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Hethersett - The Olympic Odyssey

by web editor Peter Steward

Photo of Olympic flame by Katy Archer and reproduced with her kind permission

It all began with an idea. That idea swiftly turned into reality and the rest, as they say, is history.

Parish Councillor Shane Hull formulated the idea of an Olympic Committee to organise events in Hethersett over a three year period leading up to the 2012 London Olympics. The first meeting of that committee took place at Park Farm Hotel on March 9th, 2010, when Shane spoke passionately about his dreams to bring the Olympic torch to Hethersett.

That meeting launched a campaign: "A few years ago I had the thought that maybe Hethersett could have the honour of having the Olympic torch carried through the village on its way to London. This would really put the village on the map locally, nationally and internationally," Shane said at that inaugural meeting.

Politicians and other influential people were lobbied, local schools became involved and posters were displayed in Hethersett Library and pages were set up on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and the idea began to take shape. The committee agreed to oversee three days of events from July 23rd to 25th, 2010, to co-incide with an open Olympic weekend in London. It was also planned to hold events in 2011 and in 2012 up until the games themselves.

"We want to give a lasting legacy to the village. We are hoping to reach new audiences and offer local residents the chance to celebrate and also to inspire young people," Shane Hull said back in 2010.

And it worked. To use a well worn cliche - from little acorns, mighty oaks grew. Over the three years Hethersett became known locally and nationally as a "can do" community with so many people working tirelessly and giving their time and energy freely for the common good. It wouldn't be overstating things to say that the ethos of the Olympic Games brought the village together in a way rarely seen. Certainly when the Olympic flame paid an off route visit to the village in July 2012 it underlined the fact that over the three year period Hethersett organised more events per head of the population than any other village, town or city in the United Kingdom.

Thursday 5th July, 2012, will go down as one of the finest days in the history of the village - not because of the physical nature of the flame - encased as it was in a lantern merely 12 inches tall - but from the symbolic nature of a unique event that brought 2,000 people together at an hour when most are usually tucked up snugly in their beds. It was the culmination of a dream. But we get ahead of ourselves. Let's start by casting our attention back to the summer of 2010 when the dreams began to take shape and turn into reality.

Scheduled events for 2010 were lined-up and Lord Coe (better known as Olympic champion Sebastian Coe) was invited to start the first ever Run the Square funrun. He wrote back to state that he would be unable to attend due to commitments abroad but had passed the information on. This in itself would have huge significance even before the village's first Open Weekend began.

It was the beginning of July when the village heard it had been awarded a coveted London Olympics Inspire Mark. The award recognised the "innovative and exceptional projects directly inspired by the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games." The village was praised for "coming together in an exceptional display of co-operation, generosity, goodwill and team spirit."

The award was primarily given for the Sport in the Park initiative and along with the award came the first inkling of wider health and fitness benefits from what was taking place in the village:

"Projects like Sport in the Park are enabling people in Hethersett (and indeed Norfolk as a whole) to make positive life changes," Lord Coe said in another personal letter.

Shane Hull spoke of the generosity of spirit within the village: "The Inspire Mark is a testimony to the amount of hard work put in by so many people. It is a testimony to the generosity and community spirit of people wishing to put Hethersett on the map. Sport in the Park has shown that sports clubs and people connected with sport in the community can come together for the benefit of the whole village," he said. These words were echoed throughout the following two years and also led to the formation of other groups aimed at improving sport, well being and fitness in Hethersett as we will again see later on in this article.

On the eve of the weekend, Hethersett played host to a very special guest - Sir Keith Mills, deputy chair of the 2012 London Olympics organising committee. Sir Keith made a whistle stop tour of the village on Friday 23rd July to meet children, members of the public and key figures involved in organising the weekend. Hethersett Junior School mounted a special programme of sports which was covered extensively on television and in the Media. Other visits by Sir Keith included Woodside School, Hethersett Library and St Remigius Church.

The visit also marked a buzz phrase that would play an important part in publicity over the coming two years. Sir Keith praised the village  for organising more public events per head of population than any other village, town or city in the United Kingdom. There was also lavish praise from Katie Huane, regional project manager for London 2012 who said:

"Hethersett is the place to start because they have managed to bring the whole community together in order to plan for this weekend. It's absolutely amazing to see what has been achieved."

The first Olympic weekend ran from July 23rd to 25th, 2010, and was kicked off by Hethersett's Got Talent in the village hall and followed by the first Sport in the Park day on the Memorial Field. - an attempt to get local residents playing a variety of sports with an Olympic theme free of charge. Athletics, football, cycle speedway, tennis, badminton, martial arts, gymnastics, tug of war were just some of the activities available.

The Sunday morning run the square event revived a village tradition from the 1940s and 1950s and was started by the Head Teacher of Woodside School Helen Lamb to mark her retirement. Over 200 people took part with medals for all those finishing (and everyone did). Before the race there was a warm-up session led by Norfolk Olympiad Paul Evans, another character to feature large in the celebrations over the three year period.

Teams from across Norfolk took part in a Sunday ladies five-a-side tournament organised by Hethersett Athletic Football Club. There was a multi denominational church service at the High School and the event was rounded off by a celebration classical music concert featuring the Pulham Orchestra in Hethersett Parish Church.

Olympic Weekend 2010 was a huge success and you can read more about the individual events elsewhere on this site in the various Olympic sections. Comments made following that first weekend were almost all positive:

"This weekend has helped to bring back the community spirit to our village," was just one of the many comments. It also underlined the feeling that Hethersett offers facilities, entertainment and support in just about every imaginable sphere and that our village was beginning to get a national reputation for excellence. There was already a huge amount of pride in what was being achieved. As I wrote at the time "A group of people supported an idea and just ran with it. The village had a group of "do-ers" ready to rise to every challenge."

Another of my observations made at the time was as follows: "Hethersett may not be the most attractive village in the UK, it may not even be the most attractive in Norfolk, but when it comes to community spirit there are few that can rival it."

Some communities would have said "enough is enough" and rested on their laurels with their heads held high and smiles of achievement on their faces  - but not Hethersett, for the 2010 Open Weekend was just the start of bigger things to come. A campaign was launched to have the Olympic Torch visit the village on its way to London in 2012.

This was backed by Stephen Castle, National and Regional East Chairman who said:

"The weekend is something that Hethersett should be proud of. Hethersett and its residents have been a real inspiration to the East of England," he said.

As soon as the dust had settled on Open Weekend 2010, Shane Hull vowed to do it "bigger and better" in 2011 - and once again this was no idle promise. The 2011 event was held from July 22nd to 24th.

The campaign to bring the official torch to the village continued and hopes grew when it was announced that there would be an overnight stop in Norwich. At the same time came news that a genuine London Olympic torch was on its way to the village. The 1948 torch came to Hethersett on July 4th, 2011 - exactly one year before the 2012 version was due in Norfolk. Over 1,000 children from the village's four schools greeted the torch which was on loan for the day from Loughborough University. The schools held Olympic themed assemblies and James Carswell, Norfolk County Council's Cabinet Member for Cultural, Communications and Customer Services said:

"The activities taking place in Hethersett are a leading example, not only locally but nationally, of how an area can come together to use the Olympics coming to the country to bring benefit and excitement to their local community."

The 2011 Open Weekend saw even more events being included, starting with a swimming event in Hethersett Junior School pool. Pupils swam 2012 lengths in just under four hours. Hethersett's Got Talent 2 took place in the Village Hall. Sport in the Park had over 20 come and try activities and nearby Woodcote Sheltered Housing complex held an open day. The multi-denominational service was held in Hethersett Social Club and there were record numbers for the run the square event. The ladies five-a-side tournament ran on the Memorial Playing Field and the event was rounded off by a Last Night at the Proms  concert by the Pulham Orchestra in the parish church.

Scarcely had the dust died down on the 2011 Open Weekend before the announcement that everyone had been waiting for came. Hethersett was singled out for a special visit from the 2012 Olympic flame on its way to the games. This was a remarkable announcement. Hethersett was not on the flame's route and Hethersett was named as the only place in the whole of the UK to have an off route visit.

I was abroad on holiday at the time of the announcement so left it up to parish councillor Gary Wyatt to comment:

"We learned that all the hard work and lobbying put in by Shane Hull and the Olympic committee had paid off. A special off route early morning visit of the flame has been arranged for 5th July, 2012. This is a great honour for Hethersett and a unique occasion on the route. It is in recognition of the enthusiasm of the village in organising the Olympic weekend for the past two years," Gary said.

BBC Television broadcast its local news bulletin outside Hethersett Library on the day of the announcement with the village turning out in force with banners and flags. What had at one point seemed an impossibility was on the verge of being a reality.

Shortly afterwards it was announced that Olympic Committee Chairman Shane Hull would be one of 8,000 people nationally to carry the torch in the lead up to the London Games. It was later announced that Hethersett Ducklings Playgroup leader Nicky Wardale would also carry the torch. Shane was also invited to attend a special Olympic reception in Downing Street with Prime Minister David Cameron.

"I am certain that my nomination is in recognition of the fantastic help, hard work and support that I have received from the Hethersett Olympic Committee, the four village schools, Parish Council, sports clubs, societies and a whole army of volunteers from the whole community that constitute the fantastic village of Hethersett - The Olympic Village," Shane told this web site.

With all the excitement flying around it could have been easy to forget the approaching Open Weekend which in 2012 took place in June and included yet more events.

It kicked off with a 24 hour swimming marathon which celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Junior School pool and saw pupils and members of the public joining forces to swim the equivalent distance of from Hethersett to London. Paralympic gold medallist Oliver Jones swam the last length of the marathon. Hethersett's Got Talent 3 filled the village hall and Sport in the Park had a record number of pastimes including unusual sports such as Korfball and Dodgeball. The Sunday Funrun attracted over 300 runners despite a torrential downpour. The Sunday service took place again in the social club, the ladies five a side attracted a record entry of 26 and the whole thing was rounded off by a Songs of Praise service in the parish church. Throughout the three days there was a flower festival in the parish church and on the Saturday night the historic building was the venue for a concert by the Hellesdon and Sprowston Brass Band.

The Hethersett Olympic bandwagon continued to roll, however. Children from three of the village schools took part in a special Olympic pageant in the grand ring at the Royal Norfolk Show when there was also a special presentation to Shane Hull to mark his outstanding work on behalf of the village.

This was followed by one of the most notable events in the history of the village. On July 5th, 2012, the Olympic flame visited the grounds of Hethersett High School and 2,000 people turned up at just after 6 a.m to see it. On the surface, there is nothing remarkable about a flame in a lantern. It was barely one foot high. But it was a symbol of our village's unity and achievements over a three year period - a remarkable Olympic journey. Fittingly the flame was carried around a purpose built arena by Shane Hull with children waving flags of the various Olympic nations - without doubt one of the most historic days in the village's history and a once in a lifetime experience that we will never see repeated.

All the above are, in many ways, just the bare bones of our Olympic odyssey. There were so many other events and ideas. Hethersett High School pupil Lauren Boswell-Riches  designed a village torch which was made by the local blacksmith Reggie Loveday and which featured in a number of events and which will take up permanent residence in the village library. Schools held a number of Olympic themed events including a poetry competition and putting together animations, films and the Junior School enjoyed a visit from inspirational paralympic gold medallist and world record swimmer Chris Holmes.

London illustrator Alice Pattullo will be capturing many of the events and the visit of the Olympic flame in a special poster of events.

There have also been a number of spin offs from the 2010 event - the village began to work alongside Active Norfolk to organise a come and try sports evening, Hethersett entered the South Norfolk Village Games for the first time and won in 2011 and 2012 and  finished runners-up in the county finals in 2011 and are hoping to go one better this year and Hethersett and Meltons Sports Association was formed in February 2011 to bring sports and well being groups together, celebrate their successes and in 2012 look to improving facilities in Hethersett and the Meltons.

There have been other awards as well. The Open Weekend was Eastern Daily Press event of the year runner-up in 2010. In 2011 we were named Active Norfolk/Eastern Daily Press Norfolk sports village of the year and also Norfolk Sports Champion of Champions.

But ultimately it hasn't been about winning awards. To use another cliche these have just been the icing on the cake. It has been a journey of community spirit, a journey of can do, a journey of the Big Society in action. In January 2012 people visited a special Pledge Pod at Woodside school and pledged to improve their fitness during the year. A social running club has been set-up in the village and a family rounders club and petanque club could shortly follow - proving that sport and fitness is for all ages.

In a very short time the Olympic Games will be here and then gone. The legacy they will leave in Hethersett will last for decades in the form of subsequent Open Weekends and other village events and in a sporting and well being legacy that will continue to make our village even better and continue to make it the envy of other communities.

Perhaps it is all best summed up by Joseph Ballard, London 2012 Inspire Programmer for the East of England, at a special showing in Norwich Forum of a unique Olympic themed film showing the work done by children in the Hethersett cluster of schools under the direction of Extended Schools Co-ordinator Fiona Whiting. Joseph referred to our village as a "wonderful place" and brought home the enormity of the flame visit:

"It is the only time in the entire history of the Olympic Games that the Olympic flame has made an off route visit," he said, thus proving that in 2012 the Norfolk village of Hethersett made world history.

Peter Steward 2012