The Olympic torch relay entered its final day on Friday amid signs that even the most cynical Londoners have begun to embrace the Games ahead of the opening ceremony later.
An estimated three million people will have taken to the streets of the capital to cheer on the Olympic flame in the past week, bringing the total to about 13 million during its 70-day tour of Britain.
The relay began its final journey at Hampton Court Palace, made famous by Henry VIII, where the torch successfully negotiated the winding hedge maze.
It then boarded the royal barge Gloriana, used in Queen Elizabeth’s celebrations last month to mark her 60 years’ reign, to ride down the River Thames.
The torch is due to arrive at Tower Bridge, which is decked with huge Olympic rings, before reappearing later at the Olympic Stadium in east London for the Opening Ceremony where it will set alight the cauldron to signal the official launch of the Games.
“Are we ready? Are we ready? Yes, we are,” Mayor of London Boris Johnson said to 60,000 cheering people at a concert in the capital’s Hyde Park on Thursday.
The relay has travelled to the four corners of the United Kingdom, taking in palaces, cathedrals and mountains. The torch has also taken to the skies and the airwaves, featuring in an episode of a popular TV soap opera.
Britons also ushered in the day by ringing thousands of bells, big and small, for three minutes.
People were encouraged to ring any kind of bell as part of a piece of art devised by Martin Creed, winner of the Turner prize.
It formed part of a 12-week programme of cultural events celebrating the arts alongside sport.
One of the biggest bells to take part was London’s Big Ben in parliament’s clock tower, the first time it has been rung outside its regular hours since the funeral of King George VI in 1952.
The torch relay seems to have ignited excitement and a sense of pride among the British public despite their noted cynicism and laconic sense of humour. It has provided a better warm-up to the Games than many could have envisaged.
The mood has even been lifted among Londoners, regardless of a series of damaging headlines including a botched private security recruitment drive, public transport failures and a diplomatic faux pas with regards to North Korea’s flag.
“London has taken a long time to get on board, but it has eventually,” Pauline, a 48-year-old IT contractor, said watching the flame outside Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of the monarch.
The palace was one of many landmarks which formed a notable backdrop on the flame’s penultimate day on the road on Thursday.
Other famous stops in the capital included St Paul’s Cathedral and Downing Street, where Prime Minister David Cameron came out to greet the torchbearers.
It was a deliberate policy by organisers to show off the best of Britain in an attempt to lure more visitors, and they were helped by blue skies after a several weeks of rain.
It was a sentiment shared by others.
“I want London to look good because it’s my city,” Pauline added.
The flame has been carried by 8,000 people, mainly celebrities, athletes and ordinary people chosen for their good deeds, on its 8,000-mile journey which began on May 19 in the most southwesterly point of mainland England.-UNS