Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Does Wandlebury have a claim to Olympic history?

Does Wandlebury have a claim to Olympic history?

As Cambridge residents get set to welcome the Olympic torch to Cambridge next week, local charity Cambridge Past, Present & Future (CambridgePPF) reveals that the city could lay claim to a slice of the game’s history. Charity member and local architect Richard Lyon delved into the archives and pulled the story together: 

Some 300 years before the re-invention of the modern form of the Olympic Games in the late 19th century, CambridgePPF’s Wandlebury Country Park was – possibly – an ‘Olympic Games’ site.  Certainly undergraduate ‘games’ were held there in the 16th century, possibly even before the well documented Cotswold Games – which were first organised in 1604 during the reign of James I at Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.

At that time, Wandlebury was a treeless area of open chalk-land with Iron Age earthworks forming a large circular arena. In the town, undergraduate life in the Colleges was subject to strict puritanical discipline so students sought out opportunities for exercise, fun, and games as a break from their studies.

In earlier times, student ‘leisure’ had revolved around tournaments, jousting, hunting, but as the English Renaissance developed in the Elizabethan Age, new sports evolved – and the area at Wandlebury provided a natural arena for such activities. University authorities took every step possible to curtail suchsecular fun. The Cooper Annals from 1574 state that the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and the Heads of Colleges issued a decree forbidding “scholars of what degree so ever, to resort or go to any play or game either kept at Gog-Magog Hills or elsewhere within five miles of Cambridge on pain of a fine of 6s. 8d.”

Wandlebury was popular for such forbidden exercise and leisure activities because any approaching University Proctor could be spotted from a long distance. In the 17th century, the antiquary John Layer wrote about the “unhonest games in Wandlebury Ring”.  A Mr. Robinson even had a five-year Licence to run Games at the Gog Magog Hills, before this was later rescinded.

In 1620 a famous bull arrived in Cambridge, whereupon a “baiting” was arranged to take place at the Gogs, along with other games.  But again the Vice-Chancellor intervened to prevent the expected sport "where bowling, running, jumping, shooting, and wrestling were to be practiced for 4-6 weeks, under the designation of the ‘Olympic Games’.

Today, an interesting comparison can be made between the size of the London 2012 Olympic Stadium at Stratford – which has a circumference of 900m (2953 ft) – and the 985m (3231 ft) circular Iron Age earthworks at Wandlebury.

Thankfully wrestling and bull baiting have given way to activities such as nature rambles and picnics and people are very welcome to walk or run the various routes, which exist at Wandlebury today.

Wandlebury Country Park is open to the public and managed by the local charity, CambridgePPF. 
Parking on site costs £2.50. CambridgePPF members can park for free. For more information go to:  

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