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Cynics or melted hearts? Olympic flame touches hometown England


Torchbearer John Bowman lights the cauldron with the Olympic Flame following the Torch Relay journey through Chelmsford, England on Friday.

CHELMSFORD, England -- By any measure, 2012 has been a year to remember for my hometown of Chelmsford, about thirty miles northeast of London.

First, the borough was rather unexpectedly granted city status as part of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations earlier this spring. I've always thought the U.S. has played fast and loose with the term 'city', appending it to all kinds of urban sprawl. But in England it's a much more serious matter; to be a city means gravitas, history and a definite sense of superiority over those places that, well, aren't.

Then just a few days later, as if to top the royal accolade, it was announced that Chelmsford would play host to the Olympic torch relay on its odyssey around Britain. And it wouldn't just have the torch parade through its streets – it would play overnight host to the sacred flame!

As we say about buses in England: You wait ages for one and then two come along together.

But was I the only resident to think our civic cup runneth over with good fortune?

For a while, I feared I was.

Taking the pulse of the community on a rain-soaked Friday on Chelmsford High Street – where the market stalls selling strawberries were mocked by the unseasonal weather – I found few shoppers willing to look on the bright side.

Peter Jeary / NBC News

Chelmsford, England, High Street on Friday.

"It's all overdone," one old-timer told me. "Not just the torch, the whole Olympics."

"Draw a circle around London and you'll find hundreds of places like Chelmsford," another said, "It's nothing special."

But it is – or at least it was.

Chelmsford proudly calls itself the Birthplace of Radio – in 1899 Guglielmo Marconi opened the world's first 'wireless' factory here. In 1920 the first entertainment radio program was broadcast from the company's New Street headquarters. In the 1960s, Chelmsford's Corn Exchange was the venue of choice for some of the world's iconic musicians: Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd both performed on its stage in 1967. Tickets on the door cost ten shillings (about 75 cents).

Sadly, the Corn Exchange was pulled down a few years later as part of a city-center redevelopment that can only be described as legalized vandalism. The town's old heart was ripped out and replaced by shopping malls and office blocks. Marconi's New Street factory now lies abandoned as real estate developers wait for prices to rise again.

'Worth every minute'
However community pride was destined to show its face again. On Friday around 15,000 people gathered at Hylands Park just outside town to welcome the flame and celebrate with live music, dance performances and sports displays.

Read more coverage of the London 2012 Olympics

Of course there was the occasional snarky remark – after all, this is Britain: One man standing near me in the long line to get into the park said, "If this was Germany, the gates would have opened on time."

But most of my fellow Chelmsfordians seemed excited. 

Peter Jeary / NBC News producer

Ann Deane, 71, at a celebration in Chelmsford, England, for the Olympic torch relay on Friday.

Ann Deane, 71, was among the first to find a vantage point by the front of the stage. She told me she could remember when cows were herded down Chelmsford High Street on their way to the livestock market.

Deane praised the celebration as being what Chelmsford deserved. "It's the sort of thing that should happen in a city," she said.

The crowd buzzed as the appointed hour approached. The famous flame would soon appear. Children pushed to the front of crowd; smaller ones were lifted shoulder-high. Jen Harold, 31, squeezed in beside her family near the barrier.

"I've already seen the torch today," she whispered. "I was with my school in Southend. I only applied for these tickets because I'm going on a hen weekend (bachelorette party) tomorrow and won't get up in time to see it in the morning."

And then with a cheer, a wave and the lighting of a burning cauldron, the torch had suddenly come and gone.

Later I tracked down longtime Chelmsford resident Ken Edwards, one of the three runners responsible for getting the torch from the highway to the celebration Friday night.

Edwards, 61, has lived in Chelmsford for decades and was nominated to be a torch bearer by the city council for his contribution to the local sports scene. "It's a great honor, but it's for the community and not just for me. I'm just the lucky one."

I asked him what it was like to carry the Olympic flame.

"Do you know what?" he said. "It was an out-of-body experience. I felt I was watching myself running with the torch. I started off just walking, but with the crowd cheering I started jogging. I didn't intend to, it just happened."

Peter Jeary / NBC News

Torchbearer Ken Edwards, 61, a longtime Chelmsford resident, poses with children and the Olympic flame in Chelmsford, England on Friday.

He beamed as he posed for photographs with well-wishers and let them hold the torch. "This is what it's all about," he said. "People can't resist touching the thing."

And I think that's it. Once you're touched – however briefly – by the magic of the torch and the spirit of the Olympics, it's hard to be cynical about bad city-planning, British weather or commercialization.

Thousands more Chelmsfordians were touched by that Olympic spirit again early Saturday, when they packed the city streets to watch the flame pass by for the official relay. The cathedral bells tolled and people of all ages cheered as it made its way toward Cambridge on Day 50 of the relay.

David Cooper, 62, stood along the street with his 3-year-old grandson, Jack. "It won't happen again in my lifetime," he said. "It was worth every minute."

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