There'll be an almighty media rumpus when the Olympictorch finally reaches the capital in a fortnight's time. But the Relay came within 100 metres of London yesterday morning, then turned round and headed quickly north. Hertfordshire Police are ever so glad that London didn't notice.
Day50 of the Torch Relay ran between Chelmsford and Cambridge, wiggling via Essex, Herts, Suffolk and Cambs along the way. One of the destinations was the town of Waltham Cross, seemingly an unlikely selection except that it's the home of the London 2012 Canoe Slalom course, and therefore a visit was essential. Two communities in two separate counties got lucky - Waltham Abbey in Essex and Waltham Cross in Herts - linked by a brief run across the River Lea inbetween. Even better, a lengthy delay was scheduled while junior canoeing champion Zachary Franklin rowed the torch down the white water course. It was therefore dead easy to view the torch once on the Waltham Abbey side, walk, wait, and then view it again in the Cross. So I did.
Thousands were out to line the streets, even though arrival was scheduled before nine o'clock on a Saturday morning. They were mostly assorted residents, in some places several deep, in others conveniently not so. A really mixed cross section I thought, from whole families to single pensioners, and even several blokes in overalls nipping out from work. You'd never describe most of this crowd as athletes, that's for sure, but sport (and a sense of history) had brought them together. "Nice that the rain's held off," they said.
We waited, and then we waited some more. The convoy had been delayed for 20 minutes by a road accident near Chelmsford, so things weren't running with the usual military precision. A bunch of opportunists worked the crowds trying to sell flags for a pound, and "souvenir gold medals" which resembled a chocolate coin on a ribbon. Many people bought a flag, not realising that one of the sponsors would be giving out free ones later. A couple of Coca Cola vehicles formed the advance guard, rattling up early to dispense limited edition bottles from the roadside. Others handed out Coke tambourines, in a cheap ferocious red, carefully limited to one disc per family to maximise brand awareness. Several minutes later a Samsung representative wandered by dishing out "free bam-bams", which are a bit like elongated armbands and make a mild racket when bashed. Kids loved them - parents perhaps a little less so. And we waited, and then we waited some more.
At last a honking in the distance signalled the start of the Relay proper. A succession of Metropolitan Police bikers rode by or parked up, halting the traffic and sealing off road junctions. And then came the first vehicle, a golden BMW, followed by the official Torch Relay bus. Many of the morning's runners were on board, some awaiting their "moment to shine", others already shone. Next up, exhibiting varying degrees of over-excitement, were the event's sponsors. The Coca Cola lorry featured a mini dancefloor at the back where grinning stooges gyrated, whilst colleagues up front attempted to hand out a few more bottles. The Samsung truck featured five pom-pom girls on top, and lackeys down below handing out free Union Jacks which turned out to be all advertising logo on the reverse. The folk from Lloyds TSB were a little more laid back, but continued the freebie deluge by distributing green tassels on sticks to a fortunate few.
After which normal traffic resumed. Some spectators were bemused, a few even turned to walk away. But the interval was merely to smooth the traffic flow before a pair of golden vehicles appeared and the heart of the relay followed. In Station Road our torchbearer was 24 year-old Hannah Agyeman-Prempeh from Basildon. She was supposed to have run yesterday but the torchbearer behind overshot and failed to stop so she missed out. She was clearly loving her replacement slot, even if the community she was running through wasn't her own. Her Met Police escort ran alongside, in grey v-necks, shorts and dark glasses. There was no trouble here, no surging crowds to keep back, and I suspect the Met enjoyed the ease with which this section of the relay completed. [action shot 1]
Waltham Cross High Street, almost an hour later, was rather busier. There was additional bemusement here when a torchbearer wandered by with gold baton unlit, but we swiftly worked out he was merely manoeuvring into position for his leg of the relay. Our actual runner emerged at the roundabout by Lidl, where had he turned left he could have been in London in less than a minute. Instead he turned right, revealing himself as a middle-aged bloke from China, almost certainly a corporate nominee rather than a local community champion. The crowd didn't care and cheered anyway, recording the brief passage on countless phones and cameras. Children up and down the street waved tissue paper torches that they'd made in school last week. Up above, the family who live in the flat above Cash Converters enjoyed their once-in-a-lifetime grandstand view. [action shot 2]
And then as swiftly as it had arrived the torch was gone, its flame disappearing into a fresh section of the crowd further up the street. The council had set up a stage beside the Eleanor Cross, including some bloke in costume masquerading as their badger mascot. But even they couldn't delay the flame for long, and soon it was off, and back on the coach, and up the A10 towards Hertford. Several spectators slunk swiftly back into Wetherspoons to continue their morning's hazy alcoholism. One dad grabbed his sons by the hand and dashed off to their weekly swimming lesson, already a few minutes late. Many others took the opportunity to go shopping, which hopefully proved a financial boost to the beleaguered high street. And thousands took their bottles, flags, tassels and bam-bams home, which was obviously the main point of all those companies sponsoring the event in the first place.
All in all a most successful outing, a continuation of the uplifting goodwill that's greeted the Torch Relay on its tour around the country. It'll be in London in a couple of weekends time, this carefully choreographed logistics exercise, and maybe you'll be out to cheer it too. But you'll be late to the party because the flame's already nudged the capital, just ten miles from the Olympic Stadium, and the people of Waltham Cross did it proud.