On March 1, the official flame for the 2014 Winter Paralympic Games was lit ahead of the opening ceremony in Sochi on March 7. But last week's spectacular flame-lighting ceremony wasn't held in Sochi, nor Athens, nor anywhere else you might expect an Olympic flame to be lit. Instead it was held in Stoke Mandeville, an unassuming rural English town of around 5,000 people, roughly 40 miles outside London.
So why Stoke Mandeville? Well, on July 28, 1948 the village hosted an archery competition to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics organised by local neurosurgeon (and Jewish refugee) Sir Ludwig Guttmann. The competition attracted 16 competitors, all of whom were Guttmann's patients and suffered some form of paraplegia. The competition proved such a success that Guttmann decided to make it an annual event, and over the decades that followed The Stoke Mandeville Games evolved into what are now the Paralympic Games -- in 1984, the town even co-hosted the Summer Paralympics with New York City.
This extraordinary claim to fame of such an unassuming place is by no means alone. Practically every town the world over has some random achievement to its name, or else has secured its place in history as the birthplace of some notable figure, the location of some remarkable building -- or the site of the first ever speeding ticket. So to accompany Stoke Mandeville's time in the spotlight, here are eleven more little-known British towns and villages -- taken from The British Isles: A Trivia Gazetteer - and their extraordinary claims to fame.
What is thought to be the world's first speed limit was imposed on English roads in 1861, but it wasn't until 1896 that the first ever speeding ticket was handed out to a motorist named Walter Arnold in the tiny village of East Peckham in Kent. Arnold was caught by a policeman on a bicycle, and fined two shillings (equivalent to around $12 today) for driving at 8mph in a 2mph zone.
In 2003, the entire supersonic Concorde fleet of aircraft - capable of travelling at 1,350mph, so a transatlantic flight from London to New York would take just three-and-a-half hours - was taken out of service. The last ever flight by a Concorde took place on November 27 2003, when aircraft No. 216 flew from London's Heathrow Airport to Filton Airfield in Gloucestershire to be retired.
The Scottish Presbyterian minister John Witherspoon (an ancestor of actress Reese Witherspoon) was born in Gifford in East Lothian, Scotland, on February 5 1723. In 1768, he emigrated to America and settled in New Jersey, where he soon took up a professorship at a small Presbyterian college - which would eventually become Princeton University. Elected to Continental Congress in 1776, the following year Witherspoon became the only clergyman to add his signature to the Declaration of Independence.
Standing roughly 40 miles west of Birmingham, the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock has a similar claim to fame as Stoke Mandeville: in the mid-1800s, a local scientist named William Penny Brookes established a society in his hometown aiming to revive the Ancient Greek Olympic Games. The first of Brookes's Wenlock Olympian Games were held in 1850, and featured a random (and typically British) assortment of disciplines including cricket, soccer and quoits. The Games soon proved a huge success - so much so in fact that in 1890 the French academic Pierre de Coubertain visited Much Wenlock and met with Brookes to discuss how such a competition could be transferred to a larger scale. Four years later, De Coubertain co-founded the IOC.
The 19th century Welsh entrepreneur Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones is considered the inventor of mail order shopping. He began his career selling Welsh flannel from a shop in Newtown in mid-Wales in 1855. As the business began to thrive, he took advantage of recent improvements in the postal service to deliver leaflets advertising his wares to the surrounding area, and uniquely allowed customers to purchase and receive their goods by mail. As time went by, improvements in transport allowed Pryce-Jones to both advertise and sell to a wider and wider market, and he quickly found his products selling all across Europe, America and Australia - and even added Queen Victoria to his list of customers.
It might be known as The Battle of Hastings, but when William the Conqueror - then just William, Duke of Normandy - landed on British soil in his attempt to claim the English throne in 1066, he did so at Pevensey, roughly ten miles west of Hastings on the English Channel. William landed on September 28 and met England's King Harold Godwinson in battle just over two weeks later on October 14. Harold's exhausted army were defeated after nine hours of fighting, and Harold was killed - popularly said to have been struck by an arrow in the eye.
In 1809, a young woman named Mary Ann Brailsford planted a handful of apple seeds in the garden of her cottage in Southwell near Nottingham. Almost forty years later, her house (and its garden) was bought by a local merchant named Matthew Bramley in 1846 - and by this time the seeds Brailsford had planted were now a large and flourishing apple tree. The tree soon came to the attention of a local horticulturist named Henry Merryweather, who asked Bramley if he could take a cutting from it and sell its apples in his shop. Bramley agreed, but only on condition that the apples were given his name. Today, all Bramley apples the world over are descended from this one Nottinghamshire tree.
In 1461, the Yorkshire village of Towton played host to one of the most significant battles of England's Wars of the Roses. Fought on Palm Sunday during a blinding snowstorm, the Battle of Towton is estimated to have involved some 75,000 soldiers, of whom around 25,000 are thought to have been killed. If this is the case, this single battle alone would have wiped out 1% of the entire population of England at the time, making Towton by far the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil and one of the bloodiest battles in all military history.
Built at Wallsend in the northeast of England and launched in 1902, the RMS Carpathia was one of the first great passenger liners of the 20th century. The ship secured its place in history on the night of April 15 1912 when the ship's captain, Sir Arthur Rostron, heard that the RMS Titanic had struck an iceberg. The Carpathia, which was also en route to New York from Croatia at the time, arrived at the scene at 4.00am and was able to rescue more than 700 survivors from the water. Tragically, the Carpathia herself was sunk in 1918 when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland.
In the late 1970s, members of the local parish council in the tiny English village of Whitwell wrote to the then Mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac to suggest that their village should be twinned with the capital of France. The letter clearly stated that if they received no reply, then the council would presume Mr Chirac was in agreement. As a result, today Whitwell (albeit unofficially) considers itself amongst Paris's other twin and sister cities, including Chicago, Buenos Aires, Cairo, San Francisco, Sydney, Tokyo, Washington DC and London.
When Mackays Hotel was built in Wick in the far of Scotland in 1883, the council at the time inexplicably deemed that the building's shortest side nonetheless constituted a street in its own right - and so despite being just 81 inches in length, Ebenezer Place was created. The street comprises nothing more than the old hotel building (whose address, unsurprisingly, is 1 Ebenezer Place) and is today officially recognised as the shortest street in the world.
Adapted from The British Isles: A Trivia Gazetteer, by Paul Anthony Jones.