When you think “Olympics,” you probably think of nude athletes with their javelins hanging out in Greece. Or at least, I do.
But Athens alone isn’t responsible for the Olympics as we know them. In fact, if not for a small town in Shropshire, England, “London, 2012″ may have simply referred to a souvenir calendar, not the sweaty extravaganza of sport we’re eagerly anticipating this summer.
I confess, I’d never heard of Much Wenlock until last month. Not that my ignorance means anything – I still haven’t seen Spinal Tap or watched a single episode of Dexter (so don’t take it personally, Much Wenlock).
However, the one-eyed weirdo above is starting to educate troglodytes like me. His name is Wenlock and he’s one of the official mascots for London 2012.
Wenlock’s parents obviously did their homework when they named him, because this town of just 2,600 is where the modern Olympics originated.
Now, to go out on a limb and play critic for a minute, I want to state that they really should have called the little cyclops “William.” For it was William Penny Brookes’ vision, his drive, and his civic pride that resulted in the revival of the games. But I guess “Bill” would have been a feeble follow-up to Quaatchi, Sumi, Miga and Mukmuk. Especially Mukmuk.
So “Wenlock” it is.
Even though Much Wenlock has been a market town for centuries, you quickly realize that its story is really that of one incredibly influential man. The legacy of William Penny Brookes seems to haunt every corner of Much Wenlock: he brought in the railway. He installed gas lighting. He started a library for the working class. He refurbished the guildhall. He performed surgery. He started the Much Wenlock Olympian games. He skillfully bedded every woman in town (just guessing, I mean, how could anyone resist a man so accomplished?).
It makes you contemplate what you did today, doesn’t it? (hmmm…filed expenses, finished that soon-to-expired hummus, “liked” someone’s status on FB…oh god, I’m not even worthy of writing about Penny Brookes.)
As I mentioned, Penny Brookes was a doctor. So, naturally, he was obsessed with whipping his patients into shape. To put it into perspective, in the mid-nineteenth century there were 35 ale houses in Much Wenlock, and nobody was getting a six-pack by propping up the bar. Penny Brookes wanted to create healthier diversions, and so he launched the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850.
The games weren’t elite – in fact “every grade of man” was invited to participate. There were traditional country sports such as football, quoits and cricket in addition to the classic games.
Yarn jockeys got their chance to prove their mettle too, because there was a knitting category. The mathletes (arithmetic) and word wranglers (writing) were included as well.
My favourite is the old women’s race for a pound of tea. One wonders how the winner, at the advanced age of 45, was able to escape the cold clutches of Death long enough to triumph. And surely the runner-up, an equally decrepit 38, would have had to write up a will detailing the distribution of her tea amongst beneficiaries, because – c’mon – there’s no way she could have drunk it all before she expired.
The games, held every year on Linden Field, were a smashing success in Much Wenlock. Penny Brookes didn’t cut any corners – there were medals, trophies and great pageantry. You can check out a lot of the memorabilia at the excellent little Much Wenlock Museum.
Soon enough, Penny Brookes created a second sporting event – the National Olympian Games – and they travelled around the country each year.
Word got around. In the 1890s, a Frenchman by the name of Pierre de Coubertin visited Much Wenlock to take in the games and confer with their founder. The young man met with Penny Brookes, by then an octogenarian, at The Raven Hotel (incidentally, I stayed at The Raven when I visited Much Wenlock, and it is a Penny Brookes museum unto itself as well as a final resting place for that creepy stuffed bird).
It must have gone well because De Coubertin returned to France and created the International Olympic Committee, which you may have heard of.
Penny Brookes eventually won his own equivalent of a gold medal: the international Olympics that he’d always dreamed of finally took place in 1896.
Sadly, he died four months before the event. Yep, it totally sucks. Kleenex?
On the bright side, his is the most blinged up grave in the Much Wenlock cemetery: it’s ensconced by turquoise Olympic wreaths. He rests within view of the very house in which he was born, lived and died. This gave me pause, and made me reflect on how influential we can all be within a small radius.
As you can imagine, Much Wenlock’s tourism is very focused on the Olympic connection. There is this Olympian Trail, for instance, that takes you past all the major points of interest.
Also, the Much Wenlock Olympian Games, not to be outdone by the London show, are taking place this year from July 8 to 22.
I’m sure I could have pole vaulted over the church spire, but while I was in Much Wenlock, I decided to pursue more moderate physical feats. There are plenty of hiking trails surrounding the town so I did a circular walk through this rapeseed field.
Two heads, one tails.
There is one thing in town that Penny Brookes didn’t have a hand in building, and that’s the Wenlock Priory, ruined thanks to Henry VIII and his wrecking-ball approach to the dissolution of the monasteries.
There has been a Priory here since 680. These remains, which are managed by English Heritage (in other words: entry fee applies), date to medieval times. Note the awesome topiary! The one on on the left looks like a big fat pig – is it a tribute to Henry VIII?
I was also impressed by the haphazard collection of medieval tiles.
As for the town itself, it’s just about as picturesque as you can imagine, with a historic high street, tea rooms and homey pubs (I recommend The Talbot Inn). Much Wenlock would definitely appeal to your grandma…
…or would it?
And don’t forget to visit my Across the Pond homepage!
Travel arrangements courtesy of Visit Britain.