stood on your foot.

As the players went off to wash down their champagne with a cup of Her Majesty's tea the crowd began to drift away from Trafalgar Square, although many only as far as the nearest pub. Roger Andrew, a clerical worker from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, leant on the side of a fountain and puffed contentedly on a cigar: "There's been nothing like this before. I remember the World Cup in 1966 but the response was completely different. All I need now is for us to win the cricket World Cup, but I'll probably be long gone by then. This is very specia. I just had to be here.''

Outside Buckingham Palace a hard core of several hundred fans gathered. By the Victorian memorial a large, red-faced, bearded man in an England rugby shirt and surrounded by empty cans delivered one more chorus rising above the traffic: "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot ...''

It was, one knew, not going to be the last chorus of the night.