A fire is spreading its way around the British Isles. It has captured the imagination of the people everywhere and it is spreading a kind of fever, both before it and in its wake. Where ever it goes, alongside the athletics enthusiasts, people who have previously had little or no interest in sport are turning out into the streets in their thousands, to welcome it, and cheer it on its way. Carried in ancient tradition by a torch bearer, held proudly head high, it forges its way through the crowds and bursts forth into huge gold cauldrons… To sleep in little Davey Lamps, before going on its way again, leaving unforgettable memories behind it.
It hasn’t even reached London yet, but the Olympic Flame of 2012 has well and truly set Britain ablaze. Thousands will cherish special memories of this unique, once in a lifetime progress, and writer Glenn James and his family saw it arrive in Staffordshire…
At the BBC, the tickets to see the Olympic Flame lit in Stoke-On-Trent were gone, almost before the radio presenter had finished announcing they were available. The arrival of the flame in the Potteries was so madly anticipated that they went like lightening. But I had a mission. The Olympic Flame would be arriving on my daughter Elizabeth’s 3rd Birthday, and seeing it lit was one present I was really determined she was going to have. So I kept my ear to the ground and as soon as I heard that tickets were available again, I was off the starting blocks faster than a Gold Medalist. I’m proud to say my vigilance paid off and I proudly returned home with tickets for the big night!
The Torch would be making its way through Cheshire during the day, to arrive for its evening rest in Hanley, Stoke-On-Trent, at about 7.30pm in the evening on the 30th of May. We were ready in good time, and my wife Angela and I, Elizabeth herself, and her older sister Charlotte set off early. I have never known an atmosphere like it on that journey, there was really something in the air, a kind of fizzing excitement. I’m not particularly superstitious, but a week before I had shaken hands with a Chimney Sweep, who cheerfully slapped me on the shoulder and said “Good-Luck is with you now, mate, you wait and see!” Well it certainly was that evening, as it was one which proved to be an incredible night to remember.
We were worried that we had taken longer than we anticipated getting into town and we really hurried along the last few streets. The Torch was due to arrive in Hanley Park and as we got closer we passed fleets of Police vans, whose officers cheerfully pointed us in the right direction. We were in no doubt about our destination, as when we sighted the streets surrounding the Park itself, they were thickly lined with people out to see the torch bearer arrive with the Olympic flame. They were also going bananas and we ran now, convinced that we were going to miss it.
I would have laughed if he had recounted such a thing a week before, but you know, this is where my friend the chimney sweeps luck began to kick in. We ran down to join the crowd, the two of us with a three year old and an eight year old, and on arriving we went to lift the children up so that they could see over the throng. The crowd was about 6 people deep where we joined it, but on seeing that we had two small children, they parted like the red sea to let us in to the front! Wonderful, I can’t think of anywhere I have been where people have been so thoughtful. And how incredible that they did exactley that just at that point…..We hardly had time to catch our breath, when the golden coach which carries the flame and the torch bearers, drew up right in front of us, as if it were a bus stopping to let us on! I cannot convey our sheer disbelief of how this happened, exactley in front of us, JUST as we GOT to the front, it was just dumbfounding.
We were about two metres from the door, and as we looked on in disbelief, the Torch Bearer got out smack in front of us, and set foot on Staffordshire soil with the Torch, right before our astounded eyes.
This was 25 year old Ainsley Cooper, a brave and valient atheliete, who suffers severely from Autism, Ephilepsy, and learning difficulties. He stepped down with great grace and dignity and as he began to make his way with the torch, the crowd just went absolutely berzerk. Accompanied by his father, Will, he made his way gently along the approach to the park, as cheerleaders in blue danced ahead of him heralding the flame and the huge gold coach made it’s stately way behind them both.
Of course, we wanted to get into the park too see the flame lit, so we set off at a run ourselves along the backs of the crowd lining the road. This is the part I cannot forget, dashing madly along behind that huge well behaved crowd with everyone in Holiday mode, and looking back over my shoulder too see the cheerleaders advancing in our wake. The roar of the crowd followed us all along the road like a wave of joy, and the atmosphere was unforgetable. I have seen huge civic functions, Rock concerts, and massive New Years Eve parties, but this was something really special.
Luckily, we made it into the park itself with time to spare, as the flame was due to change bearers on its way to the cauldron, and we joined the massive crowd around the stage. It was a wonderfully cheerful crowd, filled with a tangible anticipation you could almost taste, and we made our way forward through it with little difficulty. Charlotte, our elder daughter, wanted to get close to the area where the runner would come in, so I made my way in that direction with her and lifted her up in my arms. No sooner did I do that than she flung out an arm and pointed, with a cry of “Look!! Look Daddy, there it is!!”
Carried by Imran Sherwani, (Stokes previous Gold Medalist of 1988), and about 20 feet in front of us, we saw the golden torch held aloft over the heads of the crowd and advancing towards the stage at speed in the hand of its bearer. The place just eruped. People were shouting and screaming, punching the air with joy, and jumping up and down, so it was very hard to get a photograph… Mainley because I was shouting and screaming, punching the air, and jumping up and down myself! I got a great close-up photo of the back of someones head when I tried to get a picture of the flame touching the cauldron.
When they actually lit the cauldron the roar of the crowd would not have disgraced an Iron Maiden Concert and it took quite a while for my ears to recover! “Stoke-on-Trent, this is your time to “SHINE!!” the presenter shouted as the cauldron was lit, and if there had been a roof in the locality it would have been well and truly raised by the cheering.
We were then treated to a full on Greacian ballet in mid air, as performers from the New Vic Theatre put on an amazing display above our heads, suspended from a giant crane and performing on long silk ribbons around an open bell framework. This phenominal display certainly did credit to Staffordshire in some style, as performers in ancient Greek Dress simultaneously performed on the stage around the flame itself, buring brightly in its caludron.
This pretty much blew everyone away. It was an amazing finalie and after seeing the Flame consigned safely to it’s little Davey Lamp for the night, we thought that was very much the end of the evening. People steadily had their pictures taken before the Olympic Cauldron, then happily went on their way to see what the concession stands had to offer. Feeling really hyped up by the experience, and gloriously happy, we were no exception… But there was one last great treat left instore for the evening…
We shortly afterwards discovered that there was an opportunity to have your photograph taken by the official Coca-Cola sponsers, holding the Olympic Torch. It goes without saying that its a great British tradition to queue for things, but we didn’t mind this a jot! We were able to stand together as a family and hold that famous beacon which would soon be heading, by a circuitous route, for the stadium in London, having been collected from Athens itself by Princess Anne. It was an incredible feeling, a defining moment for us as a family, and an fantastic momento for our daughters’ birthday. I will shake hands with a chimney sweep again when I see one, and if it’s the same guy, I’ll buy him a pint!
We were not particularly interested in Athletics, but this great cermonial procession bought everyone together as a community. Stoke-on-Trent certainly showed it can put on a stunning event and we went away just a little bit more proud of where we live. Perhaps thats what its all about really, instilling that unity as a community. Everyone there will have shared in that feeling, that pride and joy and exhileration, and will take away undying memories of what the evening was like, even photographs like us, of having held that famous torch for a moment in their hands.
That experience is spreading, a unifying pride at a time when we could all do with something uplifting, to pull us together as communities and put a bit of sping back in our heels. The torch continues its progress and all I can say in conclusion, when I consider how many people held it before us and how many would be doing so in future is “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
© By Glenn James 2012