The Other Olympics
Damar Harsanto, WEEKENDER | Thu, 10/27/2011 12:53 PM |
London is gearing up to host the Olympic Games next year, but England was the site of another historic sporting event hundreds of years ago.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. Doing so can lead you in the wrong direction … although it can also introduce you to an unexpectedly interesting story.
I learned this lesson when I bought The First Ever English Olympick Games in 2008, when I was preparing to cover the Beijing Olympics. I thought the book, on sale for a bargain Rp 20,000 (US$2.50), would give me an insight into the history of the quadrennial event.
I was wrong. It had nothing to do with the modern Olympics. Instead, author Celia Haddon tells of the first-ever English sports games held four centuries ago. Eyes on Beijing, I retired the book to the shelves.
But I thought about it again recently, when I received an invitation to travel to London. I took the book down, blew off the dust and started skimming through it; before long, I was enthralled.
The book was written in 2004, when London was bidding to host the 2012 Games. I was surprised to learn that the London Olympics would fall exactly 400 years after the first English Olimpick Games was held on a grassy hill in the Cotswolds, in west-central England.
The event, also known as the Cotswolds Games, was hailed as the predecessor of the modern sporting extravaganza.
“Those early ‘Olimpick’ competitors were as remote as you could imagine from the Olympic stars of today, and the ‘sports’ included singlestick, wrestling, jumping in sacks, dancing and even shin-kicking,” the British Olympic Association wrote.
“But whatever the eccentric nature of the event, this was the pre-dawn of the Olympic Movement, and the Cotswold Games began the historical thread in Britain that was ultimately to lead to the creation of the modern Olympics.”
The bulk of information on the Games, according to the book, comes from a celebratory anthology of poetry, Annalia Dubrensia, published in 1636. The Games’ founder, lawyer Robert Dover, wrote one of the poems, and his 68 lines of verse is his only account of the event.
The anthology was republished by Victorian antiquarians, who hoped, rather wistfully, that playwright William Shakespeare may have attended the events. After all, his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon is only a dozen miles from Chipping Campden, the Olympick venue.
Dover initiated the Games as a festival for the common people. King James I gave his approval and, as a sign of royal favor, bestowed upon him a coat of arms, “Do Ever Good”, a play on the lawyer’s surname.
Buoyed by the fascinating story of the historic Games, I arrived in London. The countdown to the 2012 Olympics has already started in the media, including talk about plans for the torch relay and Britain’s would-be heroes.
A damper was quickly put on my plan to visit the Games as I read travel brochures. The Cotswolds garner a brief mention among the more popular tourist destinations, and London travel agencies discourage day travel to the area because of a reported lack of public buses there. A Londoner friend advised me that, although a visit to the famously pretty Cotswolds was worthwhile, I’d need a car.
Further browsing led me to a couple of better reasons why visitors should spend more time in the Cotswolds. First, “you will need time to enjoy the area and, secondly, early morning and evening are the most romantic times in the Cotswolds, often with glorious sunsets and beautiful early morning birdsong”, as one site put it.
That made me determined to visit, getting two friends to come along with me. Despite the advice to stay overnight, we had only one full day to enjoy everything.
To Hill With It
We left London at 8 a.m. by train, and stopped off to spend about four hours touring the city of Oxford. We then set off for one of the nearest stations to the Cotswolds, Moreton-in-Marsh.
The travel brochure’s advance billing about a lack of tourists was correct, and we were the only passengers on the big, clean bus to Chipping Campden. Along the winding and narrow road, we saw vast pastures, with glimpses of grazing sheep and sprawling stone houses. We kept on anxiously looking at our guidebook for clues we were headed in the right direction.
After about 30 minutes, we arrived at Chipping Campden. We quickly spotted Dover’s Café, sharing a name with the Olympick Games founder. We breathed a sigh of relief when the woman serving us at the small cafe confirmed that we had come to the right place.
We had made it to the home of the Olympicks, but now we had to make our way to its “ground zero”, Dover’s Hill, the plateau above Chipping Campden overlooking the Vale of Evesham where the event was held all those centuries ago.
Pat, a silver-haired woman in the tourist information center, came to the rescue.
“You should have come here last week. We just finished the festival,” she told us, adding that thousands of people took part and all the streets had been cordoned off.
“In the evening, the festivities were brought to a close as people came down from Dover’s Hill in a procession of torchlights and fireworks. They then put them out in a box before entering the town. Otherwise, they could have set the town ablaze,” she added jokingly.
Along with the festival, the town is getting into the spirit of its claim to sporting fame in other ways. There are souvenir T-shirts with funny slogans, as well as an official website, http://www.olimpickgames.co.uk.
With evening falling, we decided to take a taxi instead of walking to the hills. Pat made the necessary calls, because “taxis” in this small town are actually private cars owned by the locals.
Our driver was Barry Roberts, a retired firefighter from Liverpool and a resident of the town for 20 years.
“One participant came riding a horse with a coat of arms and a feathered hat to pose as Robert Dover,” Barry said of the previous week’s commemoration. “I think more people will come to visit this hill as the London Olympic Games approaches.”
He also told us that in the past the area was known for its wool and wine, with the valley a vineyard for the ancient Romans who colonized England.
Another piece of history nearby – which we had no time to visit – is the Kiftsgate Stone, which marks the moot (or meeting place) of the Saxons.
But we had managed to see the sprawling hill where those historic games had taken place all those years ago. As we were about to leave, a group of tourists from London arrived.
“What’s this place?” one man asked Barry.
OK, so maybe our smiles were a little smug at the realization that we knew more about the history of this place than some English people.
As we had been warned, the erratic public transportation schedule made returning to London difficult. But we managed to get the last bus back to Moreton-in-Marsh, and returned to London by midnight after stopping for dinner in Reading.
Looking back on the journey, we were pleased that we had just traversed one of England’s less traveled paths on the trail of sports history. And it was all because of a little book picked up by mistake.
Audrey Progastama Petriny and Agung Setyahadi also contributed to this story. The writer visited the UK at the invitation of AirAsia to attend the AirAsia British MotoGP in Silverstone, UK.