Say 'The Olympics' and which place springs to mind first? At the moment, it's bound to be Athens, but after this week's Open Country, perhaps more of us will think of Shropshire and the town of Much Wenlock. Dr William Penny Brookes, the town's doctor in the mid- nineteenth century, saw the need for a fitness regime for the local quarry workers and miners, not only to improve their physical condition but to stimulate their minds. Along with more formal instruction in reading to broaden the workers' education , Penny Brookes set up an annual games event which, the town is proud to claim, inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to found the modern Olympics. He visited Much Wenlock and the town archive boasts a letter from him, attributing his inspiration to the Shropshire town.
Helen Cromarty, a local historian who works with the Wenlock Olympian Society, tells Richard about Penny Brookes' particular form of 'muscular Christianity' - he'd been in France to see men returning, broken and defeated, from the Franco-Prussian War, and had been appalled by the idea that anyone should be expected to move from being a miner, a weaver or a bank clerk to being a front-line soldier. To Penny Brookes, the introduction of physical activity and mental stimulation would turn workers into stronger, fitter, better men, ready both for work and war.
War has left its mark on Jimmy Moore, who lives in Much Wenlock still, having come as an evacuee from Liverpool in 1941. He's now a veteran runner who, at nearly 70, attributes his physical and mental fitness to the thousands of training miles he has put in over the years in the Shropshire hills. Norman Wood, a local PE teacher who'd made Shropshire his adopted home, was horrified to see that the Wenlock Games were on the verge of extinction and made sure they were revived. The two of them tell Richard about the legacy the Games has left in the area and how much Penny Brookes should be respected, both for his vision and his respect for the working man. But how much of the spirit of 'sport for sport's sake' remains in the modern Olympics, they wonder?
And war has shaped the life of Natalie Hodgson, too. On arriving in Shropshire from London just after the war, she thought rural life 'the pits'. She'd had a stimulating job in the Foreign Office, spreading propaganda among German troops, and peacetime meant adjusting not only to a new, very simple life in the country, but to a new family life - her husband had spent years away from his wife and son and their seventh wedding anniversary was only their second together. Natalie was born before the Great War, and believes, in the spirit of Penny Brookes, that an active body and an active mind are the key to a long and healthy life.
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