Thursday, August 12, 2010

Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital
1) Much Wenlock

Much Wenlock rooftopsThe Olympic Games won't be coming to Shropshire in 2012. But there'll still be an Olympic Games here on the second weekend in July - the original Games, the one that inspired everything. Because the entire Olympic movement was kickstarted by a Victorian doctor bringing his community together on a West Midlands recreation ground. It's come very a long way since.

Much Wenlock is a proper small town with ten streets and a church, located a long way from anywhere important. OK that's not quite true. Shrewsbury's half an hour up the road, and the Industrial Revolution erupted a few miles away at Ironbridge. But Much Wenlock itself lurks in an isolated self-sufficient spot, packed with a population of only 2600, surrounded by charming rolling hills. Remote enough that it took me five hours to get there from London, and another five home again. Even more unexpected, then, that this should be a place of pilgrimage for those seeking the spark which lit the Olympic flame.

Wenlock Olympian Society memorabiliaDr William Penny Brookes was Much Wenlock's very own superhero. As well as being the local doctor, he also took a keen interest in the health and wellbeing of the town's population. Experiments he carried out at the main school proved that physical exercise made children fitter - a finding which helped roll out PT lessons across countless Victorian schoolyards nationwide. He restored the town's Guildhall, enticed the railways to link here and established a society to help local farmers to read. But his enduring legacy came via the Wenlock Olympian Society, an egalitarian sporting guild open to all, which ran contrary to all the elitist ideals of athletics associations of the day. From the 1850s an annual Games was held each year on the Windmill Field, mixing athletics with country sports, and open to allcomers. Pageantry was an important part of the weekend, and most definitely the taking part rather than necessarily the winning.

News of WPB's Olympian Games spread to France, and the ears of a certain Baron Pierre de Coubertin. He had plans for some sort of classical sporting competition back home, and made a special visit to Much Wenlock in October 1890 to see how the experts did it. It rained all day but the townspeople put on a plucky performance for the 27 year-old Baron and he left much inspired. William died a year before the inaugural Olympic revival in 1896, but his ideals live on into 2012 and beyond.
"Much Wenlock is a town in Shropshire, a county on the border of Wales, and if the Olympic Games that modern Greece has not yet been able to revive still survives today, it is due not to a Greek but to Dr. W. P. Brookes. It is he who inaugurated them forty years ago, and it is still he, now 82 years old but still alert and vigorous, who continues to organize and inspire them... He rests on the principles of the past which are just as true and noble today as they were in ancient times in the gymnasium of Athens, but their form is modern." (Baron Pierre de Coubertin, November 1890)
MW Olympian TrailMuch Wenlock celebrates its greatest son with an Olympian Trail around the town. It's marked by bronze plaques in the pavement, starting off from the Museum (endearing, Brookes-packed) then heading out via the Corn Exchange, a coaching inn and the Raven Hotel. The trails' nicely done, with free maps and information boards and everything, which'll help you spot William's place of birth and the family grave by the parish church [photo]. Ditto the Windmill Field, which looks much like any other recreation ground with a school and leisure centre nextdoor and a bowling green down the far end [photo]. Spectators used to pay a shilling and sixpence for a seat on the hill to watch the running and 'tilting' and all the other Olympian excitement (although they'd never pay today because a line of tall trees has grown up to block the view). The good Baron himself planted one of the oaks, and a plaque beneath commemorates the event.

Even without the Olympic connection, Much Wenlock's a pleasant place to while away a few hours. You can look around the Guildhall in the summer for a quid, or pay a bit more to look round the ruins of medieval Wenlock Priory. The High Street's short but 'proper', with a delightful first-/second-hand bookshop and a family butchers where the queue invariably stretches out onto the pavement. And if all that gets too much, head out west on Victoria Road and you can be up on the hilltops in less than half an hour. A network of footpaths leads up onto Wenlock Edge - a limestone escarpment which runs for 15 miles between here and Craven Arms. Initially there are gently-sloping fields, then suddenly you realise you're walking along a high narrow path with a quarry down to one side and steep wooded scarp on the other. Find a gap through the trees and there are wistful views across undulating farmland towards A.E. Housman's blue-remembered hills. [photo]

OK, so Olympia in Greece is the true birthplace of the modern Olympic Games, but I was more than impressed by the Shropshire town whose ideals helped inspire a global movement. They've not forgotten the great William Penny Brookes round here, nor his annual Games, and London 2012's Olympic mascot will help the rest of the world to remember too. Good old Wenlock.

The Wenlock Olympian Society
A Walking Tour of Much Wenlock

Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital
2) Stoke Mandeville

London's Olympic closing ceremony will take place exactly two years from today. But that won't be the end of the show. Three weeks later the other Games kick off, the Games far fewer people follow, the Paralympics. And they have their their roots in English suburbia, 30 miles outside London in deepest Buckinghamshire. So I've been there too. After Wenlock, Mandeville.

Stoke Mandeville stadiumThe seeds of the Paralympics were unintentionally sown when an Aylesbury hospital was chosen for the treatment of military casualties during World War 2. A specialist spinal injuries unit was set up, whose expertise continued and grew into peacetime under the directorship of Dr Ludwig Guttmann. When London hosted the Olympic Games in 1948, hospital staff organised a special athletics event for 16 disabled ex-soldiers, and the annual Stoke Mandeville Games were born. In 1952 a Dutch team turned up, launching the first international sporting competition for disabled athletes. And in 1960 the competition ventured abroad to Rome, taking place alongside the city's able-bodied Olympics. Known at the time as the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games, this is the moment when the Paralympics are deemed to have been born. And yes, we came second. Great Britain's very good at coming second in the Paralympics, but we've never yet topped the medal table.

If you want to get to Stoke Mandeville hospital (not via an ambulance), there's one important thing to remember. Don't get off the train at Stoke Mandeville station. They have big signs up on the platforms warning you not to, and to alight at Aylesbury instead. The hospital was originally an isolation unit for cholera sufferers, so was very deliberately built in the nomansland halfway between the two settlements. Aylesbury's long since grown up and swallowed the place, but the hospital retains the name of the small commuter village down the road.

Stoke Mandeville Stadium

I got off the train at Stoke Mandeville, because I'm like that, although almost nobody else did. This is a sleepy Chiltern backwater, peaceful but not overflowing with character. The Post Office is the sort of place that sells Silvine exercise books and Tunnock's tea cakes. The village hall is the sort of place that hosts the Mid Bucks Rabbit Show. And the bus stop is the sort of place that boasts only five services a day, so I walked to the hospital instead. It was only a mile across the fields towards the big chimney in the distance, past a couple of extremely tame sheep, but there were rather a lot of stiles on the way so I'd never have managed the journey in a wheelchair.

OK, so Stoke Mandeville Hospital looks very much like a modern hospital. A huge organic cluster of rambling buildings, some thrusting and modern, others barely-altered prefabs from the dawn of the NHS [photo]. The Spinal Injuries Unit is one of the more up-to-date wings, with a friendly 'Welcome' scrawled across its roof. But I headed round the bleak northern perimeter road, past several staff car parks, to catch a glimpse of the legendary stadium. There it was through the fence, behind the junior doctors' accommodation block, a ring of eight blue lanes curving off towards a distant hedge. All the usual athletics facilities, by the looks of things, including spaces for chucking things and nets for chucking them into. In fact nothing extra special at all, because this is Sport For All, and round here everyone uses the same track. [photo]

Stoke Mandeville Olympic VillageBut not every sports track has an Olympic Village attached. Most of it is bungalows, obviously, in a none-too fetching shade of sludge-brown brick surrounded by unkempt shrubbery. The village was built for the one occasion the fledgling Paralympics came to Stoke Mandeville, in 1984, when the hosting honours were shared transatlantically with New York. Nextdoor is the two-storey Olympic Lodge, with a ramp, obviously, which doubles up as an accessible hotel and conference centre. And a big steely sports centre, named after dear old Dr Guttman, within which lurk a badminton hall, swimming pool and (obviously) a gym. Looking at the Aylesburyfolk walking inside to use the facilities, and pumping iron through the smoked glass windows, you'd never guess this place had any special disabled function at all.

But there's a proper hint of the old days across the car park. A row of ramshackle white huts, of the kind that ought to house a pack or three of postwar boy scouts, unsullied by upgrade since their sporting debut [photo]. One's the Shooting Hall, where wheelchair athletes won medals for target practice, and another's the Wallace-Taylor Cuesports Room, where sedentary snooker players potted black for gold. And there's an indoor bowls centre too, even though that's not a Paralympic sport any more, because they used to do things differently here.

Disabled sport has moved on big time since 1948, so that when the Paralympics return to the UK in 2012 they'll have vastly outgrown this pioneering provincial sports centre. But its legacy lives on, both around here and around the world. And it's thanks to Stoke Mandeville that in precisely two years' time the London Games won't be over, there'll still be half the fun to go.

Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital
3) Dorney Lake

Not all of London 2012 will take place in London. The football's heading all across the UK, for example, but I'm going to ignore that. Instead I'm heading off to the four other non-London venues which have been selected to host a medal-winning opportunity in two years' time. One's a heck of a long way away from the Olympic Village, while the other three are in the inner Home Counties. First up, close by, the rowing/canoeing/kayaking.

Not every Olympic venue is a drain on the public purse. This is perhaps just as well when the requirement is a category A rowing lake. To host an international level event requires a two-kilometre-long stretch of still water, broad enough for eight lanes of oarsmanship, plus a separate lake running parallel to allow competitors to return to the start. Fortunately for London 2012, one such facility had been constructed just outside the capital a few years before our Olympic bid was successful. A school pool, no less. Well, OK, it's Eton College's rowing lake. But hurrah to them, because otherwise goodness knows where the world's finest rowers would be competing.

About halfway between Windsor and Maidenhead, that's where you'll find Dorney Lake. There weren't many spots along the Thames where a 2km boating lake could have been shoehorned [aerial photo]. Any longer and it would have joined up with the river, or else wiped out someone's garden. But that wouldn't have been a problem because Eton College own pretty much everything around here, which is probably why they can afford their own multi-million pound artificial lagoon (plus a fleet of minibuses to ferry all the scholars over). And if you've not got your own wheels (or a Thames cruiser) to get you here, it's a very long walk from anywhere.

Dorney Lake

It's a damned impressive lake, though. Arrow-straight, and vanishing off into the distance as if somebody stretched an open-air swimming pool far further than they should have. At the starting end, a series of pontoons stretch out into the water like fingers [photo]. Facing each, strung out in a long line along the foreshore, stand two parallel rows of giant yellow and black shields. They look like the decoration for a very one-sided medieval jousting tournament, whereas in fact they're to give the cox something to line up with as they shoot off down the course. Pull hard, and the far distant clubhouse is less than ten minutes away.

Dorney Lake's grounds are open to the public on all but the busiest race days, so this is an ideal spot for a walk or a ride. Cyclists are welcomed, so long as they keep out of the way of coaches with megaphones speeding along the perimeter on a bike. Even very tiny cyclists were in evidence when I visited, including some of Berkshire's youngest trying to learn how to ride one of the things in the first place. It's also a popular spot for jogging, and dog-walking, and even bird-watching if there's no regatta on the water. Swans and geese have taken to the artificial lake like ducks to water, as have the ducks, obviously. Throw in a meadowful of sheep along one side, and a recently-established arboretum on the other, and this is an attractive destination even for non-sports fans.

Strings of small white buoys mark out the eight parallel lanes, with the occasional big orange floater at strategic points along the way. A series of giant numbers count down the distance to go at 250 metre intervals, far further apart than you'd imagine they ought to be [photo]. There are squat podiums at similar intervals, some topped by a portakabin, others awaiting the BBC TV cameras which will broadcast these waters to the world in two summers time. These lie along the thin strip between the main lake and its parallel return channel [photo], which in 2012 will help to keep officials and screaming coaches out of the way of the spectating public. For now, however, it's a public walk/jog/bike-way lined by colourful marshy flowers busy colonising the water's edge.

Eton College Rowing CentrePast 1750m, the loudspeakers begin. They were switched off during my visit because there was nothing to commentate on, no regattas or even heavy training, just a couple of quad sculls rowing weakly up-lake. Then at 2000m a final row of buoys, overlooked by the Finish Tower [photo], from whose roof terrace Pimms can be supped and photo-finishes can be judged. That was empty too, maybe because it's August and the College has packed up and gone home for the summer. The enormous clubhouse appeared to be open [photo], but I saw no evidence that visiting families and budding amateurs were being particularly welcomed to try out anything watersporty. Enjoy the perimeter, seemed to be Eton's message, but the water is ours. Elitist maybe, but it's commendable that the college are willing to share their outdoor pool with the world for a couple of fortnights, even if it brings no long-lasting public legacy. And should you fancy wandering somewhere that'll one day be on a billion TV screens, the perimeter's definitely pleasant enough.

Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital
4) Hadleigh Farm

Most of the cycling events at the 2012 Games will be taking place at the Velodrome in the Olympic Park - that Pringle-roofed stadium just off the A12. Obviously the Road Race has to take place elsewhere, where there are roads, and is likely to run from the Mall out to Box Hill and back. But one particular discipline has proved rather harder to locate, and that's the mountain biking. Because, well, London's not renowned for its contours, is it?

When London won its Olympic bid, the plan was to hold the mountain biking at the Weald Country Park near Brentwood. That's near junction 28 of the M25 - a corner of Essex not especially renowned as mountain country (indeed the highest point in the park is no more than 100m above sea level). The International Cycling Union were not impressed. Not hilly enough, they said, not enough challenge, have you got anywhere else? So London 2012 looked around Essex (because they'd promised the mountain biking to Essex) and tried to see if there was anywhere steeper that they could carve out a course instead. Yes, obviously, Canvey Island.

Hadleigh FarmOK, not quite Canvey, but a hill on the mainland at Hadleigh which looks out towards the pancake-flat isle. The hilltop may be only 70 metres high, but it has far more exciting slopes than the Weald, so it's been deemed excitingly acceptable by the powers that be. Which means that, on the final two days of Olympic competition, 30 women and 50 men will be coming to Essex to test out their skill, balance, daring and verve on cross-country saddleback. It's just a pity that, with so many other events scheduled for that weekend, so few TV viewers will be watching.

Hadleigh's not a town that's used to the spotlight. A few streets before Southend, where the A13 dual carriageway fades into a bus garage and a parade of shops, that's the heart of Hadleigh. Take Chapel Lane down towards the river and eventually you'll reach a poorly used car park beside a fake Iron Age Roundhouse. This lonely spot is currently the gateway to Hadleigh Country Park, but come 2012 it'll be transformed into the official Olympic car park (for official Olympic vehicles). From here it's but a brief freewheel into the field where the mountain biking course is located, or at least it will be once the whole shebang is ready. It isn't yet, but they've already made a start.

A public footpath crosses Sandpit Hill, which is the uplifted zone selected for international competition, but alas it's not public any more. The stile leading off from the lane has been fenced over, and someone's erected a "temporary footpath diversion" sign which looks anything but temporary. No doubt it's only for a couple of years, although any determined intruder could easily nip over the netting and wander around the entire course to their heart's content. Law-abiding souls have to walk a little further down the track, then turn off through a parallel field, from where there's a pretty good view of what's been built so far. [photo]

Hadleigh Country ParkThere's not much to see yet, to be honest, just a few sinuous paths cut into the hillside and surrounded by flapping orange netting. It's not yet clear whether these are tracks for competitors or access routes for spectators, probably the latter. But what is clear is that there are definitely enough contours here - nothing too precipitous, but equally nothing too restrictively feeble. There's also every chance of a mudbath should the clouds open during the week before the competition. My boots got absolutely covered in sludge during my wanderings in the local area last weekend, and I had to endure more than one awkward scramble down a treacherously slippery mudslide. Even if the rest of London 2012 is thwarted by torrential rain, at least here it'll make for some damned fine competition.

Hadleigh CastleThe site has one further bonus, which is the presence of a haunting Norman ruin on the hilltop nextdoor. This is Hadleigh Castle, once an important Thames-side citadel and a favoured residence of Edward III. No longer. The walls have almost all fallen, which is what happens over the centuries when you pile large chunks of stone on top of an unstable clay outcrop. A few outline foundations remain for visitors to pick over - that's part of the great hall, there's the kitchen, and that's the floor of the King's old bedroom. Some of the original towers still stand, most only barely (thanks to a long-ago landslip), but one as half a shell looming high above the marshland below. No French invaders pass upriver these days, only a succession of huge container ships and tankers heading towards the chimneys of Corringham. Southend is clearly visible to the east, while the flat wastes of the Isle of Grain fade off to the horizon across the snaking river. As the estuarine Thames goes, this is definitely one of the prettier spots (although admittedly it hasn't got much competition). [photo]

One further point of interest can be found a few hundred yards inland from the castle - the Salvation Army's Hadleigh Training Centre. William Booth created the Home Farm Colony here in the 1880s "for the benefit of men who, through misfortune, need a helping hand." The Army continues its sterling work in the local community to this day, but the skills offered now are rather less manually-based than before. Having said that, they do run a Rare Breeds Farm which is open to the public every summer, and which four-year-olds are bound to find more exciting than a wander round some old ruins. There are also tearooms, I think inside a mighty big chalet, although a shocking lack of publicity meant I only worked out they were tearooms from the internet once I got home. They'll stay open during the Games in 2012, you'll be pleased to hear, even if the castle will be blocked off to stop spectators getting too good a free view. No problem. The mountain biking's one event, I suspect, it'll be well worth paying to see.

Hadleigh Farm 2012 (the official Essex Legacy site) (with undownloadable newsletters)
Hadleigh Castle (courtesy of English Heritage)
Hadleigh Country Park (the wild slopes of south Essex) (leaflet/map)

Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital
5) Lee Valley White Water Centre (Waltham Cross)

One of the more spectacular Olympic sports is the canoe slalom. Lots of splashy white water, several flashing oars, and some very wet athletes careering downhill to a frothy finish. Again, fairly easy to organise if you have a mountain to hand, but rather harder when the land's flat. So, this time, destination Hertfordshire.

The plan was always to hold the slalom events somewhere in the Lea Valley. A short trip upriver from the Olympic Village, and a course that would provide a long-term sporting legacy for local residents. So a former industrial site was identified Broxbourne station and the river, and plans made for a Games-standard whitewater course. That was the plan. But the Spitalbrook site turned up to be more deeply contaminated than anyone had guessed, and would have cost millions to clear up. So an alternative location was sought, as a matter of urgency, but still in the Broxbourne area because they'd hate to let the local council down. Which is how a whopping great building site ended up on a greenfield site halfway between Waltham Cross and Waltham Abbey.

Lee Valley White Water Centre Information CentreThere are several ways to get to the new Lee Valley White Water Centre. The official recommended route is via Cheshunt station, not because it's the closest but because it has the most frequent rail service. It's ideally located for the river, is Cheshunt station, if not for the surrounding town. It's also perfect for the Lee Valley Youth Hostel, amongst whose smart fresh chalets an information point has been set up for those wishing to find out more about the new venue. They're very keen to get visitors, by the looks of it, because the existence of this information centre is advertised on signposts and posterboards in the middle of nowhere up to a mile away. But it's not really worth a half hour detour to reach. A small unstaffed room off the main hostel reception, with a few big photos on the wall and a whitewater video and a web terminal that doesn't work. Oh, and plenty of information, which manages to make the new course sound fairly exciting. But not very nearby.

The most direct route is via Theobalds Grove station. You've probably never been, but this was the nearest station to my gran's house while I was growing up, so I know it all too well. Then down Trinity Lane, past the parish church where my parents got married, and across the unmanned level crossing onto Cheshunt Marsh. It's more than pleasant here, within the boundaries of the Lee Valley Park. Rolling water meadows edged by flowery undergrowth, and a speckling of streams and lakes threading through verdant woodland. All except for one patch of land to the south, where a sprawling building site has been rudely plonked. The Olympic planners have attempted to destroy only mown grassland and a car park, but this corner of the marsh has been irrevocably changed. Down that blocked footpath, behind that temporary fence, the whitewater slalom course is taking shape.

Lee Valley White Water Centre

The best views of the new centre are from the edge of the Lee Navigation. Cross over the footbridge (from Essex into Herts) and you can look down on the emergent course from a hump in the path. Last summer nothing was here but a huge pile of earth [photo], but 12 months later there's almost enough infrastructure here to paddle down [photo]. At its heart is a timber-framed building shaped like a hardback book, with a sweeping wooden terrace stretching out above the starting pool for the Olympic course. The water level only drops five metres from start to finish, but the gradient's steep enough to provide a rocky ride for the professional canoeists. The pumps were switched on for the first time last week to check that the course doesn't leak, and the good news is that everything appeared to splish and splosh appropriately [video]. I visited a few days too early to see any of that, so had to make do with a vague glimpse of the pre-filled lower pool surrounded by snapping diggers [photo]. It's possible to get a better view of the central facilities building from further along the towpath, hovering above ground level like a floating encyclopaedia. But the path's too low down, and the main course too far away, to get a decent glimpse of any Olympic water whatsoever. Never fear, potential 2012 spectators, because a special earthy lump is being piled up for thousands of you to sit on, and there'll be a much better view from up there.

Lee Valley White Water CentreOne final way to reach the Centre is along Eleanor Cross Road from Waltham Cross station. Unfortunately this only works at the moment if you're an Olympic contractor. This is the official entrance, the one with smart graphic pictograms hanging from the gates, and the one that everyone will be using in 2012. And in 2011, because the unique thing about this particular Olympic venue is that it'll be open to the public one year early. If you fancy trying your hand at the scary slalom, or more likely a bit of rafting down the separate intermediate circuit, turn up here from spring 2011 onwards and get your feet wet. Certainly Broxbourne Council are more than delighted with their new world class watersports venue, and are crowing about its existence on banners hung all along the adjacent roadway. Local landlubbers may not be quite so pleased at swapping grassland for white water, but officials hope that tens of thousands will take full advantage once the slalom gates open.

Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital
6) Weymouth & Portland National Sailing Academy

The Serpentine doesn't really cut it as an Olympic sailing venue, so all the yachters and sailspersons are off to the Dorset seaside instead. A full 120 miles from the main stadium, in the lee of the Isle of Portland, they'll be all a-flutter come 2012. To conclude my summer series, here's one final report from an out-of-London Olympic venue.

The best sailing waters in Northern Europe are to be found in Weymouth Bay. Lucky, that. The waters are protected by coast on three sides, with only the non-prevailing easterlies able to blow in unhindered. But even that wasn't good enough for the Royal Navy, who in the mid 19th century built a series of breakwaters to create one of the largest man-made harbours in the world. Prince Albert laid the foundation stone - and there aren't many other Olympic venues which can claim the same thing. The Navy sold up in 1996, allowing the watersports industry to move in instead, and the Weymouth & Portland National Sailing Academy was established four years later. One nigh-perfect global sailing venue, up and running in advance of London 2012's successful bid, and making barely a scratch on the Olympic budget.

Weymouth & Portland National Sailing AcademyThe WPNSA can be found off the northern tip of the Isle of Portland, on reclaimed land in the lee of Chesil Beach. Don't think glamour. The inshore area at Osprey Quay is covered with car parks, metal sheds and a heliport. As for the boatyard, that's shielded behind metal railings to keep mere landlubbers at a safe distance. The fence isn't standard Olympic issue, no mile-high razorwire or anything, but no doubt that'll change once 2012 comes around. The clubhouse is a blue toastrack of a building, not as capacious as you might expect, and with its most interesting side out of sight facing the waters. Hundreds of high-masted boats are lined up nearby, some on the tarmac, the rest spaced out along pontoons in the water. Pick your weekend carefully and the harbour is a mass of flapping white sails tacking across the waves, and a quite magnificent sight. I picked my weekend less carefully, and got a few racing canoes instead.

Nextdoor is the Portland Marina, a commercial proposition which meets the needs of the more aspirational yacht owner. They have a two-storey restaurant called "The Boat That Rocks", named after last year's pirate radio film which was shot around here. How long the name survives remains to be seen, but the place was packed out with boating clientèle when I walked by. I doubt that many of these diners came from the local area, but one day soon they will. Some gleaming green-domed apartments have just been finished nearby, looking wildly out of place like they were meant for the Battersea riverside. In the meantime Castletown on the rim of the island is little more than one weatherbeaten street, lined by grand hotels whose glory days are long past and the occasional dead pub. Further up the hillside are the outskirts of Fortuneswell, a patch of council housing strung out like fingers along the upper contours of the island. [photo]

Portland HarbourThese two settlements are joined by the Merchant's Incline, a steep footpath once used for the haulage of Portland stone down to the docks below. It's well worth making the climb to the top, turning round occasionally to stare back at the panorama below [photo]. The best view is from outside the gates of HM Prison The Verne, hidden in the rockface at the very peak of the island. From here the entire bay is spread out below, with a focus on the protected waters inside the Portland breakwaters [photo]. This'll be a great spot from which to watch the Olympic yachting in 2012, even though you won't have a clue who's winning. You probably won't even need a ticket. Sailing's traditionally been a free-to-view Olympic event, and it's likely that the cliffs will stay open to all throughout. Hospitality enclaves and spectator boats may be introduced at sea level, and they'll no doubt cost a small fortune, but the slopes of Fortuneswell offer as fine an overview as one could hope to find.

London 2012 venues

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