Category Archives: Games

Custom contrived: The Bog Snorkelling championships

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Perhaps king of the crazy customs dreamt up one day in the pub is the World Bog Snorkelling Championship. Started in Llanwrtyd Wells, a fairly forgotten place not really on the way to anywhere but once in the eye of attention when it was developed as a spa. That was long ago and despite some grand buildings its been largely forgotten by the outside well. It is certainly a great candidate for a bizarre sporting custom and being surrounded by boggy highland areas – bog snorkelling is it.

Not bog standard

Legend tells that that seed of an idea begun in an chat in the town’s Neuadd Arms between a few regulars and Gordon Green in 1976. The seed was sown but the first championship largely a quiet affair by comparison of today was held at the Waen Rhydd bog near the town in 1985. The winner (or winners as it was doubtless like today men and women championships) has not been recorded or rather I have been unable to find. Since then the world’s stage has come to Wales to enter with competitors coming as far as way as South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, USA and even England. As such its been on German and Australian TV as a regular ‘wacky world’ component on the news. 

The BBC website covering the event neatly described the bizarreness of it:

“Taking an activity normally associated with the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean and moving it to a large drain in Dungannon may not be to everyone’s taste.”

And yet people flock to get into those murky dirty water to race down two lengths of a 60 metre drain in the bog and be the winner.  The continue: 

“Why someone would want to dive into a deep cold, very dirty, and slightly smelly bog drain is a moot point, even among the competitors.”

Some competitors said they may need to find a different hobby, but one man said he had set a record for the sport, mainly because no-one else had been timed yet.

“It’s cold, yes, when you get in, but it’s good for your skin,” said one female devotee of the sport.”

Personally I was not convinced by the later reason. looking down into the water and watching the competitors emerging from the murky waters like a modern day creature of the black lagoon some covered with floating pieces of moss!

Bog trotters

Each year 200 entrants sign up. All that is needed of course is a pair of goggles and a snorkel – you don’t even need a wetsuit – but this does not stop the competitors turning up in more and more bizarre costumes. Many looking like a stag or hen night which has somehow got lost from their evening pub crawl and ended up bewildered at the edge of a peat bog and say ‘oh well we are here now might as well join in – be rude not too.’. Some costumes are of course completely impractical in a peat bog as well blowing up like balloons in the murky water and sadly making them too buoyant like someone going for one of those school safety certificates. 

I turned up in 2017 and was confronted by a considerable number of men in dresses, nuns and a person dressed as a bumble bee – whose wins when she entered caused considerable drag and slowed them down.

Bogged down

There was a considerable bit of cockiness from some who waited bathing in the warm sun, dismissing the enterprise as easy and upon entering the cold brown waters looked rather shocked to find and were huffing and puffing at the end. Tempting as it looked – and I did have a snorkel and glasses in the car – I wasnt tempted.

Some individuals were more determined  such as Mr Neil Rutter who took the crown in 2017. The challenge was on. The year before a 1 minute 19 seconds was the world record (but that was over in Ireland). Mr Rutter shouldn’t have been upset he came in a very respectable 1 min 26.15 secs. Little did I know the very next year spurned on by this perhaps he broke the world record at 1 min 18.81 secs. He remains the title holder as well as the current Bog Snorkelling champion due to the impact of Covid of course. The only other time it had been cancelled was in 1995 due to a drought! 

The Bog Snorkelling has become the catalyst of other smaller events expanded into a sort of triathlon approach. And somewhat prescient the Royal Mail included the event in a celebration of UK Weird and Wonderful Customs it would seem in 2019 – a few months before the pandemic would stop them!! When it is bet I could not think of a better way to spend an August bank holiday…if you havent been get your flippers on an attend. 

 

 

Custom revived: Hemswell May Day, Lincolnshire

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A cursory glance of a book on Calendar customs will find no mention of the Hemswell May Day. This is a shame for although the present celebration is not of a great vintage, it is claimed that Hemswell maypole dancing celebrations in the world dating significantly back to 1660, the year of the Restoration. However, the earliest record of the Maypole is from the street name first recorded in 1841.It is noted that the weathervane was added in 1859, Gutch and Peacock (1908) in their work on Lincolnshire folklore notes:

“Hemswell Maypole. — On a recent visit to the neighbourhood of Gainsborough, I went to Hemswell, a village at the foot of what is termed ‘ The Cliff,’ in the northern division of the county of Lincoln. In the centre of the village I was surprised to see a Maypole. The pole proper stands between two stout posts about fifteen feet high. Near the top of them a strong iron bolt is passed through the whole. The posts are fixed firmly in the ground, while the pole between is loose at the bottom, but kept in place by a second transverse bolt near the ground, which is drawn out when the pole is wanted to be lowered; which is done by getting a ladder and fixing a rope high up on the pole, by which it is pulled down, swinging on the top transverse bolt as on a pivot. It is steadied by another rope at the bottom. When decorated it is raised to its place again by pulling the bottom rope, and it is fixed by reinserting the lower transverse bolt.”

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The authors do not appear to describe any use of the Maypole and the earliest record of its use being pictures of the early 1900s. It is known that it was lowered and repainted in 1919 by the village carpenter, a Charles Love at the cost of 25/-. However, by the time Rudkin (1936) describes it, the correspondent appears to suggest such events were a thing of the past:

“Feast week was in Maytime (ie Mayweek first week in May) and there used to be stalls all in the street round the maypole. There was ‘good-stiff’ stalls and sweetmeat stalls and aunt sally a rare fine show it was!As a little ‘un I remember it and id 4d to spend so I spent it all in halfpence – and I did buy a lot with that 54d! We danced at nighttime round the Maypole, but only ordinary round dances, none of those dances with ribbons attached to the pole – I never heard tell of that being done pers Mrs H of Hemswell.”

She is more emphatic in the County Magazine (1934-6), as Rudkin notes:

“Hemswell is our only village that can boast of a Maypole still in position..but all traditions about dances or other doings are now dead in the village itself.”

May be old or Maypole be not!

Allen (1994) in her work The Hemswell Maypole notes however and a Mr. Senior in 1977 could remember a youth climbing it to put some briads on it. Allen (1994) suggests that the attempt was unsuccessful as he could not recollect any dancing. It appears if a Mrs Edith Bamford is correct with her recollection in 1986 when 87 that the tradition of Maypole dancing was kept alive by the school having a portable maypole. Certainly photographs from the 1950s show this. Despite this repairs were made in 1957 and 1964. It appears probable that the custom was revived in 1976 when the Lincoln Folk Dance society asked if they could use it.  They brought their own braids and a May Day was established and now dancing and a small fete is held around the Maypole area and parish hall on the May Bank Holiday.  The braids due to the difficulty of reaching the top of the pole are set mid way up.  Now the children wear a special costume with boy’s smocks patterned to denote their work and girls with long cotton skirts, aprons and fen-bridle style cotton bonnets.  Over the years Allen (1994) notes:

“Sometimes a May Queen has figured in the celebrations; the Lincolnshire Morris Men have often joined us, and other visitors have included the Lincoln Folk dance society, the Tatterfoals, and Dukes Dandy Clog Dancers, all bringing their particular brand of tradition.”

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The Hobby Horse and the rider

Only a hobby

One of the most interesting aspects of the day is a hobby horse – more horse like than others, which collects money and appears from all accounts to be a familiar feature although it is isolated from the dancing and appears to not to be associated with a Morris team. He wanders around with a note asking for money for his stable – the village hall! One wonders the origin of it, of course Obby Oss are associated with three West Country May events and certainly Rudkin refers to one in nearby towns of Grimsby where a sadly colourful defunct May pole day records: 

“And there was also Robin Hood, the Friar, the fool, the dragon and the Hobby Horse, all robed in character.”

Such a cavalcade of characters may suggest similar disguises where undertaken at Hemswell, but only the Hobby Horse remains, a person completely covered with a  sheet with a horse’s head on top carved out of wood. A bonus as the Hobby Horse is certainly a unique feature to Hemswell and one which looks vert old.

From the revival in the 1970s this quiet local celebration has continued. In 1992 when the pole was weathered for 5 years previous and a new brass fox placed on the top of its 17th feet, ensuring perhaps at least another 100 years of May days…so long may this remote location celebrate the May with their very own Maypole.

Custom demised: Holne Ram roasting on May Day.

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 In 1853, the curate of Holne in N. & Q. 1st S. vol. vii. p. 353 records a curious:

“At the village of Holne, situated on one of the spurs of Dartmoor, is a field of about two acres, the property of the parish, and called the Ploy (play) Field. In the centre of this stands a granite pillar (Menhir) six or seven feet high.”

Now folklorists have seen some significance with the association of the custom with a menhir suggesting an ancient custom and as such the following is of considerable interest. The author continues: 

“On May-morning before daybreak the young men of the village used to assemble there, and then proceed to the moor, where they selected a ram lamb (doubtless with the consent of the owner), and after running it down, brought it in triumph to the Ploy Field, fastened it to the pillar, cut its throat, and then roasted it whole, skin, wool, &c. At midday a struggle took place, at the risk of cut hands, for a slice, it being supposed to confer luck for the ensuing year on the fortunate devourer. As an act of gallantry the young men sometimes fought their way through the crowd to get a slice for the chosen amongst the young women, all of whom, in their best dresses, attended the Ram Feast, as it was called. Dancing, wrestling, and other games, assisted by copious libations of cider during the afternoon, prolonged the festivity till midnight.”

The custom appears in Black’s Guide to Devonshire who records:

“PLOYFIELD playfield where the ram feast is celebrated every May day a lamb being caught slaughtered and roasted and old games following the banquet.”

When it  died out is unclear. However, it is thought that the custom moved to July the 6th and involved catching ram from the moor,  dressing it with roses and leading to the Plat Park’ where it was slaughtered and then roasted. The meat was then apparently sold off and a day of games continued. In the end a ram was provided for the roast with little ceremony and in its final entity became the village’s fete which apparently still continues it a sanitised format today.

Custom contrived: Edinburgh Beltane Fire festivals

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Beltane is an ancient festival day which until recently had been largely forgotten it would seem but due to a neo-pagan revival to have been increasingly observed. One of the earliest and certainly most vibrant is that established in 1988 by a musical collective called Test Dept as their website records: 

“The event was intended as a celebration of traditional rituals as a local manifestation of an international spirit……Choreography, iconography and performance were moulded by the originators’ research into historical accounts of Beltane and their own influences (e.g. Test Department’s drumming, Trinidadian carnival, and ritual dance and performance).”

In a way of the custom is a sort of revival as Edinburgh had a tradition of beltane celebrations located on Arthur’s seat of which the washing in May Dew is the last remnant. However, anyone who has been to the told of Arthur’s seat would attest it is big on scenery but small on space! Thus the location was moved to Carlton Hill. The first Beltane fire festivals were a success:

“Originally an event with a core of a dozen performers and a few hundred audience, the event has grown to several hundred performers and over ten thousand audience. Key characters within the performance are maintained, though reinterpreted by their performers, and additional participants incorporated each year.”

Popularity has brought its challenges as the website notes:

“Originally, the festival was free and only lightly stewarded, however, as the event has grown in popularity, due to the capacity of the hill, funding requirements… the festival has in recent years moved to being a ticketed event.”

It certainly is a vibrant and busy event. I followed ticket in my hand the throng of people, devotes to the fire festival as they snaked up the hill. Once in you really do feel this is an immersive experience everywhere there is action, sounds, sights, smells and excitement. However, getting that killer photo is more of a challenge! 

The event starts with a procession of a resplendent white May Queen with a foliage covered green man with as their website states:

“followed by a cavalcade of characters who are intrinsically linked to them and their journey. Their destination is punctuated by various groups who either help or hinder their progress towards the Green Man’s fate and the May Queen’s destiny.”

If it wasnt them it was the throng of onlookers jostling for a position! The May Queen signifies the beginning of summer physically emphasized by the lighting of an immense bonfire. Once this has happened the performers move around the site integrating with great aplomb and flashes of red, white and toplessness! Writhing bodies and jumping in and out of the crowds creating a magical. Many doing the traditional jumping through the fire for luck and causes woops and cheers from the crowd. 

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After a dramatic stage performance signifying the inception of summer the May Queen and Green Man spark the birth of summer by lighting a huge bonfire. The performance then moves into its community phase. All the participants congregate in a place called the Bower. From here the finishing movements of the festival are played out in a dance of reds and whites. This is also where the home comforts of warmth, food and drink are provided to the tired and often very cold performers and crew. As the website notes:

“There are very few barriers between the audience and performers which offers up opportunity for an immersive experience. It is one where you are likely to come face-to-face with one of our colourful characters, or can step back and marvel at the scale of a production wrought in only two months by around three hundred volunteers. The presentation may leave you figuratively in the dark regarding what is being portrayed, but there is also a chance you may find yourself literally there too. One suggestion is to ‘head to the high ground and then follow the sound of drumming.”

The sound was indeed incredible and all in all this is an amazing event custom a must to experience and be part of. Less of an event to experience what Beltane was like in the pre-Modern years I would add but that is beside the point Edinburgh should be justly proud of this fantastic addition to the folklore calendar. A must! I left a bit before it finished and looked back at Carlton hill the spectacle of rich reds and oranges pours across the Edinburgh skyline creating an exciting vista. 

Custom transcribed: Wife carrying races

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The UK Wife Carrying Race has taken place since in 2008 in Dorking, Surrey, and from tiny acorns it has grown as it only attracted only three competitors in its first year growing to include 23 couples. The official website states that:

“Unlike the Finnish World Championships where pairs of carriers run against each other, in the UK Wife Carrying Race all couples run against each other in one wild mix of flailing arms, legs and buttocks. The UK race also differs from the Finnish competition in that the course is not flat: carriers have to tote their ‘wives’ uphill to the half way point, with an altitude gain of around 10m, before running back downhill to the finish line. Hay bales are used to provide hurdles on both the outward and return legs and while the course does not feature a pool, like in Finland, there is a ready supply of volunteers with water pistols and buckets of water to soak the competitors as they near the finish.”

The website continues:

“The race in Dorking has also seen the full spectrum of carrying styles: the piggyback (popular, but tiring and not very fast); the bridle carrying (almost impossible to keep up for long); the Fireman (across the shoulders); the shoulder ride (precarious but surprisingly swift) and the Estonian hold, where the ‘wife’ hangs upside down on the man’s back with her legs over his shoulders: This is the hold that is now almost invariably used in competition, being swift and relatively comfortable for both carrier and ‘wife.”

Carried away with a good story

Lou Ambers on the blog post ‘The strange sport of wife carrying’ :

There are three stories that people say form the basis for this strange sport. The first of these stories is one where an ancient Finnish robber and his gang of thieves used to plunder the land. The leader of the gang was named Ronkainen the Robber and he and his gang used to steal food and women from surrounding villages in the area where he lived. They would carry the women away on their backs and that evolved into the wife carrying race of today. The other legend behind this race is the one about a practice in 19th century Finland when young men used to go to neighbouring villages and steal other men’s wives and claim them for themselves. The practice was known as wife stealing and may have contributed to the sport of today. The final origin story is a little bit mundane and ordinary. This again features the character named Ronkainen the Robber but this time he used to train his thugs to become faster and stronger by carrying big heavy sacks on their backs.”

The homeland of wife carrying is thus Scandinavia and with a cheeky node to that origin claims that the British one was established:

 “with help from our Scandinavian cousins” for around 300 years from 793AD when Viking raiders raided villages and abducted wives.”

Wives tales

The race has tried to be inclusive – apparently in 2015 Joel Hicks carried “Tiny Tina” a male friend in drag who was 7’4″ and 22 stone – although I am not sure that it ticked any transgender inclusivity box and in 2016 he apparently carried two wives to tick the polyandry box. Indeed the website records:

“The UK Wife Carrying Competition has now seen all combinations of competitors: men carrying women, a man carrying a man and a woman carrying a woman, and in 2013 welcomed a woman carrying a man fir the first time: The BBC’s Stephanie McGovern carried 78-kg Mike Bushell around the course (they came last by a long way, but they did finish!)”

Lou Ambers on the blog post ‘The strange sport of wife carrying’ :

“This odd race is not the most politically correct though. As the world moves on in terms of male and female equality we still have a race where women are carried by big strong men to the finish line. It does not say a lot about gender rights. But the race is a tongue in cheek kind and is only done to keep old traditions alive and relive the olden days of Finland. The sport seems to be more of a joke event and it is not to be taken seriously.”

Of course the whole event is very tongue in cheek and no pollical points are being made. In 2019 the website reported:

“Three brave couples took part: Joel Hicks and Wendy Cook, Ian and Kath Phillips, and Kevin Bailey and Kim Lowe. Joel opted for the transverse fireman’s carry, while the other two couples went for the classic piggyback. Joel Hicks (a veteran fundraiser who had travelled from Hinkley, Leicestershire, in order to take part) was dressed as a baby, complete with nappy and fetching blue bonnet.

Joel took an early lead, and hardly slowed down to walk until the climb to the half way high point, whereupon he accelerated away again, leaving the other two couples jostling for second place. Joel – a well-built young gent, to say the least – sprinted home in just 1 minute 59 seconds for the 380m course, although Kevin Bailey was a close-run second in 2:13. Ian jogged in a breathless but happy third, to win the last-placer’s Pot Noodle, in 2:30.”

 Sadly, although perhaps social distancing might not impact upon true husbands and wives it would preclude any causal ‘wives’ if the reader understands me, so the race has been given a well-earned rest time for the contestants to practice in lockdown no doubt!

Custom contrived: The Elf on the Shelf

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The Elf on the Shelf - Wikipedia

“Like most things that get big in America, the Elf on the Shelf was bound to cross to these shores eventually. Now it’s available in the UK, the Elf on the Shelf is spreading like wildfire.”

Kate Whiting What is Elf on the Shelf? All you need to know about the Christmas craze

“Horrible passive aggressive doll that ‘watches you’ then tells on you to Santa.”

Amazon review

For many years we had plastic Elf sitting with his knees firmly tucked under his chin. He sat – because he had loop in his head – firmly hanging from one of the branches of our annual Christmas tree. He was a bauble like many of the others – currently the weirdest one on the tree is a pickled gherkin but that’s another story! Then as the current millennium developed a new Elf appeared on the Christmas roster and the term Elf on the Shelf became more and more frequently heard. Why?

Another book on the she-Elf-ie!

In the Strange and Sweet history of Elf on the Shelf the Huffpost summaries the story as follows:

“According to the book, the elf is a “scout elf” who sits on a shelf or table or another part of a family’s home to observe the children’s behavior during the holiday season.

Each night, the elf flies back to the North Pole and reports the kids’ actions to Santa Claus to inform his naughty and nice list picks. The elf then returns before the children wake up and settles in a new part of the house, creating a hide-and-seek game each morning.”

The Elf would visit from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve suggesting that parents would set up the Elf between these areas.The authors, Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell of thisT 2005 children’s picture book appear to be almost single handedly created their own custom – developed and spread by social media. Carol Aebersold stated that they got the idea from a family tradition that she Carol started for her two children in Georgia USA in the 1970s:.

“We had an elf growing up for as long as we can remember. Our elf was named Fisbee, and Fisbee of course would report to Santa Claus at night and be back in a different position in our house the next day,” Pitts explained. “We loved it. It was a chance for us to tell Santa directly what maybe we might want for Christmas, or to do good deeds so that Santa would know about them.”

When Aebersold was a child herself, Fisbee was more like an ornament that stayed on the Christmas tree and didn’t move. But the tradition morphed over time, and when she became a mother, she told her kids the elf would magically fly around at night and mustn’t be touched or it would lose its magic ― likely “to protect it, because we were pretty rambunctious children,” said Pitts.

The idea of a magical elf that flies to the North Pole at night and reappears in a surprise location was “super fun and whimsical” to the twins and their brother, Brandon, Pitts recalled. “It had all of us racing out of bed in the morning to find our elf!”

Help your Elf

As the custom developed it appears rules developed now on the book’s website:

  1. “A scout elf cannot be touched. Christmas magic is very fragile and if a scout elf is touched it may lose that magic and be unable to fly back to the North Pole.”
  2. “A scout elf cannot speak or move while anyone in the house is awake! A scout elf’s job is to watch and listen.”

Of course each night once the children have gone to bed the parents would have to find new places to place the Elf; which has resulted in some amusing locations and a whole range of images shared on social media.

It is thought that 2007 was an important point when actress Jennifer Garner was photographed with the Elf on the shelf box and soon the booksellers were flooded with orders and toy stores started selling the product. Now over 11 million elves have been sold and it has spread across the world including Great Britain.

Elf and safety warning

The custom hasn’t always been welcomed. Notwithstanding the hundreds of parents who have had to think about where to place the Elf each night and the horrendous middle of the night moment when a parent has just remembered they have not moved it, the have been other concerns.

In Who’s the Boss? “The Elf on the Shelf” and the normalization of surveillance Professor Laura Pinto reports that:

“Although The Elf on the Shelf has received positive media attention and has been embraced by millions of parents and teachers, it nevertheless represents something disturbing and raises an important question. When parents and teachers bring The Elf on the Shelf into homes and classrooms, are they preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance?”

But psychological impact aside many such as The Atlantic columnist Kate Tuttle have questioned its position as a tradition, seeing it as:

“a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a tradition.”

But then I would say so are virtually half of our current customs and traditions – divorced as they are from what they really stood for!

This has ranged from reports on Amazon which states it is a

“My 4 year old cried and didn’t want it in the house.”

Custom survived: Christmas Crackers

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“Thomas Smith and company have endeavoured by employing special artists to produce designs, the finest modern appliances to interpret their work, and combining Art with Amusement and Fun with Refinement, to raise the degenerate cosaque from its low state of gaudiness and vulgarity to one of elegance and good taste….the mottoes, instead of the usual doggerel, are graceful and epigrammatic, having been specifically written for Tom Smith’s Crackers by well-known authors, among whom may be mentioned the late Tom Hood Esq., Charles H Ross Esq., Editor of Judy, Ernest Warren Esq., Author of Four Flirts, Laughing eyes etc.”

 

No Christmas table feels complete without them but they provide no sustenance and little ornament in a way. The cracker and its strange rituals around them has become a mainstay of the Christmas period. But how did a gunpowder and toy filled device end up being so ubiquitous? Instead

The cracker’s origin can be traced back to the 1840s but it has soon become a staple. It’s a simple idea a cardboard paper tube wrapped in brightly coloured paper and twisted at each end. It is what is inside that makes it special – two strips of gunpowder coated card, a paper crown, a gift and a joke. Often the latter being unfunny and possibly decades old.

That’s a cracker

The tradition thus has developed that at the start of the meal the arms are crossed over with each hand taking a cracker firmly. Each person pulls at the same time, the aim being to be one of the lucky recipients of the end with the hat, gift and joke. As they do so the friction on the paper as they pull apart causing the bang.  How and why this developed is unknown but it is not dissimilar to that done at New Year’s Eve.

It’s all gone crackers

The history of crackers can be traced back to one sweet manufacture called Tom Smith who in London had developed bon bon sweets which he made by a twist of sweet wrappers around. As the sales of these sweets began to drop he looked at novel ways to increase his sales. At first he added love poems and marketed them as gifts men gave to their wives and girlfriends at Christmas this later developed into the corny jokes and mottos. An example of an 1891 motto is:

“The sweet crimson rose with its beautiful hue,

Is not half so deep as my passion for you,

‘Twas wither and fade, and no more will be seen

But whilst my heart lives you will still be its queen,”

Then in 1847 he came across the idea of adding the banger mechanism after being influenced by he had heard the sound of a log crackling in a fire. He continued placing sweets into the bon bons but in time these themselves were abandoned and small items were placed inside. These were described as:

“Grotesque and Artistic Head dresses, Masks, Puzzles, Games, Conundrums, Jewels, Toys, Bric a Brac, Fans, Flowers, Tiny Treasures, Japanese curiosities, Perfumery, Scientific and Musical Toys, and many other surprises.”

This new product he marketed as Cosaque apparently from the erratic dancing of the cossacks or the sound of the horses depending where you read it, but soon as other makers decided to adopt the idea. It is said that as overseas manufacturer copied the original design, Tom decided to develop eight different types and distributed these throughout.  He successfully saw off the competition and his business spread but the name ‘cracker’ had by this time stuck, clearly describing the sound of the pulled cracker. Finally Tom’s son Walter Smith added the paper hats in 1910 and then the jokes in the 1930s.

Now you get virtually anything in a cracker from an Aston Martin Vanquish Coupe, a Cartier Diamond necklace and even a Sunseeker yacht valued at over $3 million but in most some combs, bottle openers and plastic flappy fish!

Custom survived: St Bartholomew’s Founder’s Day and Bun Race, Sandwich Kent

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Sandwich is a town where you would expect there to be many traditions. One of the Cinque ports, many traditions have arisen from its long association with sea. In a small chapel and its associated almshouse community is one of the most enjoyable.

Legend has it that on the 24th August 1217 the town received a considerable amount of money from a sea battle held off the coast. This they used to build St Bartholomew’s Chapel and a hospital for sixteen men and women to inhabit. It would probably have been envisioned as a place of refuge for pilgrims latterly as it is today becoming an almshouse for the elderly.

Sandwich did not forget this great sea battle’s bounty and it appears that St Bartholomew’s Day became a day of importance in the town with the Mayor and civic dignitaries processing to the chapel for a special patronal founder’s day service – a founder’s day with a difference.

A prickly decision

One of the roles of the service is the selection of a new Master for the coming year. This is called pricking out. During this process a list of all those living in the almshouse – called brothers and sisters – is laid out and a silver bodkin  is used to run over the names and selects the person who will be in charge for the next twelve months. However the role of the Master is fairly mundane being a sort of care taker!

Typically you might say for August, the weather was wet and horrible. I arrived to watch a rather soggy civic procession arrive at the chapel to meet the brothers and sisters within. I slipped into the chapel, just about finding some room, to see the pricking out ceremony and hear the oath which went:

“I – (insert name) will me as I ought to be true and faithful unto the hospital and all things shall do, to my best of my power, for the most weal, proper and commodate of the same hospital and at the end of the year, a true and just account shall make all of things, wherewith I shall have to do belonging to the hospital for this year following.”

Not a bun fight!

After the ceremony as Charles Kightly records in his 1986 Ceremonies and customs of Britain:

“The ceremonies then conclude in livelier fashion, with local children racing around the chapel for a reward of a currant bun a piece.”

Outside there were a fair number of parents and young children waiting the race – the chapel could never have accommodated all of them and I wondered how the race had arisen. Did it arise as a way to encourage a well behaved congregation or to encourage more attendees? Both struck me as odd as it was clear that the service had a rather private feel about it and large numbers of children may have equally ruined the atmosphere I would imagine!

The dampness and drizzle did not put the participants. They lived up in the designated place beside the chapel. As it began to rain, the Mayor blew a whistle and the kids were off

The mayor protected by an umbrella gave out the buns to an out of breadth congregation of grateful children of many sizes. Many covered in mud and soggy! The adults who attended were given a hard paste biscuit with the hospital’s seal and the date 1190 – it did not look as nice as the bun! It was over as soon as it started and the crowd dispersed for another year.

How did the Bun race originate? The bun race is an interesting custom. A bit like those no winners or losers sports day everyone gets a prize! Everyone gets a bun! Why a race? Perhaps the custom arose as a dole for wayfarers and as these slowly disappeared some one came up with the idea of a race. The race symbolising the race to Canterbury’s St Thomas’s shrine. When it arose is not clear either and I have been unable to find it out. Kightly suggests it can only be less than a hundred years old – but that was in 1986 – with 34 years elapsed I imagine it qualifies now!

Custom contrived: The World Lawn mowing Championships Sussex

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One of those sounds of a long hot summer is the drone of a lawn mower strimming somewhere nearby but in July the whole air in specific Sussex villages one can hear even more but no grass is cut!

One man went to mow…

It was 1973 when down the Cricketer’s Arms in Wisborough Green, West Sussex over some drinks a discussion of a new motor sport was arisen. The man starting this conversation was one Jim Gavin, he was involved with rallying and bemoaned the influence of sponsorship. He clearly was not keen on it and wanted to create a sport which was both a motorsport, was not expensive, did not need sponsorship and could be accessible to everyone – but what could it be. It is said that they looked across the village green and saw a groundsman mowing a cricket pitch. They the realised that everyone had a mower in their shed and so they thought let us move them!

The first event was on Murphy’s field and 80 mowers turned up! The British Lawnmower Racing Association record on their website:

“The main objectives were and still are, no sponsorship, no commercialism, no cash prizes and no modifying of engines. The idea being, it would keep costs down and resulted in lawnmower racing being described by Motor Sport News as “the cheapest form of motorsport in the U.K.” The BLMRA still sticks to its origins as a non-profit making organization, any profits are given to charities or good causes.

Ready steady mow

The lawnmowing race rather grasped the zeitgeist locally and beyond as noted:

“Lawn Mower Racing takes place all over the country from Wales to Norfolk and Yorkshire to Sussex, appearing at Country Shows, Fayres and Steam Rallies. We generally start racing in May through to October, incorporating The British Championship. We also have The World Championships, The British Grand Prix, The Endurance Championship and the most famous of all, The 12 Hour Endurance Race.”

Not only that but the competition has not been short at attracting fame and despite the tongue firmly in the check genuine racers and even film stars have been involved:

“Over the years lawn mower racing has attracted motor racing legends and celebrities. Sir Stirling Moss has won both our British Grand Prix and our annual 12-Hour Race. Derek Bell, five times Le Mans winner and twice World Sports Car Champion, has won our 12 Hour twice and one of those was with Stirling. The actor Oliver Reed, who lived locally, regularly entered a team. We also feature in the Guinness Book of Records with the fastest mower over a set distance and the longest distance travelled in 12 hours. Other famous names who have been seen in the paddock are Murray Walker, Alan deCadenet, John Barnard (Ferrari F1 designer), Phil Tuffnell, Jason Gillespie, Chris Evans, Guy Martin and Karl Harris (British Super Bike riders), John Hindhaugh (Radio Le Mans commentator).”

Not letting the grass grow beneath their feet

Lawn mowers vary of course and we are not in the main talking the handheld ones we are talking about the large petrol monsters which parade up and down those large gardens of the country. Having said this the organisation notes:

“Drivers raced around the course in one of three vehicle choices –  a traditional push mower fitted with an added seat, a horse-and-cart-like lawnmower set-up or a more comfortable, sit-down grass cutter.”

As such there is plenty of opportunity to race them. In 2014 The Express newspaper noted that:

“Rattling around the quarter mile-long course, the racers topped speeds of 18miles per hour.”

With racer called Christopher Plummer explaining that:

“If you’ve got spinal problems, then it’s not a good idea, the wheel hits your knees all the time so you wear knee pads and then the banging, it’s just mad!”

The article goes on to speak to organiser John Lowdell about as it called ‘about winning the fierce, grass-based competition’  organiser John Lowdell said:

“I think there is a certain amount of kudos. People do like to say I am the current world champion. It takes more effort to win the British Championship because that takes place over the whole season, whereas the world championship is one meeting – but I think in terms of what people actually want, they want to be able to say they are the World Champion definitely”.

Mown down

Well I was slightly hesitant of attending this event being I have very little affinity for motor racing at the best of time. However, it is was clear that this was an enjoyable event for all the family but taken quite seriously. The air was thick in petrol fumes and it rung with the distinctive buzz of the motor. However, despite all the mower one could state the grass didn’t look very good indeed it looked more of a mud bath!

It is reassuring that over the years the event has remained true to its origins:

Unfortunately the British Lawn Mower Racing Association (BLMRA) does not offer any prize money or medals, so racers have to be satisfied with only the bragging rights of their John Deere driving.”

You could say its remained loyal to its grass roots!

Custom revived: Chipping Camden’s Cotswold Olympicks, Gloucestershire

Standard

He [Dover] spares no cost; this also doth afford
To those that sit at any board.
None ever hungry from these Games come home,
Or e’er made plaint of viands, or of room

Nicholas Wallington

When one thinks about Olympics one thinks of Greece and the four yearly major events that travel around the world. But like the Japan Olympics the Coronavirus crisis cancelled the Cotswold one as well. Unlike the ‘real’ Olympics – the Cotswold Olympicks has an older pedigree.

The name of the game

The Cotswold’s games is a new name for what was and is called Dover’s Olympicks. Robert Dover who was a local lawyer is said to have started the games in 1612. Why is unclear but it may have been that he felt that physical exercise was important or that he wanted to bring all classes together in a single enterprise and as such the events included a wide range of county pursuits ranging from horse-racing to wrestling, hound coursing to sledgehammer throwing. The games would take place on the Thursday and Friday of Whitsun usually lying in mid June or late May. These games took place in the amphitheatre of a hill fort called now Dover’s hill. One of the features of the custom would be the erection a wooden Dover’s castle where small cannons would be fired to start the event off and fireworks at the end.

The custom soon attracted fame. Prince Rupert is reported to have attended the Games in 1636 and at the same time a collection of poems celebrating it was also produced called Annalia Dubrensia (Annals of Dover). The poetry called it “an occasion of social harmony and communal joy” and was written by noted poets Thomas Randolph, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood and Michael Drayton. The common theme was that the games were celebrating and reviving English social life, stating that it was peaceful and well behaved and contradicted views that it allowed “drunken behaviour and sexual licence”. By this time the Games had acquired their title of “Olimpicks” which was approved by Dover especially as it secularised the events. It is thought that because Dover was brought up in a Catholic family he was reluctant of course to let people know and make people especially Puritans to think he had revived the pre-Reformation church ale.

The games outlived their founder – although there has been some debate that he may not have founded it but re-founded it. This was despite some disapproval of the event from 17th Century Puritans who disliked the event being associated with Whitsun and many local landowners forbade their workers to attend it. As the custom had support from James I, it was perhaps not that surprising and especially when the English Civil war broke out it was stopped.

However, you cannot keep a great custom down, especially one which was centred around fun and frivolities and thus coming of the Restoration it too was restored. Sadly Robert died in 1652 and so did not see its revival. It was his son Captain John Dover took it over, but he died in 1696 and it based onto one of his sons , Dr. Thomas Dover.

Game over!

However, the Games were not secured, perhaps without its guiding hand, they soon become associated with drunk and disorderly behaviour. Despite Thomas’s great interest in his grandfather’s Games, by this time he had moved away and let the organisation be done by others only having an honorary presidential capacity.  After his death in 1742 the Games were held a further 220 times over the intervening years through various promoters gaining the name Dover’s games although the family had no longer an association.  Poet William Somerville described it in 1740 as “just another drunken country festival” where chairs, and forms, and battered bowls are hurled/With fell intent; like bombs the bottles fly” and writer Richard Graves in the Spiritual Quixote of 1773 as a “heathenish assembly’ with: “six young women began to exhibit themselves before the whole assembly, in a dress hardly reconcilable to the rules of decency.”

After Thomas. Dover’s death in 1742 the Games continued under a variety of promoters, right through the 18th as this advert from 1812 states:

“On Thursday in Whit-week, On that Highly-renowned and universally admired spot called Dover’s Hill, Near Chipping Campden. Glos. The sports will commence with a grand match of Backswords for a purse of guineas, To be played by 9 or 7 men on a side. Each side must appear in the ring by 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Or 15s. each pair will be given for as many as will play. Wrestling for belts and others prizes. Also Jumping in bags and dancing. And a Jingling Match for 10s. 6d. As well as divers others of celebrated Cotswold and Olympic games, for which this annual meeting, has been famed for centuries.”

By 1845 the reputation of the Games was calling for their demise. The local rector Reverend Geoffrey Drinkwater Bourne, claimed that the 300000 attendees were all drunk and disorderly and that it attracted the lowest scum between Birmingham and Oxford. The event by that point was organised by local publican, William Drury, who would have been very keen to get alcohol sold there in return for his £5 fee for the event. It may have been that there were underlying reasons for local people to have it curtailed as the hill which was common land and oddly enough the consent for enclosure was given to the very same rector in 1850. Lo and behold in 1852 it was stopped this was despite very little record in court papers for any prosecutions associated with the event.

Thus by the time of T. F. Thistleton Dwyer British Popular customs present and past (1875) he reports:

“The vicinity of Chipping Campden was the theatre of the Cotswold Games, which, in the reign of James I. and his unfortunate successor, were celebrated in this part of England. They were instituted by a public-spirited attorney of Burton on-the-Heath, in Warwickshire, named Robert Dover, and like the Olympic games of the ancients, consisted of most kinds of manly exercises. The victors were rewarded by prizes, distributed by the institutor, who, arrayed in a discarded habit of James’, superintended the games in person for many years. The meetings were annually held on Whitsun Thursday, and were frequently attended by an immense number of people.”

It was a dead custom the land was portioned by local land owners and enclosed. Dover’s hill might change forever and with it gone his games

Back to the game

The way back to its survival happened when fortunately the land was acquired by the National Trust opening up the possibility of public access to what had become known as Dover’s Hill. Then in 1951 someone thought of reviving the games for the Festival of Britain, amazing just under 100 years since its cancelation. However, its celebration again was sporadic; foot and mouth disease in 1952, the Coronation in 1953 prevented regular observation and it was not until 1966 that it was regularly organised. Its significance in the history of the Modern Olympics was recognised  by the British Olympic Association as the ‘first stirrings of Britain’s Olympic beginnings’ when they made their 2012 bid for London.

The organisers excellent website state the various games played:

King of The Hill One of the traditional events at the Games, this antecedant of modern events like the pentathlon involves individual competitors competing at 4 separate events (in the lower arena). These events are: Static Jump (jumping as far as possible from a standstill), Spurning the Barre (an old English version of the Scottish tossing the caber), Hammer Throw and Putting the Shot. The combined total for all four events decides the winner. Entries for this event open at 6.30pm on the night of the Games. Entry is open to all adults over 16.

 Championship of the Hill A true crowd pleaser! The traditional team challenges of ancient rural Games, updated for the 21st century! Teams of 6 participents (many from local pubs or other groups) compete against each other in a series of ever-more-frantic, and ever-wetter games! These games vary from year to year, but generally include relays involving wheebarrows, dustbins, hay bales, slippery running surfaces and lots of water!  Very limited team entries are available for this event, but you must notify us beforehand. We reserve the right to refuse entry if this event reaches its maximum of 6 teams.

 Running Races After a few years’ absence, the running races will be back this year.  The course will be entirely cross country and entirely on Dover’s Hill.  There will be a 1 lap (c. 1 mile) and a 3 lap (c. 3 miles) race.  

 Tug O’ War One of the traditional rural sports, (and former Olympic sport), and still taken very seriously. Teams of 8 people pit their strength against opposing teams, in a series of ‘pulls’ culminating in a final in front of Dover’s Castle on the Lower Arena. A limited number of team entries may be available. Please let us know your intention to enter before the Games.”

and then finally the most famed:

“Shin Kicking The media’s favourite (for some strange reason!). One of the sports which took place in 1612, and we’re still doing it to this day (although we’ve made it a bit safer since those days – Steel toe caps are banned, and we allow the use of straw to pad shins).”

This later as they suggest has taken on a life of its own and indeed could be seen as a custom within a custom.

Game set and match

I experience the Cotswold Olympicks back in the mid 1990s. Chipping Camden is a delightful village and the modern Cotswold Olympicks as they are now known is a great addition. Like the origin games, Robert Dover dressed in his ceremonial coat, hat, feather and ruff (the original a donation of James I) albeit this is now an actor starts the event. He then rides in to ceremonious applause. A reconstruction of Dover’s castle is set up on the hill’s amphitheatre. The event started with some Morris dancers – Chipping Camden a traditional team – although there was no real evidence the Morris were originally involved but they sort of come with every rural event these days.

There was a real fun atmosphere there and watching the events was both exciting and amusing. For those who miss It’s a knockout its zaniness and bizzareness will be very familiar. Special interest was the shin-kicking event of course and although no days its much safer the contestants – perhaps I should say combatants – there was determination on their faces. After adorning their white coats and stuffing their socks with a shin pad and then with straw and then more staff and even more straw they were off. It was intense and rather comical as so stuffed with straw a number of times they went to take a kick and fell over together. The competition was difficult to work out who was winning to be honest as they held on to each other and started kicking – it was like a weird ballet! Their coats being more and more dirty until one fell and they were the winner!

The event ended with a huge bonfire being lit and we were all given wooden torches and encouraged to light them. A horn sounded and we were encouraged to start our journey down into the town and as it swayed through the streets in the darkness a dragon on light. It was a magical ending to a great revived event.