Olympic torch starts its 70-day tour

Old flame comes back from Greece and causes hearts to flutter in Cornwall. Tom Peck reports from a very enthusiastic Truro

Every great journey, so the saying might well go, begins with a short transfer by Sea King helicopter.

It was the sound first, then the sight of the chopper, banking high round Great Britain's south-west corner at 06.59am, that drew the first great whoop from the thousands of people, waiting since the small hours to witness the start of what must surely be the most epic journey ever to set off from Land's End – and there's been a few.

Triple Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie was charged with carrying the torch on its first step, underneath the famous Land's End signpost, where the early-morning wind was blowing hard to sea – at one point putting the torch-level eyebrows of Britain's most successful sailor in grave peril.

Having waited for the end of the football season, the Games organisers have long hoped the Olympic torch, flown in on a golden jet – inside a golden lantern, and ignited by Goldenballs Beckham – would prove the great catalyst for Olympic fervour as it sweeps round every remote corner of the nation over the next 70 days.

So far at least, it has worked. Everywhere the torch went yesterday, past St Michael's Mount, through Falmouth, St Austell, Bodmin, and onward, it was mobbed. At Truro, the crowds were estimated at 30,000. Truro is not a large town. Crowds waving Union Jacks and the black-and-white cross of Cornwall hung over bridges, and lined up four deep on the sides of dual carriageways to cheer as it passed, in a tidal wave of goodwill.

For Ainslie, it was "one of those moments in life where you're almost in shock, comparable to winning a gold medal".

Admittedly, Olympic cynicism was never going to be easy to find among a crowd that had risen at 3.30am, walked miles down closed roads for a little bit of Olympic spirit, particularly, as for almost everyone, it is their only chance.

"It's a good craic isn't it," said Riley Fletcher, from beneath two inches of face paint, in a rare moment's pause from bouncing around on "power stilts", dressed as a kangaroo. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Organisers maintain that they have no "specific intelligence" on planned protests. Two people held placards urging everyone to "Google Holly Greig", a highly disputed story concerning the alleged abuse of a young Scottish girl with cystic fibrosis. The flame's on-foot police escort tackled one man they thought was attempting to intervene in some way. He was duly pushed into a hedge.

A spokesman said: "We can confirm officers from the Met's Olympic Torch Team took action to prevent a man from gaining access to the torchbearer close to Land's End."

The swarm of foreign TV reporters staring down their cameras, and enthusing into their microphones in French, Spanish, Italian, Korean and Japanese, punctuated with the occasional "Land's End" or "Ben Ainslie", was a clear sign that, as of now, the eyes of the world are on Britain.

The Games' opening ceremony director, Danny Boyle, has promised to showcase the British "eccentricity and sense of humour" to the world. The torch relay will be a fitting overture. At Land's End a man dressed as a Beefeater waved a giant plastic matchstick. At St Austell the cream tea world record attempt was held. Down at the Duke of Cornwall pub, the landladies had camped out in the garden overnight to turn the Union Jack-bedecked hog roast every 30 minutes. "We wanted to call it the Olympig," said Debbie Williams. "We were advised against it. It's a bit close to the branding."

The torch's "evening celebrations" took place at Plymouth Hoe, just over the Cornish border in Devon, with music from Labrinth. Today it makes it way to Exeter. The two counties have long enjoyed a rivalry, at times decidedly less than friendly – the pasty wars got going here long before Downing Street got involved. Cornwall has certainly laid down a challenge to its neighbour, and, indeed, to everyone else.

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