How the Olympic Torch came to Haverhill
By David Hart on Saturday, 7th July 2012.
The Olympic Flame made its triumphant progress through Haverhill this afternoon and its warmth spread visibly through the community that lined the streets.
Thousands had crowded into the town, many arriving early to secure a good vantage point. Two hours before the Torch Relay was due to appear at 2.35pm, the crowd was well set, but around 1pm the heavens opened and the cloudburst sent most scattering for shelter.
Around the Recreation Ground where Haverhill Show’s first day was under way, people made for the trees to keep dry. It was cosy. Would the rain stop in time? Of course. Long before the Torch arrived it was bright sunshine again. What else would you expect from sunny Haverhill?
Then the cloud came up again and it spitted briefly as we strained our eyes to spot the first signs of the approaching parade.
At last it came – blue lights and a wide array of police on motorbikes, tapping the outstretched hands of children in the crowd as they passed. Behind them were the first trucks – Coca-Cola and Samsung floats, followed by Lloyds TSB. Major sponsors know how to put on a show. They brought the sun back with them. Then came the first Torchbearers’ bus, disgorging runners at each of the ten takeover points along the route.
Runner 74 emerged and joined the crowd, becoming an immediate focal point for all cameras. He did his bit for the Olympics by being available for a continuous photoshoot with children. He carried a shiny torch, still dormant and awaiting the relay which would bring the flame to light it, and he let everyone get a close look at it.
Next came the lady runner we have seen so many times on our TV screens in past weeks, but here live in front of us, announcing the Torch itself is just two minutes away.
And finally the flame appears, carried by a young girl, who reaches the next Torchbearer, 74, and passes it on in that traditional ceremony which dates back to the Ancient Greek Games and has brought us the flame first ignited in Olympia by the sun. There is something simple yet historic about this little action, repeated over and over again all around the UK in recent weeks.
The Torchbearers pause with the flame between them for the ranks of official snappers seated on the rear of the media truck in front of them. And then the flame is off again towards High Street, where Haverhill’s Izzy Gower plays her part under the flags and bunting and amid the heaving throng on each pavement.
Having run this far, I join the crowd pouring down Crown Passage at a more leisurely pace and sidestepping the puddles left by the earlier downpour – reminders of just how lucky we have been. It’s a crush, but not as bad, says a woman near me, as earlier on the Recreation Ground when it chucked it down and she was pinned for ages against a tree with someone she didn’t know. It’s that sort of day.
“We can see it a second time,” a mum tells her little daughter. “It’s something you’ll never see again.” And then she adds: “Probably”. The little girl is about ten. The last time the Olympics was in London was 64 years ago. It’s a reasonable calculation. But she might see it one day in another country anyway. After all, around us I can hear as many different languages as at the start of an Olympic marathon. This is 21st century Haverhill celebrating a global event. How different from whatever you would have found here in 1948! We are part of the big world now, for better or worse.
“Two minutes,” says the lady runner again as she passes us outside Aldi. She’s not even puffing and I’m half shattered after taking a couple of short cuts. Oh well. Perhaps I’ll pull out of the Olympic 1500metres after all.
Sure enough, here it comes again, carried proudly by a young woman we don’t know, but we all shout and wave at her as if we did. Behind her comes the Torchbearers’ bus collecting those who have done their job. There they are, relaxing together, including Issy.
Our other Torchbearer, Paralympian Caroline Maclean, has been placed by LOCOG, thoughtlessly, on the last stage at the top of Wratting Road. I know I’ll never get there, but I summon up the energy for one more run, up to Tesco car park and along the Railway Walk to the bridge.
They are trying to keep people off this viewpoint. ’Elf and Safety, I suppose. What a farce! Looking up Wratting Road, where the sun is reflecting off the still-wet tarmac between the narrowing crowds, I am reminded of nothing so much as the Tour de France, where they don’t seem to delight in interfering with public enjoyment in the same way. No one is going to stop you using a bridge to get a good view of that event, or shove you back onto the pavement with a surly command. But in England this sort of event brings out both kinds of marshal – the lovely, friendly, helpful ones who are there for everybody else and use their common sense, and the little Hitlers, who are there for themselves, who don’t have any or, if they do, daren’t use it.
Below us, a Chinese gentleman about whom I know nothing at all is carrying the Olympic Torch along a stretch of road which was once lined with similar cheering crowds to greet King George V just before the First World War, the last time a ruling monarch set foot in Haverhill. You can see a photo of the occasion in the local history group’s books. I guess this looks little different, nearly a hundred years on, except that, instead of troops and horses we have police and bikes and instead of the King we have an unknown Chinese gentleman.
On they go, up Wratting Road to where the faithful await the chance to cheer Caroline’s big moment. I can’t run any further, especially uphill, but I bet it was wonderful.
After half an hour of frenzy, the town settles back into a normal, busy summer Saturday afternoon. In the high street, under the flags, a giant robot sings of his love to the crowd and makes very small children squeal with the delicious sort of terror they really enjoy.
And we make our way homeward to look out for ourselves on telly – if we are lucky on a shortened news day. But we won’t forget this day in a hurry and when we see the final Torchbearer step up to light the cauldron at the Olympic Games London 2012 opening ceremony at the end of the month, we can say we, too, have seen that flame. It has been here, and whatever message of peace or good fortune it brings with it has touched us, too.
Comment on this story
You must be logged in to post messages. (login now)