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Birthplace of the Olympics.

WITH just ten weeks to go to the Beijing Olympics, it's well worth a trip to Much Wenlock to learn about the surprising origin of the Modern Games.

Especially as there's a great deal more to this place than initially meets the eye.

Unlike many parts of Britain, Shropshire in general feels like the England of old rather than what it has become.

Unspoilt by progress would be a good way of summing it up.

Take Ryan's butchers on the High Street.

If you are surprised to see people queuing out of the door on a sunny Saturday afternoon, get this... the lady in the nearby museum told me that the locals also queue up outside at 6am on Tuesday mornings to get their hands on the lasagne made by the butcher's wife.

Oh, the beauty of a life that hasn't been tarnished by vast trading estates and supermarkets.

Then there's the Much Wenlock Deli across the road. Try the amazing triple ginger cake with homemade ginger ice cream here and you'll soon begin to wonder why every coffee shop in the city relies on selling bland muffins.

But down to business. The museum at the point where High Street meets Wilmore Street and Barrow Street offers a lovely summary of what this area is all about.

It details everything from the town's retail history to the works of local author Mary Webb as well as highlighting Wenlock Edge, an escarpment of such outstanding natural beauty that it's cared for by the National Trust.

And then there's the contribution to global history made by William Penny Brookes.

The doctor was born in the town in 1809 and his family home can be seen opposite the church at 4, Wilmore Street.

His idea for the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850 continues to this day.

More importantly, he welcomed Barron Pierre de Coubertin to the Games in 1890 which led to the creation of the modern Olympics proper from 1896.

Sadly, Dr Brookes died in 1895 before the games were reborn in Athens, but his spirit certainly lives on in Much Wenlock.

Partly financed by European Regional Development Funds in 2000-01, you can now follow in his footsteps around the 2,100m Wenlock Olympian Trail.

This includes the Museum itself - which was originally developed thanks to Dr Brookes as a Market Hall, later becoming a Memorial Hall (1919) and then a cinema - and the 1540 Guildhall where Dr Brookes presided as a JP for more than 40 years.

While the Olympian history of Much Wenlock is certainly topical, the town's most amazing attraction is the timeless Wenlock Priory.

Built for the Cluniac order of monks, at 350ft it was possibly the longest church of its day according to Julie Pinnell's Wenlock Priory guide book for English Heritage.

Even now, with the remains of the south transept still standing at more than 70ft tall, these astonishing ruins are as impressive in their own right as anything I've seen in Rome or Pompeii.

Although there's evidence of a Roman building on the site, the first monastery dates back to AD680 before being replaced by a college of priests just before 1040.

Wenlock's first English Prior was appointed in 1376 and in 1395 a charter declared it to be English.

Having originally been built over a 40-year period from shortly after 1200, with many endowments from regular visitor Henry III, the new church at Wenlock ceased to exist during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Having survived the initial wave of closures due to the 1536 Act of Supression, the monks and prior signed a deed of surrender on January 24, 1540.

Much of the stone was used for local houses, farm buildings and walls while the gold and jewellery was taken to the Jewel House in the Tower of London.

The ruins include a rare 'lavabo' - a tiered washing fountain.

Admission is pounds 3.50 for adults, pounds 1.80 children (pounds 2.80 concessions). Open every day from 10am-5pm (last entry 4.30pm) with restrictions after August 31.


DRESSED FOR SUCCESS... some of the original Wenlock Olympics competitors.; ROMANTIC RUINS... Madison Young makes daisy chains in the grounds on Wenlock Priory
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Jun 6, 2008
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