Most people carry a souvenir of Overton in their pockets - banknotes are printed on paper produced at its mill. But few could find it on a map, and its brief transformation from obscure village to major sporting venue was mirrored throughout Sussex and Hampshire during the Tour de France's two-day departure from more familiar territory.
As 1 pm approached, the shops closed and almost all of Overton's 3,000-strong population was soon hanging over crash-barriers on the narrow main street, waving plastic Union Jacks (25p from the local shop) and cheering wildly at anything that moved, from the vans selling T-shirts to the dour gendarmes who form the Tour's advance guard.
'Whitchurch (four miles away) is a small town, but is a big village,' one of the flag- wavers said. 'The two are quite competitive. The Tour went through Whitchurch too, but I've been told they haven't made half the effort we have. Overton generally puts on a good show.'
Shopkeepers had been encouraged to do their bit by the parish council's prize for the best-dressed window, to be awarded later in the afternoon, but a brief stroll down either side of the street quickly revealed the odds-on favourite. 'To be fair, I've got the props to do it,' said Bill Judge, who was offering glasses of wine ('it's Australian, French is undrinkable') to passers-by outside his antiques shop. 'But I just added a couple of balloons, a bike, a glass of wine and a packet of Gauloises and put Edith Piaf on the tape-player.' The Tour has brought him no obvious increase in business, but 'this is a carnival day. If people want to come back tomorrow, they can'.
At the far end of the high street, where several shops stood empty, it seemed for a moment that the entire day was nothing but a grand exercise in window-dressing, a bout of bunting and flag- waving to relieve the boredom. But the enthusiasm was genuine, and so too the warmth of Overton's people. 'Where I used to live I never said hello to anyone,' one said. 'But here people say hello and stop to talk all the time. Sometimes I don't even know their name.'
Next door, in Overton's betting shop, was one of the few dissenting voices amid the town's day of celebration. The manager sat tight in the back office as the peloton passed, unconcerned about missing an important moment of local history. 'I don't mind if someone else is paying,' he said. 'But the organisation costs money and the police don't do it for nothing, and I think it's the ratepayers who will end up paying.' Nor had Tour fever increased his turnover. 'I've only had one bet on it all week, and today I haven't taken a penny extra on what I'd take on a normal weekday.'
The spectacle was brief - 'I took a photograph, then I blinked and it was all over,' - and normal service quickly resumed. In the betting shop, thoughts were now concentrated on the chances of the locally trained favourite, Lochsong, in the July Cup at Newmarket, while on the street a broken- down lorry started a traffic jam of Piccadilly proportions. But each July you suspect, Overton will recall its 15 minutes of fame with affection.Reuse content