NOT-LONDON 2012 Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital 4) Hadleigh Farm
Most of the cycling events at the 2012 Games will be taking place at the Velodrome in the Olympic Park - that Pringle-roofed stadium just off the A12. Obviously the Road Race has to take place elsewhere, where there are roads, and is likely to run from the Mall out to Box Hill and back. But one particular discipline has proved rather harder to locate, and that's the mountain biking. Because, well, London's not renowned for its contours, is it?
When London won its Olympic bid, the plan was to hold the mountain biking at the Weald Country Park near Brentwood. That's near junction 28 of the M25 - a corner of Essex not especially renowned as mountain country (indeed the highest point in the park is no more than 100m above sea level). The International Cycling Union were not impressed. Not hilly enough, they said, not enough challenge, have you got anywhere else? So London 2012 looked around Essex (because they'd promised the mountain biking to Essex) and tried to see if there was anywhere steeper that they could carve out a course instead. Yes, obviously, Canvey Island.
OK, not quite Canvey, but a hill on the mainland at Hadleigh which looks out towards the pancake-flat isle. The hilltop may be only 70 metres high, but it has far more exciting slopes than the Weald, so it's been deemed excitingly acceptable by the powers that be. Which means that, on the final two days of Olympic competition, 30 women and 50 men will be coming to Essex to test out their skill, balance, daring and verve on cross-country saddleback. It's just a pity that, with so many other events scheduled for that weekend, so few TV viewers will be watching.
Hadleigh's not a town that's used to the spotlight. A few streets before Southend, where the A13 dual carriageway fades into a bus garage and a parade of shops, that's the heart of Hadleigh. Take Chapel Lane down towards the river and eventually you'll reach a poorly used car park beside a fake Iron Age Roundhouse. This lonely spot is currently the gateway to Hadleigh Country Park, but come 2012 it'll be transformed into the official Olympic car park (for official Olympic vehicles). From here it's but a brief freewheel into the field where the mountain biking course is located, or at least it will be once the whole shebang is ready. It isn't yet, but they've already made a start.
A public footpath crosses Sandpit Hill, which is the uplifted zone selected for international competition, but alas it's not public any more. The stile leading off from the lane has been fenced over, and someone's erected a "temporary footpath diversion" sign which looks anything but temporary. No doubt it's only for a couple of years, although any determined intruder could easily nip over the netting and wander around the entire course to their heart's content. Law-abiding souls have to walk a little further down the track, then turn off through a parallel field, from where there's a pretty good view of what's been built so far. [photo]
There's not much to see yet, to be honest, just a few sinuous paths cut into the hillside and surrounded by flapping orange netting. It's not yet clear whether these are tracks for competitors or access routes for spectators, probably the latter. But what is clear is that there are definitely enough contours here - nothing too precipitous, but equally nothing too restrictively feeble. There's also every chance of a mudbath should the clouds open during the week before the competition. My boots got absolutely covered in sludge during my wanderings in the local area last weekend, and I had to endure more than one awkward scramble down a treacherously slippery mudslide. Even if the rest of London 2012 is thwarted by torrential rain, at least here it'll make for some damned fine competition.
The site has one further bonus, which is the presence of a haunting Norman ruin on the hilltop nextdoor. This is Hadleigh Castle, once an important Thames-side citadel and a favoured residence of Edward III. No longer. The walls have almost all fallen, which is what happens over the centuries when you pile large chunks of stone on top of an unstable clay outcrop. A few outline foundations remain for visitors to pick over - that's part of the great hall, there's the kitchen, and that's the floor of the King's old bedroom. Some of the original towers still stand, most only barely (thanks to a long-ago landslip), but one as half a shell looming high above the marshland below. No French invaders pass upriver these days, only a succession of huge container ships and tankers heading towards the chimneys of Corringham. Southend is clearly visible to the east, while the flat wastes of the Isle of Grain fade off to the horizon across the snaking river. As the estuarine Thames goes, this is definitely one of the prettierspots (although admittedly it hasn't got much competition). [photo]
One further point of interest can be found a few hundred yards inland from the castle - the Salvation Army's Hadleigh Training Centre. William Booth created the Home Farm Colony here in the 1880s "for the benefit of men who, through misfortune, need a helping hand." The Army continues its sterling work in the local community to this day, but the skills offered now are rather less manually-based than before. Having said that, they do run a Rare Breeds Farm which is open to the public every summer, and which four-year-olds are bound to find more exciting than a wander round some old ruins. There are also tearooms, I think inside a mighty big chalet, although a shocking lack of publicity meant I only worked out they were tearooms from the internet once I got home. They'll stay open during the Games in 2012, you'll be pleased to hear, even if the castle will be blocked off to stop spectators getting too good a free view. No problem. The mountain biking's one event, I suspect, it'll be well worth paying to see.