It’s Olympic Torch Day for Durham. The weather forecast is vile – heavy rain all day. I nearly decide to stay at home.
I get the bus into Durham. It is not too rainy – drizzle interspersed with showers. There’s a real buzz in the air, but not many people yet. Hawkers are selling Union Jack flags on North Road. Police and officials in hi viz jackets are everywhere, but the mood is friendly and relaxed.
I cross Framwellgate Bridge – my favourite. The castle is looking splendid, and I feel that the rain brings out the best in it. Stone somehow feels more alive when the air is damp. There are still two hours to go until torch time, so I carry on through the city.
It is busier as I approach the Market Place. There are barriers in places, and folks keen on a good view are marking their positions, looking out over nothing. Waiting doesn’t suit me. I head towards Old Elvet.
From Elvet Bridge I watch some boatmen empty their boats of water with buckets. I’m sure there’s a nautical term for this, but it escapes me. This keeps me entertained for a while. I am reminded of Durham’s annual Miners Gala. I’ve staked out Elvet Bridge for photos of the Gala before: it’s a beautiful part of the city, with lots of old buildings, and I can watch the river during the inevitable lulls in activity. Apart from the excessive numbers of hi viz jackets (and the lack of brass bands) it feels a lot like Gala day today. The mood is one of relaxed anticipation, and I am reminded how much I love Durham city and its people.
Now I see a sight that any pedestrian in Durham will sweetly savour: the busy junction at New Elvet is closed. It feels surreal. How much better Durham would be if there were no cars. It is hard to break habit and walk in the middle of the road.
I reach Old Elvet. There is a corporate van playing dance music. It only plays one track, but the beat is like blood pumping. I stay here. Partly because a party atmosphere needs party music (however repetitive), and partly because I can see the snake of the city from here.
People are giving Union Jacks away. For free. I feel sorry for those who bought flags from the hawkers. I stick a flag in my bag pocket.
There is a ‘celebration event’ at Durham Racecourse, where the cauldron will be lit, I assume for the night. Most people seem to be heading for that. I want to see the torch in the street. There’s plenty of time to see the lighted cauldron later, and the non-celeb torch bearers need support too.
It is getting closer. Just as the official activity cranks up the heavens open. First come the corporate sponsors. I won’t give them any advertising here, but it felt very fake to me. The atmosphere was one of carnival, but the floats were all advertisements. Instead of olympic spirit, the messages I take away are:
- corporate monster pumping obesity and cavies
- the banking crisis… and all its consequences
- turning technology into a throwaway fashion accessory
By now my camera is safely in its waterproof bag. Five minutes to go. Just in time I whip my camera out to get a few hurried shots. In just seconds the torch has passed and the show is over. The crowd surges forward to follow the torch up to the Racecourse.
We are close to the Racecourse now. We can hear Matt Baker – our very own Durham celebrity – being interviewed over the tannoy. But we can’t get in. There is only one way in and out of the Racecourse. The blurb from the Durham County News magazine says the torch passes “…Old Elvet, Green Lane and onto Durham University Racecourse for evening celebration”. What it should have said was “the evening celebration will finish as soon as Matt Baker gives his TV interview after lighting the cauldron”. It was raining, the show was abruptly over, and everyone wanted to leave.
Finally we press through the log jam. Now another obstacle faces us. The route the torch had passed is still lined by crowd control barriers. No one had thought to open these up so we could cross the Racecourse to see the cauldron. I had to walk the long way round. Half way across the field and the cauldron – I still can’t believe this – was turned off. Yes, turned off! I’m starting to think this whole show was to generate TV-friendly pictures of crowds. Once the deed is done, sod the people of Durham who want to get a good look at the cauldron. Can you tell I’m annoyed?
The heavens are having a laugh too. The rain has now stopped and a beautiful rainbow hangs over the Racecourse.
Show over, those of us still on the Racecourse try to leave. Crowd control officials happily allow us to take short cuts that they knew perfectly well lead to dead ends. I am reminded of last year’s Lumiere festival. A great spectacle, but I was unable to get near any of the installations because the logistics of getting too many people moving through a medieval city had just not been thought through.
I wait for my bus home, reflecting on events. The mood was amazing, the police and officials relaxed and jovial. It was great to see the torch, but I’m still miffed that the cauldron flame was put out so quickly.
I’ve posted all my Durham olympic photos on my flickr site – please take a look