As sporting fields go, it is not much to look at: a simple plain of grass boarded on one side by a line of oak trees and on the other by a school.
There is no running track, no cricket wicket, and no goal posts, much less anything resembling a stand for spectators or even changing facilities for competitors. To all intents and purposes Linden Field, in the tiny English town of Much Wenlock, looks like little more than an oversized village green. Yet, when the competitors and spectators alike enjoy the ongoing Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, they should perhaps save a moment’s thought for this patch of grass some 10,000km away.
Much Wenlock’s Olympian Trail takes in Linden Field, where the first games were held, and the Museum.
Because what few people know today is that it was right here in this most unlikely of locations that, in 1850, the idea behind the modern Olympics was born.
‘The world assumes that they are a Greek invention because Athens was the first host city, or maybe a French idea because Paris is where the International Olympic Committee was founded,’ says Sue Tipper, assistant at the Much Wenlock Museum and Visitor Information Centre. ‘But there is clear evidence they were actually inspired by our very own town games first held here almost 50 years earlier.’
It is an almost unbelievable claim to fame: a largely unheard of medieval market town with just a handful of streets and a population of under 3,000 is responsible for the planet’s biggest sporting jamboree.
Yet, as I will find out during four days here in stunning Shropshire – the rolling green belt of rural mid-England where Much Wenlock quaintly sits – it is not only absolutely true, it is in fact just one of many reasons why this region is deserving of its small tourist boom this Olympic summer.
It is mid-afternoon and we are walking The Olympian Trail.
Much Wenlock is a small but perfectly formed sort of place and this self-guided walk – featuring bronze medals in the pavement every hundred metres or so – has the twin advantage of both explaining the town’s unique sporting legacy and taking in some of its most historic buildings.
Of the latter, there’s the Guildhall, which was built in 1540 and houses a still magnificent council chamber; the grandly arched 19th century Corn Exchange; and the rather more modern Edge Arts Centre where a full programme of cinema, theatre, comedy and literature events take place.
Most magnificent of all, though, is the 12th century Wenlock Priory. Today mainly ruins, this was once one of mid-England’s biggest churches and, even crumbling and half destroyed, it remains an awe-inspiring sight. Its surrounding cloister gardens, meanwhile, offer a perfectly manicured counterpoint to the brooding dissolution.
Yet there is little doubt even this piece of majestic history is in the shadows of Much Wenlock’s Olympic claim.
So what exactly is the deal? The story unfolds as we follow the trail, and begins with a 19th-century surgeon and magistrate called William Penny Brookes who was born, lived and died in the town – the Victorian home where he lived is one of the sights on our trail.
Celebrate Dr Brookes Olympic heritage in the town, then absorb some history with the churches and the Guildhall.
A keen advocate of exercise as a means of improving the health of people, Dr Brookes helped found something called The Olympian Class: a programme with the aim, it was declared, of ‘promoting the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town… especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of outdoor recreation, and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletics’.
This annual meeting was called the Olympian Games – named after the ancient Greek contests – and was first held in October 1850.
‘It was a mixture of athletics and traditional country sports like football and tilting-at-the-ring,’ says Sue. ‘There were fun competitions too, such as wheelbarrow races.’ The two-day event was such a hit, it was held again – and expanded – the next year. This time competitors came from across the region. Within two years, they were coming from all over the country. And as the games grew annually – inspiring a national version at London’s Crystal Palace in 1866 – they came to the attention of a French chap called Pierre de Coubertin.
He was the organiser of an International Congress on Physical Education and visited Dr Brookes in 1889 to watch the Wenlock games. By day, the two men enjoyed the sports at Linden Field; by night they sat in The Raven Hotel and The Gaskell Arms – both spots still open and both worth dropping by for food – and discussed a shared dream of establishing an international games.
By then, however, Dr Brookes was an old man. Already in his 80s, his health was fading. But Pierre, just 26, would not let their vision go unfulfilled. Five years later he founded the International Olympic Committee in Paris, and two years after that, the IOC held the first modern Olympic Games in Athens. Brookes, tragically, died just five months before and never saw his life’s ambition come to fruition, still less would witness the behemoth it has become today.
But Pierre would never forget the role of his old friend. The new games, he wrote in a letter quoted in the museum, were due ‘not to a Greek, but to Dr W P Brookes’. He expanded on the sentiment some years later: ‘The Wenlock people alone,’ he wrote, ‘preserved and followed the true Olympian traditions.’
‘It’s sad he never witnessed what he helped create,’ says Sue. ‘But what a legacy to have.’ As we conclude the Olympian Trail, fittingly at the grave of Dr Brookes, it is difficult to argue.
Much Wenlock, as visitor destinations go, deserves nothing less than a gold medal. It is not the only place in Shropshire worth your attention though.
Internationally, this may be one of the UK’s lesser-known regions; yet, if it’s a secret, it’s one that’s a marvel to discover.
Hauntingly beautiful, the spectacular ruins and gardens of the Wenlock Priory form a piece of majestic history.
Located amid the unspoiled and unrushed hills along the Welsh border, its highlights include delightful medieval market towns, tranquil countryside and, as well as that Olympic legacy, another astonishing claim to fame: this gentle land, it seems, may well be the place where the entire Industrial Revolution was born. Another huge assertion, perhaps, yet one that more than stands up to scrutiny. We’ve headed to the village of Ironbridge – about 10km north from Much Wenlock – to find out more.
The River Severn forms a horseshoe loop around the town, with the Shrewsbury castle standing high above.
This stunning rural idyll perched above the vast River Severn may today look like a sleepy little hamlet but, so the sell goes, it is where, 300 years ago, England’s earliest industrial pioneers shaped the entire modern world. Without what happened here in early rudimentary smelting plants, it’s argued, the skyscrapers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai could never have been built.
How so? The story is told across 10 wonderful museums that dot the village – including Museum Of The Gorge and Blists Hill Victorian Town – but the gist is that it was here, in the early 1700s, that the great ironmaster Abraham Darby perfected the world’s first method for mass production of iron. This, in turn, led to the world’s first metal boom with the newly cheap material used for everything from warships to steam locomotives to simple pots and pans.
‘It’s not unfair,’ we’re told by one museum guide, ‘to say Ironbridge catapulted Europe into the modern age.’
This monumental role in history is symbolised by the similarly monumental bridge that spans the river and now gives the village its name.
Opened in 1871 – and constructed by Darby’s grandson Abraham Darby III – this was the world’s first arched crossing made of cast iron. At 380 tonnes and 30 metres in length, it looks no less of an architectural miracle today than it must have done when first constructed.
Certainly Unesco appears to think so. It named the bridge a World Heritage Site in 1986, putting it on par with the likes of the Acropolis of Athens and India’s Taj Mahal. Walking across it today in beating sunshine and then climbing the surrounding tree-dotted hills to take in the structure’s full imperial grace, it is easy to see why it keeps such prestigious company.
Ironbridge, as a whole, actually, is pretty jaw-dropping. If 200 years ago it was transformed from sleepy rural hideaway to smoggy industrial melting pot, that change has now been reversed, and greenery once again dominates. Those 18th-century factories have long been converted to visitor attractions. But it is also a small place.
And so, after a day dipping in and out of its museums and cafés, and wandering the winding lanes, we are now heading to the larger neighbour down the road.
Shropshire is a delightful medieval patchwork of a town, all timber-frame buildings, old churches and narrow cobbled streets sitting in the horseshoe loop of the River Severn and protected by an Elizabethan hilltop castle.
It’s already late when we arrive and we sit on the patio of a riverside inn as the warm dusk slowly turns to night. She, my friend, is reflecting on the past couple of days. ‘So if Much Wenlock invented the Olympics and Ironbridge invented the Industrial Revolution,’ she ponders, ‘what did Shrewsbury invent?’
A passing worker, collecting glasses, overhears the question. ‘Evolution,’ he answers, simply. And that too, it turns out, is sort of true.
Top right: Ironbridge, the first arch crossing to be made of cast iron. Left: Shropshire’s most famous son Darwin’s birthplace, Shrewsbury.
This is the place, see, where Charles Darwin – naturalist, geologist, the genius who single-handedly established the theory of evolution – was born and raised. And, unsurprisingly perhaps, his towering presence still dominates the town almost a century-and-a-half after his death.
His statue – a bearded, furrowed, dark-eyed man studying papers – sits at the entrance to Shrewsbury Library which, itself, was once the school where he studied (apparently without much fondness, calling his time there ‘simply a blank’). A Darwin Town Trail, meanwhile, guides visitors past significant landmarks from his early life, including Mount House, where he was born, and The Dingle, a terrific landscaped garden in the lush Quarry Park where, as a child, this man marked for greatness would pick flowers and fish for newts.
Proving nothing is sacred from the march of commercialism, there is also a Darwin Shopping Centre – the largest of the town’s three malls with almost 200,000 sq ft of retail space – and a neighbourhood restaurant called simply The Charles Darwin. Even our hotel commemorates his legacy with a large mural in the lobby. We’re staying, as it goes, at the town’s Premier Inn, which is wonderfully located on the banks of the Severn. The rooms here are spacious, the staff attentive and the morning breakfast a wonderful taste of real England.
A wonderful taste of real England can also be found at The Lion and Pheasant.
Shropshire is surrounded by farmland and, subsequently, the food served all across the region is truly outstanding: local, fresh, mouth-watering. But it is at the above-named restaurant that things truly peak for us.
Set in a 16th-century building with wood beams and original fireplaces still intact, the food here is part fine dining, part charming feed. The lamb and the ling come especially recommended, with both dishes confident enough to let the flavours of the produce do the talking with relatively little tinkering.
The relaxed atmosphere – courses are brought out slowly and with care – means we end up spending almost three hours here feasting and drinking. But every moment is wonderful. And, when we leave, the weather is still perfect for a late-night stroll.
We decide to take a detour past a place called The Lion Hotel, which was mentioned on our earlier Darwin Trail. This place was once a coaching inn and it was from here, in 1831, that our man set off by stage coach to Plymouth to board HMS Beagle, the famous ship on which he would voyage the world and first start to put together his defining theory.
We stand looking at the grandiloquent three-storey façade for a moment. ‘Evolution,’ she says quietly next to me. ‘Born here.’
There is, of course, more to do in Shrewsbury than just evolution and eating.
The next day, our last in Shropshire, we take in the magnificent red sandstone castle, the modernist glass sweep of the Theatre Severn and Old Market Hall, a splendid Grade I listed building opened in 1596 and which the town, in one way or another, still seems to revolve around even today.
We sip coffee and have a slice of pizza in the glass-fronted Riverbank Bar and Kitchen and walk through the Crescent, a cute miniature version of the older and more famous Royal Crescent in Bath.
And then, all too soon, it’s time to leave this remarkable little part of the world that feels so much like an undiscovered secret.
Yet, as thousands of people descend on Rio for this summer’s Olympics, we’ll be watching on TV, delighted that we know how it was Shropshire where this particular sporting story – as well as so many other great things – started.