Athens: The Olympic flame was heading to Britain from a rainswept Athens on Friday to light a 70-day torch relay leading to the opening of the Games in London on July 27.  

Former England soccer captain David Beckham, Princess Anne and London Games chairman Seb Coe were among its flying companions on a golden-liveried Airbus - the 'Firefly' - officially listed as Flight 2012.   

So too was London's recently re-elected mayor Boris Johnson, his unruly mane of blond hair trimmed for the occasion, and sports and Olympics minister Hugh Robertson.   

All will be hoping that the flame, lit from the rays of the sun among the ruins of ancient Olympia last week, lights a touch paper for popular enthusiasm to explode in coming weeks.   

"When the flame arrives and the torch relay starts to get under way, that is a physical moment in terms of the process towards the Games," the Princess, who formally received the flame at a ceremony on Thursday, told the BBC.   

"Certainly in Canada (for the 2010 Vancouver Games) they were amazed by the effect that that had and I think that may well be true for Britain as well."   

Beckham Role   

The plane was due to land at the naval air station in Culdrose, in the windswept tip of south-west England, at around 1930 local time (1830 GMT).   

The Princess, an Olympian herself and president of the British Olympic Association, will disembark with the flame in a  small protective lantern for Beckham to then light a golden torch and a cauldron.   

"To be travelling back with the flame tonight, and to be lighting it, is something very special. Something that I am going to cherish for many years," Beckham told reporters.   

The relay, with triple Olympic gold medal winning yachtsman Ben Ainslie leading off for the first leg of the torch's 8,000 mile journey in the hands of 8,000 people, starts from Land's End on Saturday.   

The torch will visit all four nations in the United Kingdom - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - and also make a trip to the Irish Republic for a day in Dublin.   

On its travels, it will be transported up mountains and across seas and lakes by a variety of transports ranging from hot air balloons, motorcycle sidecar, tram and train.   

It will pass the monumental Stonehenge and climb the heights of Mount Snowdon.   

Friday's flight, with the flame in four lanterns in pride of place on seats 1A and 1B, followed a formal handover in a rainswept Panathenaic stadium, scene of the first modern Olympics in 1896.   

Coe, a double 1,500 metres gold medallist, said the arrival of the flame in Britain was a massive moment.   

"It does have a big impact," he told reporters before heading to the airport.   

"I saw the test event the other day with a cardboard torch going from Leicester to Peterborough and they (the spectators) were three and four deep on the pavement, in the little villages.   

"And every week I get letters from people who are talking about the things they are doing to mark the fact the torch is coming through.   

"There's an emotional connect with this that I'm not sure all torch relays have got."

(Agencies)

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