SINGING schoolchildren joined thousands of flag-waving revellers as the Olympic Torch’s Cumbrian odyssey reached Ambleside.
Crowds began gathering from mid-afternoon as anticipation mounted ahead of the historic moment.
Greeted by cheers and applause, torch bearer Tom Wright, 15, of St Bees, passed the Olympic flame onto Windermere’s Stephanie Booth as it reached Borrans Park at around 6.20pm.
The beaming 14-year-old Lakes School pupil, nominated by her head teacher, told the Gazette it was the ‘best moment’ of her life.
“I was quite nervous but very excited,” she said.
“Everyone was really friendly and happy.
"It’s been the best experience.”
Sports-mad Stephanie is a keen swimmer and participant of triathlon and cross-country events and will compete alongside her sister in this weekend’s Great North Swim.
Her proud mother Christine said: “I didn’t sleep last night, I was so excited for her.
"I’m just really unbelieveably proud of her.
“The last week has been a little bit overwhelming.
"She was determined to be involved in the Olympics and this could be the closest she gets.”
Spectators Gordon Allatt and Norma Pearson made the trip from Northampton especially to see the torch.
And Mr Allatt was thrilled when he got to touch it.
“I’ll never wash this hand again,” said an emotional Mr Allatt.
“The Olympics is one of those things that brings the country together and makes us feel good.”
Mrs Pearson added: “I think it’s absolutely great and I shall be watching the Games every day while they're on.”
Children from Ambleside, Hawkshead, Langdale and Coniston primary schools performed a song especially-assembled for the occasion as the torch made its way to Waterhead to board the Bowness-bound vessel, the Tern.
It was helped on its way by a flotilla, christened Brathay’s ‘whalers’, as other boats sounded their horns in tribute.
Marj Waddecar, of Ambleside, who was looking on, said: “I was born in the year Britain last held the Olympics so I thought I ought to come down and see the torch this time.
“It’s good we have got the Olympics and let’s just hope there’s a bit of a spin-off for tourism in areas like this.”
Visitor Julianne Harlow, of Brighton, added: “It’s a really big event that we won’t be seeing in this country again and, rightly or wrongly, a lot of money has been invested in it.”
People were invited to write goodwill messages about the Games for inclusion in an eye-catching yellow ‘balloon tree’.
The Kendal Windows on Art project was led by Pam Williamson, who said: “I have worked with older people, schoolchildren and members of the public, asking them to send their messages to welcome the torch from Ambleside to London and the rest of the world.”
The balloons were given to children after the torch passed through and the messages will now go on display at Ambleside Library before featuring in a special opening ceremony at this year’s Ambleside Sports.
The Borrans Park festivities were organised in part by Barry Porter, of Rufty Tufty’s, Ambleside.
Mr Porter said: “I thought it would be a really positive thing for Ambleside - it really profiles the area.
“Anything that builds up Ambleside is great for local businesses and local people. The kids are really enjoying it.”
An Olympic Torch relay celebration, titled On the Night Shift, presented by Kendal Arts International, takes place on The Glebe, Bowness, tonight.
THE man behind one of Cumbria’s biggest tourist attractions has launched a stinging attack on councillors for blocking his £4 million plan to almost treble its size.
David Gill, who runs the multi -award winning South Lakes Wild Animal Park, at Dalton-in-Furness, has accused Barrow Borough Council of ‘stifling’ entrepreneurial spirit in the Furness area.
He believes his project would – * create 45 new jobs * bring elephants and ‘big cats’ such as jaguars to the park for the first time * improve housing for existing animals * add a children’s farm * revamp visitor facilities, including a large car park and a new steam train to take visitors around the park Mr Gill is frustrated that the council has not ruled on his planning application after a year – although it is minded to reject it.
Now he has asked the Government’s planning inspectorate to intervene and make a decision.
The borough council’s planning committee believes the project would be an over-development of a greenfield site and cause traffic problems for residents of Melton Terrace, off the A590, where the new entrance would be located.
And it says that part of the reason it has taken so long to resolve the matter is because some of the application details were not clear enough.
Mr Gill, 50, who set up the park 17 years ago, said: “I have lived here all my life and these councillors are the most backward-looking people you could come across.
“How a positive project, which would create jobs and bring more people to the area in such desperate economic times as these, could be refused beggars belief.”
He added: “At the moment we have four different car parks and up to 4,000 people a day trying to cross a busy 60mph road to get to the park. With our new plans we could have them all on one piece of land.”
And he warned that the zoo, which is one of Cumbria’s top five visitor attractions, would stagnate if it did not grow.
“In this day and age, if you don’t go forwards you are going backwards.”
The zoo is already home to a variety of animals, including giraffes, rhinos, lions and lemurs and runs two animal conservation charities which aim to protect vulnerable species such as Sumatran tigers.
Mr Gill’s plan has been backed by Cumbria Tourism managing director Ian Stephens, who said: ''The park provides one of many good reasons for visiting the Furness peninsula and has brought important benefits into the area in terms of employment, and tourist expenditure.
“The expansion plans are to be encouraged and have a close fit with the tourism strategy for Cumbria. We're sure that most people will be in favour of bringing increased employment and income to the area and as such we hope that the planning issues can be overcome".
John Millar, chairman of Dalton with Newton Parish Council, which opposed the plans, said councillors were not against expansion or creating jobs but were worried about access.
“We are concerned about traffic flow and the impact this could have on the surrounding rural area,” he said Coun Ann Thomson, chairman of Barrow’s planning committee told the Gazette: “We are not in the business of stifling entrepreneurialism – we wouldn’t dream of doing that.”
She said members had particular concerns that the car park would ‘stand out like a sore thumb’ on the hillside and it was still unclear how it would be masked by landscaping.
Barrow and Furness MP John Woodcock said: “Safety should never be compromised, but I hope these concerns can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.
“The wildlife park is one of this area’s big-pull attractions with lots of potential to expand and create more jobs in the years ahead.”
The final decision will be made by secretary of state for local government and communities Eric Pickles following advice from the planning inspectorate.
A ruling is likely to be made next spring.