Give this town a medal! Everyone wins when visiting the Shropshire location that inspired the modern Olympic Games
- Rob Crossan visits Much Wenlock where a local doctor founded the Olympic Games in the 1850s
- This event, which featured athletics and fat pig catching, inspired the modern Olympic Games
- Rob explores Wenlock Priory, sacked by Henry VIII, stopping for Cottage Pie in the Gaskell Arms
‘The woods are in trouble on Wenlock Edge,’ wrote AE Housman in his epic, poetic tale A Shropshire Lad. Beech and maple trees meander along a narrow footpath, forming a canopy against the sun.
Those same forests, 126 years later, don’t look like they’re in any immediate danger.
A huge hazel tree has split its lower branches to reveal fields of poppies glowing crimson in the distance.
Medieval Wonder: Rob Crossan visiting the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire pictured. Above is the city’s Trinity Church and City Hall
Above is a bird’s eye view of the trees of Wenlock Edge. On the way to Much Wenlock, Rob finds that “beech and maple trees form a canopy against the sun”.
The squat spire of the village of Harley in the center is the tallest on the horizon, while the loudest thing on my walk is the groaning squeak of the kissing gates, through which I make my way back to the road, which winds down a mile or so so to the town of Much Wenlock.
The narrow streets lined with cottages with chocolate boxes and Tudor beams lead me to Gaskell Field, a nondescript expanse of flat grass where a match of cricket is played. Only a sign along the way tells me the unbelievable history. This is where local doctor William Penny Brookes founded the Olympic Games in the 1850s.
Inspired by excavations of ancient Olympic sites in Greece, Brookes started a tournament that included athletics and knitting and catching fat pigs. It still runs every year, although hogs and needles are now noticeably absent. The event inspired the modern Olympic Games (Wenlock was the mascot of the 2012 Games).
Above is the birthplace of William Penny Brookes, who founded the city’s Olympic Games in the 1850s, a tournament that included athletics as well as knitting and fat pig catching. The event inspired the modern Olympic Games
On the outskirts of town, I sneak through Wenlock Priory, which was sacked by Henry VIII when the monasteries were dissolved. Ruins show what a massive retreat this was once for the 80 or so monks of the Cluniac Order. I crane my neck just enough to look over the abbey walls to catch a glimpse of privately owned Wenlock Abbey. Thomas Hardy and Henry James stayed here on visits to the town, the latter using it as inspiration for his ghost story The Turn Of The Screw.
My room is in a converted barn next to a pottery workshop and shop. Co-owner Mike Fletcher is one of the last remaining artisans in Britain making jugs, while Shelagh serves a huge full English breakfast amidst the ceramic shelves.
The city’s most garlanded bar and restaurant, The Raven, seemed like an essential stop, but on a quick afternoon visit, I was met with haughty staff and a million-decibel Shania Twain soundtrack emanating from the kitchen.
Rob roams Wenlock Priory (above), which was sacked by Henry VIII at the Dissolution of the Monasteries
It took me to the pubs; It’s all low ceilings, exposed beams full of nooks and crannies, fireplaces and great food: a haddock, cheese and cream ‘smokie’ at The Talbot, home-made Scottish eggs at The George And Dragon and, best of all, a cottage pie at a seemingly bottomless tin shell at the Gaskell Arms.
As I walk past the medieval town hall the next morning, I spot a pair of iron shackles dangling from a beam. This was the city’s “whip post” in the days when the building was also the courthouse and justice was swift, merciless, and much more painful.
The city’s unique games will not be played again until next summer. But in the challenging size of pub grub and the exertion of trekking uphill along the Edge, the Olympic spirit seems to live on every day in this corner of Shropshire.