Much Wenlock: An Olympian effort

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    The church and Guildhall in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. Credit: Countrywide Images / Alamy

    James March tell us how the modern Olympics were inspired by a Shropshire local from the town of Much Wenlock with big dreams

    Before visiting Much Wenlock, I noticed one of the bizarre bug-eyed mascots at London’s 2012 Olympic Games was actually named Wenlock. The organisers had clearly done their research. 

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    The Wenlock Olympic Games mascot from London 2012. Credit: Jeffrey Blackler / Alamy

    Hiding inside rural Shropeshire’s bucolic confines, 145 miles northwest of London’s Olympic Stadium, Much Wenlock is a tiny market town of just 3,000 residents, with a rather surprising contribution to sport’s most famous competition. 

    Intrigued, I arrive in the town at lunchtime and my first meander down the gently arcing high street passes by half-timbered pubs, well-stocked pie shops and a bookshop that smells as old as the yellowing novels on its shelves. 

    In one window there’s a white A4 poster announcing a car boot sale to raise funds for a local bus service, while behind the George and Dragon Inn I notice a narrow cobbled alley wonderfully entitled The Mutton Shut. But all whimsy aside, Much Wenlock’s notoriety is largely thanks to one man – William Penny Brookes. 

    William Penny Brookes. Credit: Wenlock Olympian Archives

    An idealistic local doctor and social reformer, Brookes cared so much about the mental and physical well-being of the region’s inhabitants (especially the working classes) that he created an annual competition featuring a mixture of athletic events alongside traditional country sports like football and cricket. 

    Inspired by the ancient Athenian games, the Wenlock Olympian Games were first held in 1850 and became a resounding success. 

    Decades after they began, they caught the eye of a wealthy young Frenchman named Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who visited Much Wenlock in 1890 and left feeling so inspired by what he had seen that he went on to set up the International Olympic Committee (IOC). 

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    Linden Field. Credit: Rick Strange / Alamy

    Six years after his visit to Shropshire, the inaugural modern Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens. 

    To learn more about this remarkable story, I meet Helen Cromarty from the Wenlock Olympian Society to take on the 1.3-mile Olympian Trail – a relatively easy-going figure-of-eight walk that’s guided through town by medal-like bronze plaques. 

    The beginning of the Much Wenlock Olympian Trail. Credit: Jane Williams photography

    We begin at an elegant old coaching inn named The Gaskell Arms, where Brookes’ opening-day speeches were traditionally made before the athletes ceremonially marched through the village.

    “It was a big procession,” Cromarty says, “And it gathered more and more people as it went along. There were brass bands and lots of pageantry, which was something Coubertin later remembered fondly when he founded the IOC.”

    We soon amble back down the high street to the handsome Raven Hotel, where Coubertin stayed during his days in Much Wenlock. 

    Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Credit: Wenlock Olympian Archives

    “He was an aristocrat and only 27 when he visited,” explains Cromarty (for contrast, Brookes was 80 by then). “I think he was bored, really, and wanted to be a part of something. He was a huge Anglophile and wanted to see what was happening with health in the UK. He put an ad in The Times and for Brookes that was like a red rag to a bull. Coubertin visited and loved it.”

    Back in the square, more history is revealed within the black-and-white timber frame of the 500-year-old Guildhall where Brookes was a magistrate for over 40 years. It’s a little chilly inside, but it’s worth visiting for the cartoonishly ornate Victorian furniture within the council chamber. 

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    The Much Wenlock Museum.

    After strolling past a splendid hodge-podge of medieval, Georgian and Victorian architecture on Wilmore Street, we turn onto Station Road where the old railway once steamed in (see if you can spot the spelling mistake on the Sheinton Street plaque). 

    Brookes was instrumental in bringing the railway here and while the line closed in 1962, the former track has been repurposed into a lush walking trail. The beautiful Station House still remains but its mystique is removed somewhat now that it is a private house. 

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    A Wenlock Olympian Games medal. Credit: Wenlock

    With tall lime trees planted by Brookes flanking our path, we approach Linden Field to the sound of birdsong and the occasional trudge of passing dog walkers. It was  on these tranquil fields that the first Wenlock Games were held, and where early incarnations included events like ‘tilting at the ring’ (a form of jousting in which a horseman tries to insert a lance through small metal rings while he charges past).

    With the grass stretching out like a snooker table and the cinematic hills of Wenlock Edge in the distance, it’s still hard to imagine that this tiny parish inspired the bombast of the modern Olympics. 

    We finish the trail outside the house in which Brookes lived his entire life. Sadly, Brookes died in December 1895, just four months before the Athens Games of 1896. 

    The ruins of Wenlock Priory. Credit: Historic England

    His legacy lives on with the annual Wenlock Olympian Games still being held, starting in late June each year and continuing well into July. For now though, my main event is keeping a wobbly pint of cask ale level at the George and Dragon Inn, a gregarious cauldron of chatter with locals and dogs alike squeezed around its small bar and toasty fire. 

    You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to enjoy this friendly town.

    Read more in our Aug/Sept 2024 issue, available to buy here from 5 July.

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