You don't have to cram onto the Embankment to see London's New Year fireworks. Anywhere with a decent view of the London Eye will do, be it a nearby bridge, a Lambeth rooftop or a BBC1 TV camera platform. So for the dawn of 2009 I decided to step three miles further back, to one of the best unobstructed views across the capital. To the dark northern slopes above Regent's Park. To Primrose Hill.
A swarm of onlookers covered the entire top of the hill, like an apocalyptic crowd watching the heavens waiting for the end of the world. I couldn't quite get through to the summit, so thick was the mass of people, but the natural amphitheatre afforded everyone a decent line of sight. The crowd was quite young, mostly twenty somethings in unintentionally comic woolly hats, plus a couple of police officers enjoying the easiest New Year shift in the capital. At the foot of the hill someone was setting off intermittent rockets, just to keep everyone entertained, while up top a series of hot-air-filled plastic bags rose slowly upwards into the overcast sky.
The midnight hour approached. We stood facing southwards, waiting for the distant ring of pulsing lights to explode into life. The bunch of friends to my right misjudged their timing somewhat and lit their sparklers 90 seconds early. Several false countdowns were started - not a chance of hearing Big Ben out here in the middle of nowhere. And then... And then... And then, finally, 2009 was heralded by a series of bright flashes on the banks of the Thames. The hilltop erupted with a yelping cheer, just in time for my neighbours' sparklers to splutter out. There was much indiscriminate hugging, and some slightly over-excited cuddling, plus the popping of several bottles of champagne. Happy New Year everybody!
In the distance the Eye erupted, puncturing London's sodium glare with flashes of red and white. From up here in NW3 they only filled a tiny portion of the horizon, but (unlike last year) every pyrotechnic flourish was clearly visible. A number of other unofficial firework displays could also be seen, randomly spluttering from Camden round to Hampstead, while the Primrose Hill rocket man provided further lofty explosions much closer at hand. There was much whooping, and plenty of drinking, and even a hug or two for the Metropolitan Police from some of the merrier youths on the hillside.
For ten minutes we watched, not always intently, as a million quid's worth of gunpowder burnt itself out. And then the main display was over, leaving just the lights of the BT Tower and a cluster of cranes twinkling away in the distance. Most of the crowd stayed put, enjoying the atmosphere and the opportunity to see in 2009 with friends and family. I had nobody to share a plastic beaker with, so I weaved my way slowly down the grassy slope and joined the steady exodus to the gates. My tube train home beckoned, which I reached far quicker than if I'd been stuck in the seething throng on the Embankment. The fireworks may not have looked so spectacular from atop Primrose Hill, but the elevated New Year experience was a whole lot more enjoyable.