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Royal Processions and Olympic Feats

This is a transcript of episode 16 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Professor Martin Polley, Deborah Lamb and Ben Fletcher as we continue our journey through the history of sport and leisure in England.

A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable, a history of England in 100 places.  I'm Emma Barnett and in this series we're exploring the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today.

So, how does it work? Ten categories, ten expert judges and thousands of your nominations will lead us to a list of 100 places that together tell England's story. And if you are enjoying the series don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss an episode. And if you're listening on iTunes, please do rate this podcast and go on, leave us a review.

So far in this series, we've heard about some of the countries most important homes and gardens.  We've travelled to sites which tell of great journeys and we've learned which places that have witnessed incredible moments of scientific discovery.

Don't forget to visit historicengland.org.uk/100places to learn more about the overall campaign and how you can get involved.

Today we'll reveal the final two sport and leisure locations chosen by our expert judge for this category Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.

With me in the studio is Professor Martin Polley, Director of the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University and Deborah Lamb from Historic England. Thank you very much for joining me.

Today's episode brings us firmly in to the modern day although we start with a location that has a sporting heritage dating back to 1660. In this year, King Charles II ordered the stretch of parkland outside St James's Palace to be redesigned in a formal style. The new landscape included a long canal and avenues of trees that flanked the parkland on either side. And along one such avenue the French game of paille-maille was played on long fenced courts, a bit like croquet. Take the maille from that and you have a stretch of land that we know today as the Mall. Now, what do we know it for today Martin?

Martin Polley:
I think in sporting terms it's probably better known as being the finishing point for the London Marathon which has been run every year since 1981. And of course it also doubled up as the finishing point for the 2012 Olympic Marathon.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, well our judge, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson described those last moments of the Marathon, when you turn on to the Mall and you know you have 300 yards left as 'painful and joyous'. Have you ever done it?

Martin Polley:
I've not done it. But if we bear in mind that Tanni Grey-Thompson won that Marathon six times, she knows what she's talking about.

Emma Barnett:
She does.

Martin Polley:
I have never done the Marathon.  It's okay, a big regret that I never quite made it, but it looks fantastic.

Emma Barnett:
But the Marathon, I mean it's a great use of the space isn't it?  It's hugely public, Deborah, it's everybody together if they've managed to do it, but also the spectators as well of course.

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, exactly. 800,000 spectators which is fantastic. And it … the whole route, actually the whole route of the London Marathon goes past a number of fabulous London landmarks. And it really feels like a part of London actually. And London's daily life.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, and I mean, since '94, the Mall has been home to so many incredible moments, because tired runners, you know, go around the corner at Buckingham Palace. They're cheered on by the crowds, but also, it's not just sport though.  We have national moments of importance on the Mall as well, don't we Martin?

Martin Polley:
That's right. Obviously, it's an important place for Royal processions. It's a crucial part of any state occasions, Royal weddings, coronations and so on. So, it's a very iconic place in the heart of London. And how I think this one differs from the other places on our list, is it's absolutely not a sporting venue but it's a venue that sport has appropriated and made its own.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, sport and of course, music as well with concerts going on along there. Just to say, it's nearly kilometre long. Used of course for Royal processions and state visits for which the flags are flown. And the red tarmac road is meant to give the impression of passing along a red carpet. Have we ever thought about that? I've never thought about that. 

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, it never, never occurred to me.

Martin Polley:
As soon as you say it, it makes perfect sense.

Emma Barnett:
Yeah.

Martin Polley:
But I must say it never occurred to me.

Emma Barnett:
Totally. Well Queen Victoria when she came to the throne and made Buckingham Palace her residence, the Mall's status as a Royal processional route was firmly cemented Martin?

Martin Polley:
It was, absolutely. And the English architect, Sir Aston Webb was commissioned by Victoria to redesign the Mall as we know it now, with Admiralty Arch leading in to Trafalgar Square and then obviously, the Queen Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace and the façade of the Palace at the end. So, it's an incredible famous instantly recognisable site.

Emma Barnett:
Yes and they've had big tea parties along there recently of course to mark the Queen, haven't they?

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, I think its fantastic actually just as a space which forms part of the part of the stage for our national life. I mean, you know, even back to VE Day in 1945 it was the place where people gathered. It's the place where the Royal Family appear on the balcony and kind of greet the crowds as we saw more recently with the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. And you know Diamond Jubilee and the Jubilee Concert, it all happens there.

Emma Barnett:
And it's amazing people still want to gather along there, Martin in some ways, isn't it?

Martin Polley:
I suppose because it's the closest that people can get to the heart of Royal London in that public space. And you say, its got such a long tradition. Let's not forget Royal funerals as well, as being part of …

Emma Barnett:
Yes.

Martin Polley:
… that history. So, it has such a long association.

Emma Barnett:
Well this is sport and leisure as our category, so let's bring it back to the history of the Marathon actually as a sporting event. Not, just a 20th century creation, is it Martin?

Martin Polley:
Not at all. There is obviously, an incredibly long tradition of distance running. The Marathon itself was created really for the first Olympic Games at Athens in 1896, inspired by the legend of the Greek Messenger who was supposed to have run from Marathon to Athens with news of a victory in 490 B.C. Obviously, it's an invented tradition. Sports love having their own [laughter] tradition myths. And that's very much part of the marathons.

Emma Barnett:
Well you've written about many, many hundreds of years of the Olympics and traditions and sports, so you will know them. But why is it the length it is? What's the story there?

Martin Polley:
The length is very, very controversial and loads of people have different views. The original idea was simply to run from Marathon to Athens in the 1896 Olympics and in the following Olympics, Paris 1900, St Louis 1904, the idea was to get as close to that distance as possible. Around about 40 kilometres. There simply was no set distance.

And coming in to the London Olympics of 1908, again the guidance was simply a road race of about 40 kilometres. And the Polytechnic Harriers organised it and they ran it from Windsor Castle to White City. And the distance was really completely random. They started it on the lawn at Windsor Castle so that the runners would have space to spread out a little before they got to the streets where the spectators were and it finished in front of the Royal box.

So, there was no great secret to this, it was simply the distance they came up with.

Emma Barnett:
Which was 26.2 miles?

Martin Polley:
That's right, yeah. Completely random in either imperial or metric.

Emma Barnett:
I'm quite upset it's quite random, Deborah. I thought there was going to be some amazing maths to this.

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, I know, I always thought there must be some significance in the length. I always knew it was 26.2 miles but never why.

Martin Polley:
Yeah. No, the legend always goes that it was going to be a set length and then they added some to make it finish in front of the Royal box. But all the documentary evidence at the time says it was the start that went further to start on the lawn on the Windsor Castle so that they wouldn't get crowded by the fans.

Emma Barnett:
So, how did the official London Marathon as we know it today come to be, Martin?

Martin Polley:
This was a great one. It started off, there was a wave of city marathons in the 1970s of which New York was the most famous. And a number of British runners took it on and two of them, particular famous runners, Christopher Brasher and John Disley, both former Olympians themselves. And Brasher of course one of Roger Bannister's pace setters in the first four minute mile. They ran New York in 1979 and just thought that London needs something like this. So, they spent two years planning it, convinced the Greater London Council to let them get on with it. And it was born in 1981.

Emma Barnett:
And how many runners took part? We've got this here haven't we Deborah?

Deborah Lamb:
7,800 runners took part in the first year, in 1981. And today, there are more than 40,000 people take part. And so many of those people are doing it for charity which is what I find is one of the really moving things about the London Marathon.

Emma Barnett:
Have you done it?

Deborah Lamb:
I haven't. No.

Emma Barnett:
Okay.  Good.  I'm feeling good about myself now, I'm sitting with people who also haven't done this.  The very first women's race was won by a woman called Joyce Smith.  A 43 year old mum of two.  That's pretty impressive.

Deborah Lamb:
That's really impressive, isn't it? I don't think I could have done that.

Emma Barnett:
Well she did very well indeed. But I mean, the sort of, the course itself, it's rather flat, isn't it, Martin?

Martin Polley:
It is yeah. And it is important that a wheelchair event stated in 1983 alongside the road race. And the fact that it is such a fast flat course, I think helps here. It takes in so many fabulous London landmarks. It looks great for the spectators there. It looks great on TV. And I imagine it looks great for the runners, although they're probably worrying about other things.

Emma Barnett:
We're all going to imagine that. [laughter].

Martin Polley:
Yeah, right. So, you start in Blackheath. It crosses the river at Tower Bridge. Takes in a big chunk of Docklands and then heads west along the embankment to pass through Parliament Square. Around the corner, St James's Park and then on to the Mall, this fantastic iconic ending.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, on the Mall. Well now on to our tenth and final location on our sport and leisure top ten. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson says, 'what happened here in 2012, showed the world what we can do. It creates jobs, apprenticeships and brings together sport and cultural events.' I'm talking about the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London. Not only home to London 2012 Olympics and para Olympics, but today includes the London stadium, aquatic centre, parklands, waterways, playgrounds and many more destinations for sporting and leisure events. We took a trip down there.

Ben Fletcher:
My name is Ben Fletcher. I am Director of Communication, Marketing and Strategy at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It's located predominantly around Stratford. Bits of it in the borough of Newham, bits in the borough of Hackney and also bits in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

So, it's a big old site. It's the biggest park that's been created in London since the Victorian era. And it was a place that before the games was largely, not completely, but largely beyond use. It was toxic land. It had had a long term industrial history. Chemical dyes, petroleum companies. And part of the rationale for bidding for the games and bringing them to this location was to make the investment that was needed to bring this enormous site of several hundred acres back in to use.

In this part of London on the park, we invented petrol and we invented plastic. So, the industrial legacy of this place is absolutely key. Those are two of the inventions that have absolutely transformed the world. And the 2012 story was about taking this bit of London, this bit of the world that had been forgotten about and putting it back on the map. And over a billion people watched that amazing opening ceremony. And suddenly this part of London that had been, not completely, but in parts forgotten about, was back on the world stage.

We are now largely regarded as the best and most successful Olympic legacy programme in Olympic history.

In the five years since the games we now already have thousands of people living in new homes that weren't here before. Millions of people visiting the park. We've got thousands of people working in new jobs that have been created here. And if there is a better picture of an Olympic legacy than seeing kids sitting in the seats on their way to swimming lesson, watching an Olympic medallist train, I can't think of one. It's absolutely glorious.

Earlier this year, we hosted the World Athletics Championships and we also hosted shortly before the World Para Athletics Championships. And five years on from 2012, having two really big events in the stadium again was important. But I think the moment that many of us were really genuinely moved by, was during the Para Athletics Championships there were two days where every school child in London was given the opportunity to come and watch a world class sport. And they were beautiful sunny days. And if you happen to be standing in the park, saw tens of thousands of kids in crocodiles of all ages from five to 16, being walked with their teachers and their parents through the park.

And then the stadium was full of school kids who where absolutely blown away by their day out in the stadium seeing these fantastic Para Athletics champions perform in front of them. Even the toughest cynic amongst us didn't have a dry eye that day. And one of the great things about having the Para Athletics back as well as having the Para Olympics in 2012, was that I think people felt that this is one of those places in the world where they can come and there's no impediment to getting around and everything is designed to work for them whatever their disability. And I think that's something we're genuinely terrifically proud about.

Emma Barnett:
The development wasn't just the home of the 2012 Olympics and Para Olympics, it also played a major part in the development of the local East London community too. Which is important to bear in mind, isn't it, Deborah?

Deborah Lamb:
It is indeed, yes. 5,000 people were involved in building the site.

Emma Barnett:
Which you have to think about as a legacy as well, Martin, don't you when you are building these places, cos there is a bit of a history and a tendency with Olympic parks and stadiums in times gone by for them to become wastelands afterwards.

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. I mean, legacy has been an important issue for the Olympic Games since really the 1980s. And any city bidding to host the games has to show what it will do with the legacy. But there have been some absolute disasters. And Athens, 2004 is seen as the absolute white elephant of this. And Rio 2016, unfortunately is looking to head the same way.

Emma Barnett:
Is it?

Martin Polley:
Yeah, absolutely. Disused stadiums, facilities in the wrong places. And so I think that the central government, local government for London and the planners had to get this right for London.

Emma Barnett:
They had to get it right. I mean, 111 acres of open space which I think people don't necessarily know about. Meadows, wetlands, ecological habitats from all over the world represented.

Martin Polley:
That's right. I mean, it is a wonderful place to walk through. It's like a great park with some fantastic sports venues attached now. The greening of that space, the cleaning of the water, the opening of that space up to the local community, I think has been joyous to see.

Emma Barnett:
And how much do you think, especially with some of the people that you will have known working on this Deborah, that a park and a project like this can change the mentality of the people who live around it?

Deborah Lamb:
I think it can.  I mean, this was you know, … this was a world class facility on the scale that can actually change the identity of an area in terms of kind of people being associated with it. And we've seen a number of other things around there as well. Around the Stratford area which have really helped to boost the area.

Emma Barnett:
Well we've talked about the beginning of the Para Olympics in an earlier episode. But the wider Olympics movement Martin, tell us about that?

Martin Polley:
Well it started off in the 1890s, the idea of a Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Although he was very strongly influenced by an earlier British festival, the Wenlock Olympian Games from Shropshire. And the idea from the start was to create an internationalist movement, let's settle our differences on the playing field and in the swimming pool rather than on the battlefield.

And the first games took place in Athens in 1896. They obviously took their name from the ancient Olympic Games that they look back on. Again, there's a lot of invented tradition here about wanting to stress that legacy and heritage of the classical world. And the games then took off. A little bit shaky in the first years before the First World War, but they quickly became the most major international sporting event.

Emma Barnett:
And, why do you think what happened at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in 2012 was so important? I mean, Deborah, if I start with you.

Deborah Lamb:
I think if we remember, when London was announced as the hosts of the 2012 Olympic … and Olympics in July 2005, the very next day was the London bombings. And I remember Ken Livingstone made a speech then that was so moving and he focused on London as a great multicultural international city and talked about how we had to hold on to that.

And for me, that was the whole spirit of the 2012 Olympics. You could see it and feel it in the streets. When you got on the tubes to go out to the venues it was fantastic. That's what it meant to me.

Emma Barnett:
What about to you Martin?

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. I mean partly as a historian, I loved the fact that London became the first city to host the Olympics for a third time after 1908 and 1948. The other thing I think that's fantastic, is the volunteering culture. The Olympics need volunteers to make them work. And for London 2012, around about 70,000 people got involved in everything. One of my former students was involved in ironing the ribbons on people's medals for example. Right through every …

Emma Barnett:
And even … and in the opening ceremony as well. I mean, I have been privileged enough to have met most of the suffragettes who marched you know to represent different parts of our history which you must have loved as a historian.

Martin Polley:
That opening ceremony was fantastic. Obviously there was no way they were going to compete in scale with what Beijing had done in 2008, so, they told with Danny Boyle obviously, as the creative genius behind it.  Told this incredible story of British history from industrialisation, political change, the birth of the NHS, all leading in to this wonderful multicultural moment of 2012.

Emma Barnett:
Which about wraps up our sports and leisure top ten quite beautifully. Thank you very much to both of you. To Professor Martin Polley and Deborah Lamb, thank you.

Deborah Lamb:
Thank you.

Martin Polley:
Thanks.

Emma Barnett:
Inspiration stuff for even the biggest couch potato out there. It's been fascinating finding out how sporting locations have shaped us as a nation and how our leisure time has played such a vital part in our collective social history.

Let's quickly recap then on our sport and leisure top ten, as chosen by our expert judge, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. They were: Lord's Cricket Ground in London; Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool; Blackpool Tower Ballroom in Blackpool; The All England Club in Wimbledon; Twickenham Stadium in Richmond; Saltdean Lido in Brighton; Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire; The Crucible in Sheffield; the Mall in London; and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

Thank you very much to my guests Professor Martin Polley and Deborah Lamb. It has been a pleasure talking to you.

Next time, I'll be back with Monica Arle's selections for our music and literature category as nominated by you.

You can find out more about the whole campaign to uncover the 100 places which best tell England's story by visiting historicengland.org.uk/100places. You can also join the conversation and please do, by using the #100places, that's the number 100, on Twitter to tell us what these places mean to you.  And do make sure you rate, review and subscribe on your podcase player so you never miss an episode.

I'm Emma Barnett and I'll see you next time on Irreplaceable, a history of England in 100 places.

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