Outside London, Olympics show off iconic England

Published June 08, 2012

| Associated Press

Medieval cottages crowned with thatched roofs. King Henry VIII's storied riverside palace. A wind-swept naval fort that helped to defend Britain's coastline during World War II.

Away from the bustle of London's Olympic stadium, the Summer Games will also showcase the country's postcard perfect rural charms, and highlight centuries of its history.

While it was Britain's vibrant capital that won the right to host the 2012 Games, events aren't confined to London. Spectators will flock to Wales and Scotland, to verdant hills in southern England, and even to a working farm — where rare breed sheep must make way for Olympic cyclists.

"It might be called London 2012, but really it's a countrywide event. There are places right across the country which are getting a chance to taste the Olympics," said Beverley Egan, of the Salvation Army charity, which owns a swath of eastern England countryside where the Olympic mountain bike competition will take place.

Egan, the organization's director of community services, lives close to the site, the 950-acre Hadleigh Farm, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) east of the London stadium, where cattle graze amid the ruins of a 700-year-old castle.

Sports fans can head to 10 venues outside Britain's capital. Canoeists will slalom through bubbling rapids at Lee Valley White Water Center just beyond London's northern outskirts, while rowing crews will compete on a lake at Eton Dorney, set inside a tranquil 400-acre park about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of the capital.

On England's southern coast, visitors will watch sailing events at Nothe Fort — a 19th century naval defense post. During World War II, troops fired the fort's heavy guns in warning on two suspicious ships, but later found the vessels were carrying refugees fleeing the Channel Islands, the only corner of Britain to come under Nazi occupation.

Quaint images of rolling hills will provide a quintessentially British backdrop to events beamed around the world. However lovely, they are also critical to the country's plans for capitalizing on the Olympics, which have cost Britain 9.3 billion pounds ($14.6 billion) to stage. Ministers hope prospective visitors will be captivated as they see historic landscapes and landmarks and book a vacation. They also hope potential investors can be wooed.

Competitors in road cycling races will travel into England's picturesque countryside as they compete for gold medals. Their route — 156 miles (250 kilometers) for men, 87 miles (140 kilometers) for women — begins outside Queen Elizabeth II's Buckingham Palace home, but quickly swaps London streets for tree-fringed country lanes.

Their path winds through fields of grazing deer in Richmond Park, bringing the Olympics into the southern England county of Surrey and to the historic Hampton Court Palace.

Home to Henry VIII from the mid-1500s, the palace sits at the heart of his scandalous personal life. It was here that he and his aides plotted England's break with the Roman Catholic church to allow the king to divorce. The king married two of his six wives here, too. Two were accused of adultery and beheaded.

Road race cyclists will flash by, headed toward the spine of chalk hills known as the North Downs — but competitors in time trial events will start and finish their races inside the palace grounds, where William Shakespeare and his company of actors once performed for King James I.

During the road race, athletes will continue past the ruins of the 12th Century Newark Priory, on through woodland copses shaded by canopies of trees and down heart-stopping, twisting slopes.

Alan Flaherty, a highway engineer at Surrey County Council and a road cycling fanatic since he first visited the Tour de France in 2004, helped to devise the course once organizers chose to take the event outside London.

Olympic authorities had planned for the route to snake through the capital, but the sport's governing body wanted a course that would better challenge riders and show off more iconic British views.

Flaherty was tapped to share some of his own favored paths. "I literally went out with my rucksack, a camera and a pen and paper and looked at the whole route and then reported back," he said.

The final course offers a checklist of famous British images — from Westminster Abbey to sheep-filled meadows — and some competitors have already interrupted training rides with Flaherty to snap pictures with their smartphones.

"It does manage to go past all the main tourist sites in London, starting and finishing on The Mall, and also takes in a huge amount of Surrey," Flaherty said. "It's a real contrast — all the countryside shows another element of Great Britain to the rest of the world."

Spectators, though not the riders who will speed by, can admire a vision of English nostalgia nestled along the course at Shere, an unspoiled village with a 12th century church, tea house, gently gurgling stream and cluster of thatched roofed cottages.

Nearby at Box Hill, a favorite southern England picnic spot and vantage point, competitors face a grueling ascent up the aptly named Zig Zag Road, an energy-sapping climb which men will complete nine times and women twice. The summit will host about 15,000 spectators, while tens of thousands more are expected to pack along the remainder of the course.

Flaherty said that since he helped to finalize the route scores of enthusiasts have taken to the course with their own bikes — meaning he must find new paths for his own peaceful weekend cycle rides.

"I've been cycling around here for about 25 years and one of the things I liked is that it's always really quiet," Flaherty said, ruefully. "Then I got involved with the Olympics and now there are hundreds of people out on the route every weekend. The lesson is to be careful what you wish for."

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