So why did a Cotswold hillside cause ‘the first stirrings of Britain’s Olympic beginnings’?
Dover’s Hill is one of the high points along the Cotswold scarp, a steep edge of high land running from Bath in southern Gloucestershire to Chipping Campden in the north. It is made of Jurassic limestone, a kind of rock that was formed about 165 million years ago beneath a warm tropical sea.
It is this rock that was responsible for the bowl-shaped amphitheatre we see before us today.
The limestone sits in a band, or cap, across the top of the slope. Beneath it are layers of weaker sandy clays and mudstone. When wet these layers are fairly unstable. Water percolating through the limestone above, wets and erodes the rock layers below. This can cause blocks of the limestone rock to fracture and slip. When this happens the mud and clay layers underneath slump downwards, forming a natural amphitheatre.
The amphitheatre immediately below Dover’s Hill summit is a classic example.
In 1612, local lawyer Robert Dover saw the potential of this natural amphitheatre. He established the annual Games, known after 1636 as 'the Cotswold Olympicks'. Dover wished to bring both rich and poor together in a community activity. His diverse plans included horseracing, coursing with hounds, running, jumping, shin kicking, dancing, sledgehammer throwing, fighting with swords and wrestling.The short springy limestone grassland made an ideal base for all these outdoor activities.
Booths were also set up for food, drink and card games - along with a temporary wooden structure called Dover Castle! The contemporary poet Nicholas Wallington was full of praise for the games:
He [Dover] spares no cost; this also doth afford
To those that sit at any board.
None ever hungry from these Games come home,
Or e'er made plaint of viands, or of room.
A turbulent history
After the Civil War, the Puritans gained control in England. They disapproved of festivities like the Games, believing them to be pagan in origin, and so they put a stop to them. The Games were revived after the Restoration of 1660, but lacked Dover’s organisation, becoming "just another drunken country festival" according to critics.
In 1852, the Games closed again when the land was enclosed. It was not until 1965, when the Robert Dover Games Society was formed, that the Games were revived once more.
The Games have been held each year since then and include many of the original events like shin kicking. In its successful bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, the British Olympic Association recognised the Cotswold Olympicks as "the first stirrings of Britain's Olympic beginnings". And all because of the local geography and the insight of an enterprising man!
The game is up
Besides being a forerunner to the Olympics, the Cotswold Games may feature in the works of William Shakespeare. Some historians have suggested that the Games are alluded to inThe Merry Wives of Windsor. Francis Burns, the historian and secretary of the Robert Dover's Games Society, has suggested that the wrestling scene in As You Like It reflects the wrestling at the Games.
Theories like these have been used to suggest that Shakespeare may have seen the Games. Although he may have been acquainted with Robert Dover, there is no evidence however that Shakespeare ever attended them.