NOT-LONDON 2012 Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital 1) Much Wenlock
The Olympic Games won't be coming to Shropshire in 2012. But there'll still be an Olympic Games here on the second weekend in July - the original Games, the one that inspired everything. Because the entire Olympic movement was kickstarted by a Victorian doctor bringing his community together on a West Midlands recreation ground. It's come very a long way since.
Much Wenlock is a proper small town with ten streets and a church, located a long way from anywhere important. OK that's not quite true. Shrewsbury's half an hour up the road, and the Industrial Revolution erupted a few miles away at Ironbridge. But Much Wenlock itself lurks in an isolated self-sufficient spot, packed with a population of only 2600, surrounded by charming rolling hills. Remote enough that it took me five hours to get there from London, and another five home again. Even more unexpected, then, that this should be a place of pilgrimage for those seeking the spark which lit the Olympic flame.
Dr WilliamPenny Brookes was Much Wenlock's very own superhero. As well as being the local doctor, he also took a keen interest in the health and wellbeing of the town's population. Experiments he carried out at the main school proved that physical exercise made children fitter - a finding which helped roll out PT lessons across countless Victorian schoolyards nationwide. He restored the town's Guildhall, enticed the railways to link here and established a society to help local farmers to read. But his enduring legacy came via the Wenlock Olympian Society, an egalitarian sporting guild open to all, which ran contrary to all the elitist ideals of athletics associations of the day. From the 1850s an annual Games was held each year on the Windmill Field, mixing athletics with country sports, and open to allcomers. Pageantry was an important part of the weekend, and most definitely the taking part rather than necessarily the winning.
News of WPB's Olympian Games spread to France, and the ears of a certain Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He had plans for some sort of classical sporting competition back home, and made a special visit to Much Wenlock in October 1890 to see how the experts did it. It rained all day but the townspeople put on a plucky performance for the 27 year-old Baron and he left much inspired. William died a year before the inaugural Olympic revival in 1896, but his ideals live on into 2012 and beyond.
Much Wenlock celebrates its greatest son with an Olympian Trail around the town. It's marked by bronze plaques in the pavement, starting off from the Museum (endearing, Brookes-packed) then heading out via the Corn Exchange, a coaching inn and the Raven Hotel. The trail's nicely done, with free maps and information boards and everything, which'll help you spot William's place of birth and the family grave by the parish church[photo]. Ditto the Windmill Field, which looks much like any other recreation ground with a school and leisure centre nextdoor and a bowling green down the far end [photo]. Spectators used to pay a shilling and sixpence for a seat on the hill to watch the running and 'tilting' and all the other Olympian excitement (although they'd never pay today because a line of tall trees has grown up to block the view). The good Baron himself planted one of the oaks, and a plaque beneath commemorates the event.
Even without the Olympic connection, Much Wenlock's a pleasant place to while away a few hours. You can look around the Guildhall in the summer for a quid, or pay a bit more to look round the ruins of medieval Wenlock Priory. The High Street's short but 'proper', with a delightful first-/second-handbookshop and a family butchers where the queue invariably stretches out onto the pavement. And if all that gets too much, head out west on Victoria Road and you can be up on the hilltops in less than half an hour. A network of footpaths leads up onto WenlockEdge - a limestone escarpment which runs for 15 miles between here and Craven Arms. Initially there are gently-sloping fields, then suddenly you realise you're walking along a high narrow path with a quarry down to one side and steep wooded scarp on the other. Find a gap through the trees and there are wistful views across undulating farmland towards A.E. Housman's blue-remembered hills. [photo]
OK, so Olympia in Greece is the true birthplace of the modern Olympic Games, but I was more than impressed by the Shropshire town whose ideals helped inspire a global movement. They've not forgotten the great William Penny Brookes round here, nor his annual Games, and London 2012's Olympic mascot will help the rest of the world to remember too. Good old Wenlock.