LONDON // British yachtsman Ben Ainslie, who will bid for his fourth consecutive gold medal this summer, set off yesterday morning as the first of 8,000 torchbearers that will carry the Olympic torch around the country in the lead-up to the summer Games.
As he jauntily walked past, hundreds of spectators held up mobile phones and banged on plastic tambourines handed out by sponsors, creating a roar that shook the hillsides of Land's End - the farthest point west in England.
People got up as early as 4am to watch the flame rise with the sun. "It's iconic, isn't it," said Beverly Wills, 47, who came with her husband and her son. "It's not going to happen again in our lifetime. It brings everyone together." Sir Keith Mills, the deputy chairman of the London 2012 organising committee who has been a key player in the nine-year effort to bring the Games to Britain, said: "This has been an amazing journey. For me, this is the start of the Games, when the whole country starts to get excited."
Later in the day, the torch was handed to 88-year-old Michael Lapage, who won a rowing silver medal when the Olympics were last staged in London, back in 1948.
"The arrival of the Olympic flame on home soil is a magical moment for any host country," said Lord Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the organising committee.
Lord Coe accompanied Princess Anne as she brought the flame back from Greece on a special British Airways flight on Friday night. The footballer David Beckham and the London Mayor Boris Johnson were also on the flight to a naval air station in Cornwall.
The torch's path takes it across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland before its arrival at the main Olympic stadium in the east of London where it will light the cauldron to signal the start of the Games on July 27.
For 35-year-old Ainslie, the prospect of being the first to carry the torch was more nerve-wracking than competing in the Olympics themselves, he said.
"It's something I'll never forget," he said after his 300-metre leg, which he walked to enable as many people as possible to touch the torch. "It was an amazing atmosphere. But it's back to reality tomorrow and training for the Olympics."
So many thousands of people crowded the route as the torch wove its way through Cornwall - a journey that included a brief ride in a helium balloon - that its progress was soon behind schedule.
By last night, though, it had completed its first, 219-kilometre leg to Plymouth Hoe where it stole the show at a music festival headlined by the hip-hop artist Labrinth.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press