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Days 52-54: The South-East and South-West

09 July 2012

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Leighton Buzzard Railway. Photograph by Mervyn LeahLeighton Buzzard Railway. Photograph by Mervyn Leah
Day 52 (July 9): Luton/ Dunstable/ Milton Keynes/ Bletchley/ Buckingham/ Winslow/ Whitchurch/ Aylesbury/ Stoke Mandeville/ Aylesbury/ Waddesdon/ Bicester/ Kirtlington/ Woodstock/ Kidlington/ Oxford

The London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay is more than halfway through and we are still following its exploits around the country, from north to south, east to west and into the South-East today to highlight all the best of the sights and sounds that the UK has to offer. Over the next few days, in the South-East and West, we have museums, gardens, ancient libraries, palaces and beautiful landscapes for you to discover and delight in as you follow the Torch on its journey.

On Day 52, the torch starts its journey in Luton, known by most people for car manufacturing and it’s airport. However, as we have learnt throughout the relay, there is more to most places than you initially think. Luton is also home to the beautifully landscaped Wardown Park. The museum offers a range of interesting displays, including the popular Luton Life Gallery. It also gives the visitors a chance to be an ancient Olympic Athlete as they are holding an Ancient Greek Olympic day to celebrate the arrival of the Olympic Torch in Luton.

Another way to be transported into the past is by travelling the rails on the Leighton Buzzard Railway. Built over 90 years ago, its museum houses the finest collection of narrow gauge locomotives in England. The railway now hauls passenger trains over the historic tracks on a journey around Bedfordshire. The Leighton Buzzard collection has come from a enthralling number of places, from the destruction of First World War battlefields to the construction of the Channel Tunnel, from the tropical plantations of India and Africa to the Steelworks of the English Midlands, and from the slate quarries of Wales to the coal mines of Portugal, it is a truly international place to discover, with a fascinating history.

Stoke Mandeville Stadium. Photograph by Andy Wilkes (via )

As the Torch continues winding its way around the South East it arrives at Stoke Mandeville, home of the Stoke Mandeville Stadium. The Stoke Mandeville Stadium is the National Centre for Disability Sport and the Birthplace of the Paralympic Games. This originated as the Stoke Mandeville Games in 1948, with just 16 ex-members of the British forces competing. Since then the Paralympic Games have grown to include 29 different sports played by athletes from all over the world. This is a perfect opportunity to come to pay homage to the birth of the Paralympic Games whilst following the Olympic Torch.

As the Relay continues we arrive in Aylesbury. Here is another chance to pay homage, but this time to one of UK’s literary geniuses. Learn more about the literary history of the UK by visiting Milton’s Cottage, a Grade I listed 16th-century cottage where John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, escaped from the Plague in 1665. Now a museum to his work and times, you can learn all about his poetry, political ideology, and parliamentary vision.

The Torch proceeds on its journey to arrive in Woodstock, close to the magnificent Blenheim Palace, one of the finest baroque houses in the country. The Torch will be visiting the Palace for a private event, but with amazing collections of tapestries, paintings, porcelain and furniture in the spectacular state rooms, it is well worth exploring on your own.

Blenheim Palace. Photograph by Richard Law

The final stop of Day 52 is Oxford. Known primarily for its ancient university, a visit would not be complete without a trip to the Bodleian Library. The library is housed in a remarkable group of buildings that form the historic heart of the university. The University’s oldest teaching and examination room, The Divinity School (built in 1427-88), can be accessed and guided tours will go behind the scenes, including to the research library, the Bodleian, dating from 1602-20.

Bodleian Library, Oxford University. Photograph by Steve Daniels

Day 53 (July 10): Oxford/ Abingdon/ Wallingford/ Crowmarsh/ Gifford/ Nettlebed/ Henley-on-Thames/ Bisham (Bisham Abbey)/ Maidenhead/ Burnham/ Slough/ Windsor/ Egham/ Ascot/ Bracknell/ Reading

Day 53 starts out in Oxford, so if you have time to take in some more learning from one of the world’s leading universities, pay a visit to The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology. The Ashmolean is the world’s first university museum, which started out as just a modest collection of portraits and curiosities. The museum was reopened in 2009 after extensive restoration work and redesign, and it now has a huge collection of archaeology and fine art, including an extensive collection of antiquities from Ancient Egypt. If you fancy something a bit quirkier, then head over to the Pitt Rivers Museum, where Oxford University’s anthropological collections are held. With incredible and unusual collections from around the world, there are over half a million items to discover, many donated by anthropologists and explorers over the centuries.

White Horse Hill, Abingdon. Photograph by Dave Price

The Torch leaves Oxford for the countryside and arrives in Abingdon. Close by is 3000 year old Bronze Age monument, the White Horse, whose creation is still a mystery. The White House is part of a unique collection of ancient remains that are spread across the high chalk downland, which include Dragon Hill, said to be the site where St George slew the dragon. Legend has it that the dragon’s blood poisoned the ground and left a while chalk scar on the landscape. The White Horse can be seen for miles around, leaping across the head of the dramatic Dray valley in the Ridgeway escarpment.

Further along the relay route the Torch makes a stop at Windsor, the home of Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world and an Official Residence of Her Majesty the Queen, who celebrated her Diamond Jubilee last month. The rich history of the castle spans almost 1,000 years and it is one of the few places where you can witness the changing of the guard. The day ends in Reading with an evening celebration and a well-deserved rest, so you can recharge and be ready for the next day’s sights and activities.

Hampshire South Downs National Park. Photograph by Oast House Archive

Day 54 (July 11): Reading/ Theale/ Thatcham/ Newbury/ Basingstoke/ Kings Worthy/ Winchester/ Andover/ Ludgershall/ Tidworth/ Amesbury/ The Winterbournes/ Salisbury

Starting the day in Reading, at the confluence of the River Thames and the River Kennet, we can do nothing but suggest a trip to the Riverside Museum at Blake’s Lock, the story of Reading’s two rivers. It occupies two former industrial buildings, the Screen House and the Turbine House.

If you want to enjoy the scenery further, follow the Torch to Winchester, and head out to the Hampshire South Downs National Park. Characterised by steep wooded hills and hidden valleys there are long-distance trails and circular routes which dip and rise through the ancient woodlands and out onto the high ridges of the Downs.

Salisbury Cathedral. Photograph by Rob Farrow

After an invigorating walk through the Downs, follow the Olympic Torch to Salisbury, a city that pilgrims have been visiting for over 750 years. Salisbury Cathedral is a marvel and has the highest spire in Britain. There is also an original copy of the Magna Carta, which has come to symbolise the rule of law in England and has been used in the constitutions of Commonwealth Nations and other countries worldwide. The day ends here, with an evening celebration in this historic city of South West England.

There is lots to see over the next few days, following the torch relay through the South-East and West and discovering historic universities, beautiful landscapes, ancient cathedrals and industrial heritage, the problem is finding the time to fit it all in! We will be back on Monday with more heritage finds and nature spots from the South East and West for you to uncover near the Torch Relay route, as well as following the Torch as it makes another journey across the sea.


Post by Hannah, Discovering Places Team


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