Saturday, 8 September 2012

Wenlock, not just an Olympic cyclops

I was brought up just outside a small market town in Shropshire. Whenever anyone asked me where I was from, I'd roll my eyes as I knew it would be an uphill battle. If I was lucky, they'd have heard of Shropshire, maybe even Shrewsbury or Telford. However, on more than one occasion I was resigned to simply describing it as being between Birmingham and Wales. Everyone's geography seemed to be good enough to cope with that.

That market town was Much Wenlock. It has medieval ruins, black and white half timbered buildings and is surrounded by fields and beautiful countryside, but what has suddenly put it on the map is that it was the birthplace of the modern Olympics.

Dr William Penny Brookes set up the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850. As the town's doctor, Brookes set up the games to "promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood of Wenlock, and especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation and by the award of a prize..." He was later instrumental in setting up the Shropshire Games, followed by the National Olympian Games. After a visit to the games in Much Wenlock, Baron de Coubertin was inspired to create a global event. Brookes died in 1895 aged 87, just four months before the first games of the modern Olympics took place in Athens in 1896.

To this day, the Wenlock Olympian Games continue, the 126th Games took place in July this year. Whilst the mascots weren't the most attractive, or indeed best used symbol of the Olympics, and I'm sure few people even now would be able to place the town on a map, the mention of Wenlock always made me smile with a little bit of pride about the corner of Shropshire I knew as home.

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