"This May, as it is Olympics year again I decided to revisit a ride I lead back in 2012, the year of the London Olympics. The 2016 ride would also take the form of a car assist from Atcham near Shrewsbury down to the birth place of the modern Olympics Much Wenlock.
For those who don’t know how the games came about, the tale begins with the birth of William Penny Brookes in 1809 the son of a doctor in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. After leaving home to study medicine in London and Paris and botany in Italy (for the use of plants in medicine) he returned home on news of his father’s death from typhoid in 1831 to take over his medical practice. Having had a good education himself he believed education should be available to everyone regardless of class or wealth and in 1841 he founded The Wenlock Agricultural Reading Society (WARS). He also believed the same of physical education and nine years later in 1850 set up an Olympian class for the physical wellbeing of the local workers. In October of that year he held his first Olympian games, the games soon grew in popularity and drew competitors from as far away as Liverpool and London. In 1858 he made contact with a group in Athens called the Olympic games revival headed by an Albanian born Greek Evangellis Zappas, Brookes sent £10 to be awarded as prize money, the winner of this was Petros Velissariou who later became the first honorary member of the Wenlock Olympian Class. In 1860 the first stone was laid for the Wenlock railway to attract even more people to the games, Brookes was also instrumental in getting the railway to come to Wenlock, the same year after some disagreement or other, the Olympian Class split from WARS to become The Wenlock Olympian Society. 1861 saw the railway open for the start of the games. In 1865 Brookes set up the National Olympian Association based in Liverpool. The following year 1866 the first Olympian Games were held at Crystal Palace in London, W.G.Grace, who later became probably crickets’ most famous name, won the hurdles event. This same year the Amateur Athletics Association was set up to rival Brookes’ National Olympian Association.
Meanwhile the Olympic Games revival movement in Greece had failed due to political and financial turmoil (sounds familiar?) In 1889 Brookes invited Frenchman Baron Pierre De Coubertin, a man who had similar dreams of reviving the Olympics, to Much Wenlock to see his games. In 1890 De Coubertin did come to see the games and stayed with Brookes at his home in Wenlock. After the games a dinner was held at the Raven Hotel with De Coubertin as guest of honour. The hotel still has photos of the two men and of the games on display, and also copies of correspondence between the two courtesy of the Wenlock Olympian Society. De Coubertin went on to form the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and held the first modern summer games in Athens in 1896, unfortunately Brookes did not attend as he had passed away four months previously. I wonder what Brookes would make of today’s modern games that now encompasses the Paralympics and winter games and all the hype that surrounds them? Incidentally the mascot for the London games was called Wenlock in honour of the town, and the mascot for the Paralympics was Mandeville after Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire.
The above is just a brief account, more details and also information about the Wenlock games which still take place every July can be found by contacting the Wenlock Olympian Society at www.wenlock-olympian-society.org.uk
Also of interest might be the Tom Sabin bike ride from Coventry to Much Wenlock and back, a two day 186 mile round trip. This takes place every June. See http://www.transport-museum.com/modules/events/event.aspx?id=102 Tom Sabin was a farmer from Allesey, Coventry who was a very successful racing cyclist riding penny farthings, winning many races all over the country in the 1870’s. He won gold medals at the Wenlock Olympics in 1876, 1877 and 1878.
Anyway, history lesson over and back to the ride, due to the date clashing with the ladies weekend away in Leominster only two intrepid riders, Martin and myself, departed from the pond to our riverside car park at Atcham in glorious sunshine. After an uneventful drive we set off across the Severn and cycled south towards our morning coffee stop in Ironbridge passing through Wroxeter with its Roman city and recreated Roman villa, also the first vineyard of the day.
After several more delightful villages, quiet lanes and several steep hills with magnificent views over the Severn Valley we passed the old now redundant Ironbridge powerstation and arrived in the high street to find our planned cafe surrounded by roadworks so we couldn’t sit outside in the sun, a quick executive decision later found us sat outside another cafe a few doors up the road right opposite Mr Telfords famous bridge its self.
Suitably refreshed it was then down to Coalport and the bridge we would use to cross back over the river again, on crossing the river we then had the longest steepest hill of the day so right on cue my chain decided to jam between two of my front chain rings just as I shifted down in anticipation of what was to come!
Chain sorted and several hills later we arrived in Much Wenlock without any further drama. The aforementioned Raven was our lunch stop in 2012 but has since gone very up market and I thought £19.95 for a two course Sunday lunch and four quid a pint a bit steep even for the Chester section!! So I had booked us into the Talbot instead, and very pleasant it was too at half the price. We also managed to avoid the only significant rain of the day whilst inside having lunch which was a nice little bonus.
The plan for after lunch was for a loop down towards Bridgnorth following Wenlock Edge and back again through Broseley for afternoon tea, but Martin didn’t fancy this extra loop as it would have involved another fifteen miles or so of hills on what was already quite a hilly route, so we had an explore around Much Wenlock before heading back up the western bank of the Severn to our car at Atcham. After visiting the Guildhall (well worth having a look around ) we found Brookes’ home in Wilmore Street, his family graves in the church yard right opposite and we also visited the Linden Field otherwise known as the Gaskell Recreation Ground where the Wenlock Games have taken place ever since they began in 1850. There is a memorial to Brookes here and at the far end of the field are several trees planted over the years by people such as De Coubertin, Juan Antonio Samaranch and Princess Anne amongst others.
The route back involved lots more quiet lanes, quaint villages, another vineyard, Oh and did I mention one or two more hills!!"