Much Wenlock in Shrophire, just inside England from the Welsh border, is a small village mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086, in an area that could be a movie set for Middle Earth, with Frodo and his pals around every corner. It is on the Wenlock Edge, which 450 million years ago was a coral reef under the sea.
You wander around it with its half timbered buildings, ancient pubs a butcher, two bakers but no candlestick maker, and taste scrumptious pork pies or raspberry tarts and pop into little book stores or view the whipping post or stocks at the ancient Guildhall, while a 2 minute walk takes you to the ruins of Wenlock Priory.
It was the home of a great man, Dr. William Penny Brookes, born thre in 1809 and destined for greatness. He studied medicine in London, Padua and Paris and on the death of his father, came home and took over the practice.. He also became a Justice of the Peace, Commissioner for Roads and formed the Wenlock Gas Company and the Severn Valley Railway.
He also started the Agricultural Reading Society and opened a library., and formed the Wenlock Olympian Class in 1850, 'To promote the intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town and the countryside near Wenlock'.
The first games, held in October 1850 mixed track and field with traditional country pursuits such as quoits (like horseshoe throwing) football and cricket.
Football was a 20 sided game and very popular. Pageantry was a very important mix. A band, flag bearers and competitors and officials would march through the flag bedecked streets to the former racecourse- now Windmill Field. The cycle races were on huge 'penny farthing' bikes and the most popular event was 'Tilting', where competitors on horseback had to hook a ring dangling from a crossbar onto a lance. The herald that led the parade was dressed up in a velvet costume. Competitors came from as far as Liverpool and London. there was a similar event in Athens and Penny Brookes sent £10 as a prize to be awarded to the winner of a race. He was a tireless supporter of physical education in schools and he petitioned Parliament and had some success.
In Paris, Baron Pierre de Coubertin corresponded with Penny Brookes and finally paid a visit to Much Wenlock in October 1890. The Doctorr. was 81 at the time and the Baron was 27 years old. They discussed reviving the ancient Olympic Games and the Frenchman published his idea in 'La Revue Athletique. He stated that ' if the Olympic Games were to be revived it would not be due to a Greek but to Dr. Brooks'.
Sadly, four weeks prior to the first of the Modern Olympic Games, in Athens in April 1896, Dr Brooks passed away. The little Shropshire town has a small museum dedicated to the Much Wenlock Games and to the fascinating history of the region, and a wonderful web site. Down the main road is the Dr. William Penny Brookes High School, with modern sports hall and soccer fields, now used for the annual event the Wenlock Games each July. While President of the International Olympic Committee Juan Samarach of Spain visited Much Wenlock, and so did the Queen of England, and as London was awarded the 2012 Modern Olympic Games, a delegation visited the Shropshire town to kick of the countdown. There is a nice Olympic trail around town with markers in the sidewalk every 100 meters or so.
Ten years ago, during the UEFA finals in England I visited Much Wenlock and was fascinated by the historical importance and by the scenery. I would like to see an 'Ascot' style event in which visitors came with wicker picnic baskets, sat on bales of hay or on hay carts, wearing Victorian and Edwardian long dresses, huge flowery hats or stripped blazers and white pants. Anyone of you out there interested in the idea? Give me some feedback. I think it would get a huge response and attract sponsorhips - and would be loads of fun.