To enjoy London's New Year fireworks, anywhere with a decent view of the London Eye will do. There's no need to wait for hours in the drizzle on the Embankment, not if you can find an alternative location outside the security cordon in line of sight. So for the dawn of 2012 I decided to step four miles further back, to one of the best unobstructed views across the capital. To the dark southern slopes of Hampstead Heath. To Parliament Hill.
You wouldn't normally come up here after dark, not unless you were hoping to get mugged, or maybe meet George Michael. But at New Year there's safety in numbers, as a procession of good middle class folk troop up the nearby street and onto the heath. An orange glow guides them forward over the brow of the hill, up to where a couple of benches sit alone in the mud. Best wear something squelch-proof on your feet, especially if it's a mild, wet, sodden New Year's Eve.
Arrive at least half an hour early to get pick of the best space. You'd think the top of the hill would be best, with its fine panorama across London, and that's where the majority of the crowd will stand. But they're misguided. Although the view's almost perfect, a single nearby tower block completely shields the London Eye from view, which rather wrecks the point of being up here. Move slightly east and, oh drat, now there are thick-branched trees in the way. Indeed there's only one thin sliver of hillside from which the complete London Eye can be seen, marked by a wedge of astute spectators growing denser as midnight approaches. That's where I slipped in, but I was amazed by the growing throng further up the hill who perhaps never realised that their substandard view could be bettered.
This being Hampstead, a lot of folk have brought champagne and glasses. They uncork early, because there's a lot of fizz to get through, and sip gently while the Eye pulsates. It's not dark because most people have their phone out, either to check their latest Facebook greetings or to take photos of themselves standing with their friends on a hill. A family walks past clutching four helium balloons that read '1''0''2''2', but which will probably spell something more meaningful when stood in the correct order. Someone launches a Chinese lantern which floats gently into the sky, then sinks gracefully into the middle of the crowd, who thankfully have moved out of the way to avoid being burned. A few distant fireworks explode prematurely. Two bats fly over. Time ticks on.
On the stroke of midnight, the London Eye bursts into flame. My wedge sees the sparkling explosions clearly, while most on Parliament Hill are presumably watching smoke billow out from behind a Camden tower block. It all looks very impressive, if rather miniature, as orchestrated flashes of colour erupt from central London. The crowd cheers in a polite and restrained way, all thousand-ish of them, wishing their close friends a Happy New Year but not venturing good wishes any more communally than that. There is no beery chanting. The police in the van at the top of the hill have an easy job tonight.
About halfway through the distant display, a local resident decides to compete. He's brought his own fireworks, mostly rockets, and he sets them off from a few yards down the hill. For a minute everyone's eyes are on this amateur presentation, partly because it's impossible to miss, but mostly because there's always a nagging worry that a ball of flame might fire headlong into the crowd. Were this a properly organised display we'd be standing fifty yards back behind a safety barrier, but this is a rare chance to be right up close, like this was someone's back garden, and all the better for it. Nobody is accidentally mutilated. In the distance, a million pounds worth of pyrotechnics go unobserved.
Eventually the official display rises to a smoky crescendo, and fades. A subdued chorus of Auld Lang Syne follows, from the better-dressed more grey-haired elements of the Hampstead audience. You'd expect this to be the signal for the crowd to dissipate, and some sections do, but most linger on chatting and drinking because that's what they've come up here to do. For all I know they're still up there, standing around in the mud on the brow of the hill, raising another glass to 2012. Cheers... for what's likely to be the most memorable of New Years.