The Olympic Games begin in Rio today – cue views of Copacabana Beach and Corcovado Mountain with its astonishing statue of Christ the Redeemer. Now switch scenes to a small town in rural England, to a meadow in Much Wenlock, and turn back the clock to 1850, for this is where it began – the source and the inspiration for the modern Olympic Movement.
The town’s physician, Dr William Penny Brookes was the man behind the revival of the ancient Athenian games. His objective was clear:
for the promotion of the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the town & neighbourhood of Wenlock and especially of the working classes, by the encouragement of out-door recreation, and by the award of prizes annually at public meetings for skill in athletic exercise and proficiency in intellectual and industrial attainments.
He had already started the Agricultural Reading Society and been hard at work raising funds from Shropshire’s gentry to establish a working man’s reading room, while lobbying every famous writer of the day to donate copies of their works to the cause. Much of the library still exists in the town’s archives and includes some heavy-going and esoteric histories of far-flung lands. It is hard to guess the appeal of such books to farm hands and quarrymen after their long day’s labours, but at least they would have had decent light to read by. Brookes was also behind the founding of the town’s gas works.
Wenlock’s Olympian Society grew out of the Agricultural Reading Society. The very first games were held on the town’s race course but in later years took place (as they still do every year) on the field below Windmill Hill, now known as the Gaskell Recreation Ground, or as Penny Brookes himself called it, the Linden Field.
Nor was it any rustic village fete affair. The local MP J M Gaskell provided seating on Windmill Hill to give everyone a fine view, and the event was heralded with much ceremony, the town streets decked out from end to end, a parade of competitors, flag bearers and officials all marching with the local band. From the start, then, pageantry was a key part of the games, lifting people from their humdrum, hardworking existences. And although there were many fun contests and traditional country sports, the athletic events were taken seriously, and attracted competitors from all over the country. Prizes included silver cups and ink stands presented by local worthies and Penny Brookes designed elaborate medals – gold, silver, bronze, and had them made at his own expense.
News of the games spread far and wide, and indeed were spoken of in very high places. In 1890, when the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Courbetin had been charged with finding ways to improve the fitness of the French Army, he was advised to go and see the Wenlock games. He stayed in Brookes’ house on Wilmore Street during his visit, and what he saw and also learned from Brookes inspired him to found the International Olympic Committee. The IOC held their first games in Athens in 1896, and although Brookes did not live long enough to see the extent of his influence, de Courbetin gave him due recognition:
If the Olympic Games which modern Greece did not know how to establish again is revived today, it is not to a Greek that one is indebted, but to Dr. W P Brookes.
We the people of Much Wenlock are also indebted to Dr. Brookes for his planting of the lime tree avenue alongside the Linden Field where the games took place. As I’ve said before, it is one of the town’s enduring treasures. The trees are over 150 years old, and still in fine form. There is no time of the year when this avenue is not beautiful. In winter it is deeply mysterious, a colonnade to another reality. But whatever the season, there is always a play of light and shadow. And there is windrush in the high canopies, and crow call. And in summer the soporific scents of tiny green lime tree flowers.
Here, then, are a few more views, and so when you see the grand and glamorous opening of the Rio Olympics, give a thought also to this place and the Shropshire doctor, who with the well being of his townspeople in mind, inspired the modern Olympic Movement:
This post was inspired by Paula’s Thursday’s Special theme ‘shadow’. Please visit her blog and join in this week’s challenge.