So there we were, a host of nations and their picnics, sat in orderly rows in orderly stands, munching sandwiches and biscuits and swigging cups of tea, watching the greatest athletes of our time strut their stuff.
Behind us a Babel gaggle of languages prattled happily away. Suddenly my husband hollered at the top of his most football-fan voice “Come on, Netherlands!”
“Yes, that’s right.” grinned a pair just behind us in neon orange skin-tight body suits with Dutch accents. “Come on, Netherlands!”
The Dutch boat was lagging. Phil has an impeccable sense of international etiquette.
So then everyone starts cheering the Dutch along, and they didn’t win, but they made a fine fist of it.
The Thames strolls by Eton Dorney lake, which was created by Eton College as a still water practise lake, and a Thames ferry forms part of the flotilla of transport options for those travelling from Windsor to the Olympic Games.
And round the lake are white tents: the lake is tented.
That word dates back to the sixteenth century. Way back in its etymological ancestry lies the middle English tenten, which comes from the French attente. It means to wait on; to attend.
Because just as with the Olympics, tents have been an integral part of ‘waiting on’ other countries for centuries.
What is more, they were tents shaped very like the ones designed for hospitality of nations at Dorney. Where had I seen tents like that before, I puzzled?
Get on that Olympic ferry, and pay the ferryman enough, and he might just take you the fifteen minute journey to Runnymede.
Ah, King John, King John. I cannot think he was thrilled to walk into his tent in June 1215, on the banks of the Thames. He had bungled: lost the Barons their lands in France and squabbled with Pope Innocent III. But the barons could not spare him because there was no apparent successor to take his place, and vacuums were notoriously hazardous in those far-off days.
Days before he walked into his tent at Runnymede, they had marched into London and strong-armed him into agreeing to the Articles of the Barons.
Runnymede was a coup for the barons.
But that isn’t where those tented images came from.
No: they came from an English king who did not tolerate being told what to do at all.
June 1520. And Cardinal Wolsey had a bright idea.
Relations with European states were looking shaky to say the least. There were two emerging superpowers: that of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and then there were the French under Francis I.
So Wolsey had everyone sail over to Calais, and troop about ten miles to a lovely little valley in Balinghem, and pitch tents of unparalleled splendour. Henry VIII’s tent, shaped much like the Olympic hospitality tents, was reputedly spun with silk and gold thread.
The splendour of the delegation – with 500 horsemen and 3,000 footsoldiers – may have stroked Henry’s ego, but the outcome of the athletics ‘friendly’ between the two monarchs did not.
Picture source here
For after the banqueting and dancing there was jousting. And Henry lost to Francis consistently.
The English king resorted to putting in a substitute. The Earl of Devonshire fared better. The French king lost three lances while the Earl lost two and managed to break the French king’s nose.
The English went home and declared war on the French shortly afterwards, drawn in by a pact with Charles V.
So, that worked well.
Today our tented lake is surrounded by excitement and goodwill. Diplomacy is a sideline: excellence in athletics the main focus. Those swathed tents of the past are just ghosts, and the Ancient Greek idea of truce has come full circle.
Our only adversary is the rain.