The UK fires up for the Olympics
2012 Olympic torch relay runners, including the youngest and the oldest runners. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
The Olympic flame, ignited by sunlight at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece, will arrive in Britain on 18 May to begin a 70-day relay tour of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The route has been carefully planned to ensure that it will come within 10 miles of 95% of the British population – all the better for attracting cheering crowds – but it will also take in a stellar line-up of the UK’s greatest attractions.
Cornwall, in southwest England, has long besotted visitors with its historic port villages, broad sandy beaches, high cliffs and secret coves that were once used by smugglers. On the first day of the relay, 19 May, the torch will make its way to one of the area’s most celebrated coastlines, starting in the cobbled fishing village of Newlyn, travelling through the winding streets of Penzance and on to Marazion, where the craggy tidal island and medieval castle of St Michael’s Mount can be seen from the shore.
Each year, thousands of mountain trekkers make an eight mile climb to the peak of Mount Snowdon to enjoy uninterrupted views over Snowdonia National Park. With jagged volcanic peaks, steep cliffs and green valleys that are dotted with wildflowers in the spring, the dramatic landscape is considered well worth the climb. But since 1869, visitors have also been able to view the classic summit vistas by train. This is the option the torch will take on the morning of 29 May, with a ride on the historic Snowdon Railway.
At noon on 1 June, when local Grimsby crowds flock to Crosby Beach to see the torch go by, 100 human figures will remain static, staring out to sea. This is the site of the acclaimed Another Place installation by Turner Prize-winning artist Antony Gormley: 100 cast-iron human sculptures modelled on the artist himself are dotted across the seascape up to a kilometre out in the water, appearing and disappearing with the turn of the tides.
Legend holds that Giant’s Causeway – an alien landscape of black hexagons on Northern Ireland’s northeastern coast -- was created by an Irish warrior named Fionn MacCool, hell-bent on paving a path to Scotland. Modern geology tells us that the interlocking basalt rocks were created by a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago and have been carved into shape by weather, ice and tides. Curious visitors have come to clamber over the site since the 1690s, and in 1986, it was declared a protected Unesco site. This year, the torch relay will pass by on 4 June.
One of the most striking new venues created for the Olympic Games is the Aquatic Centre in London’s Stratford neighbourhood, designed by one of the world’s finest architects, Zaha Hadid. Another one of Hadid’s UK creations will receive a visit from the torch relay on 9 June: the Glasgow Riverside Museum of Transport. This shining silver edifice, with a zig-zagging roof and a hulking presence on the River Clyde, opened in 2011 and showcases the history of getting from A to B, on everything from vintage cars to steam engines, from trams to ships, and from motorcycles to skateboards.
One of the greatest monuments to Roman Britain, Hadrian’s Wall, stretches 86 miles across the north of England. It was built as a defence against the Pictish hordes of Scotland in the 2nd Century, but crowds from both sides of the border are due to descend on 16 June for the torch relay. The Wall is also set to be the site of a large but yet-unknown art installation by New York-based outfit YesYesNo, as part of the UK’s Cultural Olympiad festivities. The installation is set to be revealed on 21 June, after the torch passes.
There were a number of great turning points in World War II that saw the tide shift in favour of the Allies; one was the breaking of the Nazis’ ingenious Enigma code. This was famously achieved at Bletchley Park, a grand old stately home in Buckinghamshire (50 miles northwest of London) that became Britain’s centre for codebreaking during the war. Today, the site houses a museum with an Enigma machine on display, and it will play host to the Olympic Torch on the morning of 9 July.
The torch relay turns toward London at the end of July, ready to ignite the Olympic Stadium’s flame at the opening of the games on the 27th. Before this event, the torch will pay a visit to the seaside town of Margate, where a gallery celebrates an artist known for his fiery skies: JMW Turner. The Turner Contemporary gallery hosts temporary exhibitions of contemporary work in honour of one of the UK’s greatest painters, who claimed Margate to have “the loveliest skies in all of Europe”.
Correction: A previous version of this article said that the olympic torch was lit on the summit of Mount Olympus. This has been corrected.