Torch song

The flame is lit!

To the peals of church bells, the assembled crush of disorganised bodies parted a little to allow our Colliers Wood torch bearer, Susan, to light her own Olympic flame. In the event, a grey tracksuited helper was necessary to conjoin the two torches to ignite the fire, and Susan held it aloft with such an expression of joy, that it would have been difficult to remain unmoved. After posing for the media, amid many cheers, chants of “Su-san, Su-san!” and one photograph-hunter’s insistent call of “Lady in grey, can you move out the way so we can get a picture?”, Susan headed off, leaving an untidy, but jolly, sprawl of Colliers Wood residents in her wake.

Susan sets off

It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting. Thankfully, the weather gods had relented from the summer-long smiting by rain and graciously let us have some sunshine for the event. This obviously lifted the mood, but that, of course, did nothing for any sense of decorum. First some corporate buses arrived, carrying torch bearers and quite a few torches, causing some confusion amongst the crowd. Susan descended from the bus, to be immediately mobbed by onlookers. Grumpy, who had taken his camera, muttered “Trust Colliers Wood to be the most chaotic”. Some people thought that was it, and wondered why she wasn’t running anywhere, while others explained she was waiting for the handover. When it came, the crowd went crazy obscuring pretty much everyone’s view so we all held our phones aloft hoping that a decent photo might arbitrarily result. Grumpy and I were being accompanied by a visiting Political Activist, who had decided, much to our relief, not to intervene in the event, but who did make us think about this contemporary random approach to photography by wondering, “When did everyone become paparazzi?” We had a little walk around afterwards, and partook of a beer in the evocative surroundings of Merton Abbey Mills, listening to some not half bad  drum ‘n’ bass rhythms from a contemporary fusion jazz band. As one bystander observed, “Well, it has got us all out, hasn’t it?”

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Torch walk

Olympic Torch Relay Route Through Merton

In an uncharacteristic moment of Olympic zeal, Grumpy announced a plan: to walk the Merton section of the Olympic Torch Relay route. For those without local knowledge, Merton is a borough of South West London. London 2012.com indicated some time ago that 95% of the British population would come within 10 miles of the Olympic Flame, and, to be fair to them, they seem to be bringing it past the end of our road. While not being fully cognisant of the significance that this event may hold for us in the future, Grumpy was keen to see where else the torch was going in our manor. In particular, he wondered what sights the torch bearers would see as they traversed Merton, from Mitcham to Wimbledon Park, and urged me to document our journey as we pre-lived the torch relay.

Black Tower As Viewed From Tandem Centre

As the local Guardian reported recently, none of the torch bearers lugging the flame through the borough appear to be actually from Merton. Some of them are from quite exotic locations: a couple are from the States, Georgia and San Francisco and one of them is from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the host city of the next Olympics. Hopefully, this blog will help them prepare for the sights they will encounter on their route. Merton has quite a lot of what you might normally expect to be out-of-town shopping centres, only in Merton they are pretty much in town. One of the first the runners will pass is the Tandem Centre, scene of London rioting last summer. JD Sports was hit hard, giving perhaps an indication of the thirst for sports, or at least sports clothing among the locals. The shops have had their windows reglazed, so it looks quite nice again and Grumpy was keen to record this leg of the route. Further down on the opposite side of the road, the torch bearer will swing round another one – the Priory Retail Park – before catching a monumental glimpse of one of our most iconic buildings, The Black Tower, dubbed among the most ugly in the land (you can just about see it in the Tandem Centre photo above).

Wandle Park

Grumpy was certain that the tranquil scenes of Wandle Park would soothe the appointed runner, however, before he or she passes another retail landmark the SavaCentre, built on the site of the 12th Century Merton Priory. Not only do we have Sainsburys, but a few years ago, a flagship M&S store opened up here too. Grumpy expressed a bit of concern about whether the torch relay was going to impede him getting his dinner, what with all the crowds. I suggested that maybe we could go shopping a bit earlier that day. The Merton relay doesn’t get going until about 3pm.

The next section of the route took us all the way along Haydons Road, which is a bit lacking in photographic opportunities. So, as we walked we discussed Olympic related themes. I wondered if Grumpy had heard about the controversy over the £199 price tag that the lucky bearers are being quoted to keep the torch in their possession after the event. He was taken aback at first, “I didn’t know you had to pay to be in the torch relay. I thought you were nominated”. I reassured him that no-one was being forced to pay, just invited, and that anyway, the actual cost of the torch is nearly twice as much at £495. I did a quick calculation: if there are 8,000 torch bearers that makes … nearly 4 million quid! On reflection, Grumpy and I wondered if it would have been better to pass the torch rather than the flame (that is, after all, what we had thought they did anyway).

We also chatted about a story I read in the London Evening Standard about Olympics Minister, Hugh Robertson inciting Londoners to shop their neighbours if they overhear plans to disrupt the celebrations by protesting. Luckily, the Minister also noted that the right to peaceful protest was enshrined in English law. Quite ironic really, since, not far from where we were walking, down by the river in Putney, the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race was being hijacked by protesters. Everyone seems to have made the link to what might happen during the Games. Just see it as civil engagement, I say. People are taking an interest, after all.

Plough Lane Housing Development

Passing the corner of Plough Lane, Grumpy and I spared a moment to remember the former site of Wimbledon Football Club. The football ground is now no more, replaced by fancy flats, and the club relocated to Milton Keynes. Never mind, now we have AFC Wimbledon, born from the ashes and steadily climbing the leagues. Grumpy is a fan and takes the bus to Kingston to see them play at the Cherry Red Records Stadium.

St Mary's Church

Turning into the Wimbledon Park area, we left the traffic fumes behind and came upon some more salubrious sights, including St Mary’s Church. There is a record of a church on this site in the Doomsday book in 1086, so that will lift someone’s spirits. They are going to need it, because whoever gets the Leopold Road section of the run has drawn the short straw – there’s a bit of an incline, so be warned. Grumpy announced his worry that the torch bearers might not be training sufficiently. “That would be embarrassing”, he reflected. I said I thought it would be alright.

Finally, we made it to the grand finale, the All England Lawn Tennis Club, known worldwide as Wimbledon. We studied our map of the torch route, and it looked like it actually goes inside the club itself. Every time I have been inside, there has been a security guard accompanying me. They seem to be a bit over-worried about what you are going to do. Or maybe it’s personal? Anyway, I wonder whether they’ll be enough people watching to make sure the lucky bearer does not divert from the designated route.

Approaching the All England Club

Standing beneath the sign that read “Thank you for visiting the London Borough of Merton”, we knew we had reached the end of our journey. With Grumpy in grave danger of truly reverting to type, we took the 493 bus back to Wimbledon town centre. Taking the weight off in time-honoured tradition, Grumpy reflected on his trip with the immortal words: “That’s better!”

A pint