Cheese Rolling

Falling down a cliff


In post-enlightenment society, with its strong emphasis on
recorded proof (to the degree that anything without a reliable paper trail is
considered a fiction), oral tradition counts for very little.  Yet, in researching the ancient sports and rituals of the British Isles, that is often all there is to go by.
One of the enduring mysteries of such rural traditions is that the most natural first
question of all – “Why do they do that?” – simply cannot be answered.

From the top
The village of Brockworth near Gloucester
lies at the foot of a sheer grass-covered scarp slope – Cooper’s Hill –
which is part of a larger geological feature sometimes called the Cotswold
Edge (the result of the uplifting of the underlying limestone layer, exposing
its broken edge as a cliff face).  For as
far back in history as anyone can tell – the ritual is claimed by some to be
pre-Roman – people have thrown themselves down this precipice, racing in
nominal pursuit of a wheel of cheese.

The cheese

Many see no need to question the origin or purpose of
cheese-rolling, safe in the knowledge that the sport is so aesthetically unique and eye-catchingly perilous as to require no logical
justification.  But it should be noted that rituals involving the
throwing of objects down hills (or over cliffs) are known to have dotted the
history of the more pagan-influenced communities in Britain throughout recorded
history, usually as part of a healing or exorcism ritual (similar to the releasing of a ‘scape goat’ in ancient Judaism).  For example, some contemporary wassails in Herefordshire still conclude with fires (lit in the tree branches to eradicate demons) being rolled
down the hill into the River Wye.

So, Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling may be the remnant of an annual cleansing ritual.  However, since the races were accompanied until recent times by the
scattering of fruit cake across the ground by the Master of Ceremonies – a
ritual known to have links to ancient fertility rites – social historians are still scratching their heads.

Scattering Fruit Cake

In any case, the roots of the event – formally known as The
Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake
– are shrouded in mystery.  Originally partaken in solely by local
villagers, it was first reported more widely in the early 1800s, and though it
has shed a few peripheral activities since then (eg. ‘dancing for ribbons’, ‘grinning (through a horse’s collar) for a cake’, and ‘bobbing for penny loaves smeared in treacle’), the main event has remained little changed.


The Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake is held annually
on the Spring Bank Holiday.  The festival
was originally held at Midsummer but was moved at some time to Whitsuntide,
taking place on Whit Monday.  In 1967,
the British Government loosed the Bank Holiday from its Church calendar moorings so that
it would always fall on the last Monday in May.
The ‘Cheese Rolling and Wake’ was moved accordingly.

In the lead up to the event, members of the CHCR Committee
and volunteers spend two weeks clearing the slope, erecting fences at the top
and sides, and building a wall of straw bales at the foot.  The cheeses (7-8lb Double Gloucesters) are
hand-made by Diana Smart of Churcham, using milk from her herd of Brown
Swiss, Holstein and Gloucester
cows.  Mrs Smart is the only person in
Gloucestershire still making Double Gloucester cheeses by hand, using
traditional methods, and she has provided the cheeses for rolling since 1988.

Diana Smart and her cheeses

The races start promptly at 12 noon, over a course of
approximately 200 yards.  It is a
testament to its steepness that the fastest finishers regularly break 15
seconds for the distance, faster than world record speed on the flat.  There is a maximum of 15 people per downhill
race and a minimum age of 18 years (at the discretion of the Master of

Master of ceremonies Rob Seex
The role of the Master of
Ceremonies – presently Rob Seex, a local dairy farmer – is that of ceremonial
host and race starter.  Raising his staff
and with a cry of, “ONE to be ready,TWO to be steady, THREE to
prepare” (at which time the cheese is launched), “and FOUR to be
off!” the competitors give chase.


Prizes are awarded for each race:

     1st prize – the cheese
2nd – £10
3rd – £5

Giving chase
There are now 5 Men’s Races and one Ladies’ Race, plus Boys,
Girls, Men’s and Women’s uphill races.
Delays often occur when awaiting the return of the ambulances from
transporting injured competitors to the hospital.  No deaths have ever been reported.


In recent years, increased publicity (including widespread international exposure) has seen greatly increased numbers attending the Wake.  The cancellation of the 2010 event was a direct result of there being over 15,000 spectators in attendance the previous year.

Local rugby players volunteer to be ‘catchers’, posted at
the finishing line to protect competitors from (further) collisions and
injuries.  They seem to particularly enjoy the Ladies

Only one Cooper’s Hill Master of Ceremonies is known to have
retired – all others have died in office.

From time to time, great cheese-rolling champions have
arisen.  The two greatest of these,
Stephen Gyde of Brockworth and Stephen Brain of Gloucester, won 38 cheeses between 1978 and
2000.  Both are now retired.  The newest pretender to their crown, Chris
Anderson of Brockworth, has now amassed 6 cheeses in 6 years, and featured in
the video for the Maccabees, ‘Can You Give It’ – see below.

Chris anderson cheese
War rationing, introduced in 1941, meant that a wooden
‘cheese’ was used until 1954. Within its paper wrappings, a small compartment
was left for a tiny piece of cheese, in order that tradition might properly be
maintained.  Cheeses have also been
rolled every year (including 2010) in which the Wake has been cancelled.

A total of 93 Penalty Charge Notices were issued on the 25th
May 2009 in the vicinity of the cheese rolling event by Tewkesbury Borough
council for parking offences.


Whuppity Scoorie

By the kirk1


Spring festivals and rituals are relatively few in Europe,
and mostly revolve around the Christian calendar and the Easter/Passover
season.  However, in many ancient
cultures (including Roman and Hebrew), the new life of spring marked the New
Year, and was marked accordingly.  Even
in Great Britain, the numbered year began on March 25 until 1752
and the adoption of the Gregorian calendar.


The annual observation of Whuppity Scoorie, in the historic
town of Lanark in the Scottish Lowlands, seems to hark back to an ancient
system like that of the Romans, wherein the month of March was the first of the
year, and March 1 New Year’s Day.
On that date, several weeks before the vernal equinox, Whuppity Scoorie
observes the increasing light of the new year chase away the receding darkness
of winter, whilst adding in a little chasing of its own.


The origins of the event are unknown, as is its precise
purpose, but Whuppity Scoorie contains enough diverse symbolism to suggest that
it is more than a mere New Year festival or pagan ritual; it is very probably
several such things combined.  Suggestions
include such things as a penitential act of repentance and ‘scooring’ (ie.
cleansing), a winter exorcism rite of the sort common elsewhere in Britain, a celebration of
lengthening days and the lifting of the children’s winter curfew.  This final possibility is given added credence
by the Victorian-era practice of the town’s boys concluding proceedings by
marching two miles to meet their counterparts from New Lanark in battle (all
apparently with both communities’ full approval, including that of the police).

Boys fight



Every year, on the first day of March, the local children
gather at Lanark Cross by St Nicholas Kirk in anticipation for the 6pm
bell.  But when the hour strikes, it is
not the church’s main bells that are rung, but the town’s ‘Wee Bell’, which has
remained silent for the 6 months of darkening days and winter.

Start line

At the sound, the children start to race around the Kirk,
swinging paper balls above their heads and making as much noise as they can.  After three laps, members of the Community
Council throw handfuls of coins into the air for the children to scrabble

Coin throwing

The ritual itself is short and rather haphazard, but
provides the focal point for a wider community event, both on the evening of March 1 and in the week-long
storytelling and arts festival.


Until recently, prizes were awarded for the first boy and girl to
complete the three circuits, but this has now ceased in an attempt to making
the running safer for the smaller children by removing the competitive aspect.  Younger children are also dissuaded from joining in the coin scrabble.

Picking up coin

The earliest
known record of the tradition is from a local newspaper article, written in
the mid-19th century.  Whuppity Scoorie was still
called ‘the wee bell ceremony’ at the time, confirming the antiquity of that
aspect of the ritual.  The custom’s
popular name was first attested in 1893, by which time the ceremony was known
to be over 120 years old.

Lanark used to have a racecourse and the ‘Lanark Silver
Bell’ is thought to be one of the oldest racing trophies in Europe, although its link to the ‘Wee Bell’ is unknown.

Shin Kicking


Shins at sundown


Shin kicking (or ‘hacking’ as it has been known in other contexts) is one of the oldest, and bloodiest, of the physical contest sports.  And whereas boxing or wrestling had their rules codified at a relatively early date, giving rise to widespread and unified successes, shin kicking was simply considered too wild and barbaric for any comparable attention.

Originally a working man’s contest in many parts of England, Wales and North America, reports abound of blood gushing from the legs of hobnailed (or clogged) competitors, often in the nude, with individual contests lasting upto forty-five minutes.  Not surprisingly, shin kicking gained a reputation somewhat akin to that of cock-fighting, and died out with the dawning of a more genteel age in the nineteenth century.


One of the traditional homes of competitive shin kicking is the Cotswold Olimpicks (sic), a fun day of sporting contests initiated by a certain Robert Dover, with royal approval, in 1612.  The Olimpicks, annually held, brought upwards of thirty thousand spectators to ‘Dover’s Hill’ in Gloucestershire, attracted by such events as The Pig Race, Backswords, Spurning the Barre (an equivalent to caber tossing).  But it also suffered under the heavy-handed Puritan government’s desire to protect the people from pointless frivolity and were abandoned upon the death of the founder, at the time of the English Civil War.
Cotswold olimpicks
Restarted after the Restoration, the Olimpicks (or ‘Dover’s Meeting’ as it then came to be known) grew to the vast popularity which eventually proved its downfall.  Because the festival, of which shin kicking was a mainstay, attracted such numbers of ‘the riff-raff of society’, it became a bother and burden to the local hosts, who finally disbanded the Games in 1852, not to re-emerge for a century.
But the Cotswold Olimpicks was not forgotten.  A revival was staged in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain, by which time the modern Olympics was firmly lodged in the public consciousness, and the traditional Cotswold spelling added to the uniqueness of the lost event.  The Games were permanently re-established 1963, with shin kicking providing a unique centrepiece: the only annual tournament of the sport in the world.

Faux castle


The Cotswold Olimpicks are held on Dover’s Hill, near Chipping Camden in Gloucestershire, on the Friday following the Whitsun bank holiday – ie. at the end of May or beginning of June – and are opened by men representing Robert Dover and (fellow royalist) Endyminion Porter.  Resplendent in authentic 17th Century garb, they accompany the Queen of the Scuttlebrook Wake (an associated local festival) through a faux castle gate at around 7pm to herald the commencement of the Games.

Shin kicking contestants wear the white smocks of traditional Cotswold shepherds, and prepare for their bouts by stuffing straw – their only safety equipment – into the lower legs of their trousers.

Stuffed with straw

Then, under the gaze of the fellow-jacketed ‘stickler’ (as in ‘stickler for the rules’ = umpire) the contestants grapple shoulders and let fly.  No heavy or reinforced footwear can be worn, and kicks are only allowed below the knee; they are used to weaken the opponent so that they can be thrown to the ground.  In reality, shin kicking is a form of wrestling – the opponent has to be floored in order to be defeated – but is more than a test of strength, since any ‘wrestle down’ has to be performed amidst the act of kicking, and no sweeping moves (a la Judo) are permitted.

The tournament progresses through several rounds – dependent on numbers of entrants – and the later stages take on the air of an endurance event, with already-battered competitors summoning up every last ounce of determination as they undergo further pain during the best-of-three contest.

Shin kicking
OTHER FEATURESThe Olimpicks presently includes events such as Tug of War, the Straw Bale Race, Sledgehammer Throwing, and a 5 mile race, alongside the more traditional Spurning the Barre and Shin Kicking.

A useful tip for shin kickers appears to be the wearing of stretchy trousers (eg. jogging bottoms), enabling a greater quantity of straw to be stuffed into place.  In the brutal 19th Century, competitors were known to harden their shins with coal hammers.

On its way to Bath, the 100-mile Cotswold Way connects Chipping Camden with Cooper’s Hill (the home of cheese rolling).  The two events usually occur in the same week – Spring Bank Holiday Monday and the following Friday.


Shinkicking @ Yahoo! Video



Senior horse class






The history of the plough is closely linked to the development of settled agrarian lifestyles.  The domestication of cattle in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, perhaps as early as the 6th Century BC, provided the power behind the simple scratch plough which, with adjustments, was the main form of the technology until the advent of the tractor in the 19th Century.  Before this time, all ploughing was small-scale and done by hand.


In Enlightenment-era Europe, oxen were generally replaced with heavy horses, and ploughs became more weighty and improved in design, aided by technology imported from China by the Dutch.  Later, as steam and internal combustion engines emerged, able to bear multiple-furrow and rotating ploughs, the use of livestock sharply declined, especially in the West.


Since proficiency in ploughing is directly correlative to successful sowing and food production in general, there has always been a competitive element to the discipline, usually as a matter of pride between neighbouring ploughmen.  In 1931, two farmers (one from Co. Kildare, and the other from Co. Wexford) sought to settle their debate on which of the Irish counties produced the best ploughmen by instigating a national competition.  Forty entries were received from across Ireland, with Wexford ultimately beating Wicklow and Kilkenny into second and third positions respectively.  This successful event spawned others around the country, making the formation of a national ploughing association a necessity.



Ipa icon


Under the auspices of the NPA, the championship has grown from a curiosity of small note to being the largest agricultural event in Europe, attracting nigh on two hundred thousand visitors over its three days.  Until 1949, all competitions were for horse-drawn ploughs, but this has diversified widely in the last sixty years.




Hand plough


The National Ploughing Championship has no permanent location, there having been over thirty different venues over its eighty year history, but is held over the penultimate weekend in September each year.  There are presently around twenty classes or disciplines of ploughing which one may enter – including competitions for age groups, vintage tractors, horse-pulled ploughs, and types of furrow – as well as many other attractions and sideshows.







A competition plot is 100m (roughly half a furlong) x 20m, with variations for reversible ploughing.  A set period of time is permitted both for the opening furrow (which thereafter acts as a guide) and for ploughing the remaining plot, with penalty points given for over-running.  Achievement is not, as might be expected, a mere matter of speed, but is determined by a complex judging process, in which furrow shape, depth, and straightness are all taken into account.  Nine sets of measurements are taken per plot, and points awarded or deducted for the individual measurements and averages.



Competition Ploughing timeline


Due to the scale of the event, appropriate venues are now hard to come by.  A minimum three hundred acre site is required for the ploughing, parking facilities, and accompanying village of trade stands and livestock exhibitions.  The championship has become a truly national event, attracting visitors from all walks of Irish life – including many ingratiating politicians – and not just the farming community.








The World Ploughing Championships have been held as part of the NPC on five occasions – 1954, 1973, 1981, 1996, and 2006.


Scoring System, Conventional Ploughing



1.  Opening Split:
Completeness of cutting through the sod throughout the whole length and width of the split. Uniformity and Neatness.  10 points.
2.  Crown:
No stubble, grass or weed (trash). Furrow slices close. No wheel marks.  10 points.
3.  Crown:
Uniform furrow slices. No high ridge. Soil made available.  10 points.
4.  General work: [Weed control]
No stubble, grass or weed (trash) Skimmers must be used.  10 points.
5.  General work: [Weed control]
Furrow slices close and firm. No holes. No wheel marks.  10 points.
6.  General work: [Seed bed]
Soil made available for seed bed.  10 points.
7.  General work: [Seed bed]
Uniformity and conformity of furrow slices.  10 points.
8.  Ins and Outs:
Neatness and regularity.  No wheel marks.  10 points.
9.  Finish:
Neatness and weed control.  10 points.
10.  Finish:
Closeness and uniformity of finishing furrow slices. Narrowness and shallowness. Only one wheel mark allowed.  10 points.
11.  Straightness:
Measured four times: (i) Opening Furrow, (ii) Crown, (iii) General Work, (iv) Finish.  20 points.
12.  General appearance:
All aspects and workmanship. Clearly defined and uniform furrow slices. No pairing of furrows.  10 points.





Non-farming events to take place during the Championships include ‘most appropriately dressed’ man and woman for which there is a prize of a holiday.













Tolling the Devil’s Knell

Tenor bell

“The Devil`s Knell will be tolled on Christmas Eve, to finish on the stroke of midnight.”  – Dewsbury Minster Church Bulletin

In the Western world, the history of bell-ringing is inextricably linked to the development and spread of Christianity.  There are no records at all of bells in the pre-Christian era, and the earliest references to them come from the second century, being used in a Christian context.  Bell-ringing can take many forms, but the solemn ringing of the Passing Bell traditionally denoted the death of some significant person, and for all society to take note.  In 1624, John Donne warned against sending ‘to know for whom the bell tolls’, since every human death brings the diminishment of humanity as a whole.  But there is one funereal peel to which Donne would not have applied this rule, since on Christmas Eve in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, the bells record the demise not of any human, but of Satan himself.

In 1434, a local knight, Thomas de Soothill, flew into a rage upon hearing that a servant boy had failed to attend church that week.  He grabbed the boy and, lifting him up, threw him into a mill pond, where the boy drowned.  Overwhelmed by remorse at the murder, and as an act of penance, de Soothill paid for a new 1300-weight tenor bell for the parish church (now Dewsbury Minster), asking for it to be tolled at his funeral as people prayed for his soul.  Sir Thomas also instituted the practice that the bell (named Black Tom after its benefactor) should be to be rung on Christmas Eve, with one toll for each year of the Christian Era, to proclaim the defeat of evil and the forgiveness of all sins, not just his own.  At the time of writing, we are in anno domini (‘year of our Lord’) two thousand and nine, this being, in Christian understanding, the two thousand and ninth Year of Grace since the birth of Jesus.

All saints church


Dewsbury Minster, like many congregations in the Church of England, celebrates Midnight Mass as the clock ticks from Christmas Eve to the Christ-Mass itself.  “The first eucharist of Christmas declares the defeat of evil,” as the church rector says.  With this understanding, Tolling the Devil’s Knell  should not be seen as a separate ritual but as an extended drum-roll, leading up to the taking of the sacrament.  The final toll is timed to take place on the stroke of midnight.

Since Black Tom now has to be rung well over two thousand times before twelve o’clock, the Tolling of the Devil’s Knell has to begin at 10:15pm, with the bell being struck (on average) every three seconds.  The Midnight Mass service begins at 11:15pm, but the Knell continues.  A scorer keeps tally of the rising number tolled, as seen below in a picture from the 1950s.

Recording the tolling

The tenor bell, Black Tom, was featured on a 31p stamp in the 1980s, as part of a Royal Mail set called Traditions of England.

Although Christian views on Satan vary, few would suggest that the Devil was actually killed when God was incarnated as a human (in the Nativity – ‘birth’), but that by this event his future defeat was sealed.  In this sense, the Tolling of the Devil’s Knell at Dewsbury can be seen as a kind of exercise in goading; reminding Lucifer of his defeat and ultimate doom.

Alternatively, since the ringing of bells (and other assorted noise-making) was often used in Mediaeval times to cleanse a locality of evil spirits, the Dewsbury ritual may well have included such a function, although the alternate name for the ritual – Old Lad’s Passing – seems to indicate the former understanding.

The Knell is not participatory – the bells are rung by the Minster’s own regular team – and is far from a crowd-pleasing spectacle, since there are no accompanying rituals until the service starts.

The inscription on the bell is:

I shall be here if treated just
When they are mouldering in the dust






Apple tree


Often mentioned, rarely understood, wassailing is a midwinter ritual, primarily performed in England.  Apple tree wassailing, such as is practiced at the Whimple Wassail, is a ceremony which involves drinking to and singing the health of the apple trees.

In pre-Norman days, the phrase Wæs (þu) hal! – meaning ‘be (thou) hale’ – was an everyday greeting, and it eventually wore down into the single word wassail.  The Saxon and Norse English both shared this phrase, along with the accompanying practice of welcoming a visitor with a cup of ale or mead, which allowed wassail! to develop as an all-purpose toast to good health.  Since ‘hal’ is the ancestor of our modern ‘whole’, ‘heal’, and ‘holy’, this toast can be seen as more holistic than wishing simple soundness of body.  It is not known whether the wassailing of trees is as ancient as the phrase itself, or whether one practice grew out of the other, but it is in this midwinter ritual that the term has principally endured and remains in use today.


Wassailing is widespread throughout England, and especially in cider-producing regions such as the Westcountry, Kent, and Herefordshire.  Its traditional date is Twelfth Night, January 6th, although many prefer ‘Old Twelvey Night’, January 17th, which would have been Twelfth Night but for the loss of eleven days after England’s adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.  This is the practice at Whimple in Devon, where the village’s historic festivities (which had ceased during the Second World War) were restarted in 1993.  Fortunately for Whimple, the fifty year cessation of wassailing in the village had not dimmed the memories of its oldest residents, and the present practices and songs are a continuation of the age-old.

Fountain inn



On the evening of Old Twelfth Night, participants gather at the Fountain Inn in Whimple to meet, practice the songs, and show off their costumes.  The Mayor (appointed for the occasion, since Whimple no longer has one) leads proceedings, ably assisted by the Princess and the Wassailing Queen, who lead the wassailers out of the pub to the first orchard.

The Princess carries lightly-toasted bread in a flasket, which the Queen dips in Wassail (spiced cider made from the self-same orchard) and is hoisted aloft so that she can hang it in the branches of the oldest tree, while reciting the traditional verse:

Here’s to thee, old apple tree,
That blooms well, bears well.
Hats full,caps full,
Three bushel bags full,
An’ all under one tree.
Hurrah! Hurrah!

Having done so, the participants (who bring a variety of homespun percussion instruments and noisemakers) sing the Whimple Wassail Song and dance around the tree, before toasting it with Cider from the communal Wassail Cup.  The ceremony concludes with shots being fired through the branches and the villagers making as much noise as possible; shouting and screaming and banging their instruments.  The soaked toast is seen as reminding the tree of last year’s goodness, while the noisemaking is used to ‘re-wake’ the trees for the new year, as well as being a variation on old cleansing rituals whereby evil spirits were chased from the vicinity.

Three separate orchards require three ceremonies, interspersed with processional music and a pause of remembrance to John Shepherd (who led the reestablishment of the ritual and taught the villagers all the old songs), before concluding with more cider and merrymaking at the village cricket club.

Mug cider 


Wassailing rituals vary from place to place, with a variety of blessings, toasts and songs dependent on the locality.  In Herefordshire and Wales, wassailing is often combined with midwinter rituals of spiritual-cleansing by fire, with flaming torches placed in tree branches and bonfires lit.

The fact that pieces of toast are used as part of a ‘toast’ may not be a coincidence.  In former years, toasted breads and cakes were often used as a flavouring in mulled wine and cider, hence ‘drinking a toast’.  The pieces of toast first used in wassailing probably were these flavourings.


Man vs Horse

Wet ford


Humans have always loved, and often harnessed, the speed and strength of the horse, and the stories of our species are intertwined – indeed, barring a few isolated groups, horses have been an entirely domesticated species for nearly five thousand years.

In 1980, in the mid-Wales town of Llanwrtyd Wells, an argument broke out in the pub concerning an age-old matter.  “Yes, we all know that horses can sprint fast,” one man declared, “but, over a real distance, man is its equal.”  The pub was the Neuadd Arms and the speaker was the landlord, Gordon Green.  To resolve the dispute, Green suggested a full public test: a race.  A £1000 prize was put up to attract competitors willing the attempt the feat, and the Man vs Horse Marathon has been staged every year since.

Unwittingly, the event has revived memories of a great Welsh historic precedent.  In the early years of the 18th Century, Guto Nyth Bran’s exploits as a runner stretched to near mythological proportions, such as catching hares and birds and going undefeated over a twenty year period.  Not least amongst these achievements was the occasion on which he was challenged to race against a horse, coming home the winner over a distance of 12 miles, but collapsing and dying at the moment of triumph.


Still organised by creator Gordon Green, the Man vs Horse Marathon is run over a rough, cross-country course of 22 miles, and has become the largest horse race in Britain, attracting more riders in recent years than the forty competitors in a Grand National.  Numbers of entrants on the side of the runners now usually reach over two hundred and fifty, and are also increasing.  Horses have had the upper hand on runners in all bar two of the races to date.


The race is run in a loop in the countryside around Llanwrtyd Wells, with the runners starting 15 minutes before the horses.  This protects against the front-runners clashing on the narrow paths along which much of the race is run.  The course is specially chosen to provide a close contest between man and beast.

Every year, a £1000 prize is put up as bait for aspiring runners – there is no reward bar satisfaction for the riders – and every year that it remains unclaimed, it rolls over to the next.  So it was that the first successful man to win the race – marathon runner Hugh Lobb in 2004 – received twenty-five years’ worth of prize money.  When Florian Holginger emulated the feat in 2007, there was only £3000 in the kitty.
Side by side


For a period between 1985 and 1993, cyclists were allowed to compete in the race.  This included the first victory of man over horse when cyclist Tim Gould won in 1989.  However, since mountain bikes are presently not permitted to race on bridleways, this accommodation has had to cease.

Until his death in 1999, Screaming Lord Sutch, founder and leader of the Monster Raving Loony Party, was the official race starter and a staunch supporter of the event.

Llanwrtyd Wells is quite a centre of excellence in the field of quirky sports and traditions.  In addition to Man vs Horse, it hosts a variety of competitions and events, including the Bog-Snorkelling World Championships, the Drovers Walk, Mountain Bike Chariot Racing and a celebration of the Roman festival of Saturnalia.




If, as has been suggested, the name of this sport originates from the French conque (meaning conch, as in the sea snail) rather than the more trational conquer, the roots of conkers may lie in the smashing together of snail-shells, rather than hardened horse-chestnut seeds, and may even be French.  In any case, since the horse-chestnut tree was only brought into the British Isles in the late 16th Century, the game (including many regional variations in rules and nomenclature) must have been widespread before the adoption of the present means.

Whether shells or hazelnuts were the anticedents, something akin to the modern game of conkers has been played by children in the British Isles since antiquity, spreading to British colonies and other countries in more recent times.



Every Autumn, horse-chestnut trees drop seeds that are large and covered in green, spiked flesh.  Once peeled, the conker itself is brown, hard and tough – easily collectable and perfect for its role, as well as being (in contrast to other chestnuts) inedible.  Boring a hole with a skewer – or, even better, a gimlet – and threading string or a shoelace is all the preparation required.

In 1965, a group of regulars at a pub in Ashton, Northamptonshire, had their fishing trip rained off.  Looking for another way to make their gathering worthwhile, they saw that Ashton village green’s conker trees were ripe.  A competition was organised with a prize for the winner, and a competitor with a visually-impaired relative took up a collection from those present for the Royal National Institute for the Blind.  Both of the competition and the collection have continued, with, as of the 2009 competition, over £350,000 raised.

Conker king


The World Conker Championships is held annually on the second Sunday in October.  What was originally a local event has now outgrown the village green, its traditional venue, and the move to New Lodge Fields (between Ashton and Polebrook) accommodates crowds of over 5000, alongside stalls, sideshows and refreshments tents.  The event is open for anyone to enter (with a £6 fee), though limited to 256 in the men’s section and 64 in the women’s, and is a straight knockout tournament.

Squirrels going nuts

Ashton Conker Club are the hosts and proprietors of the World Championships.  It is they who collect, drill and string the conkers, who officiate the matches, and who dictate the tournament rules.  Due to the nature of the sport, where advantages can be gained through seemingly minor actions, the rules are necessarily strict.

Players’ Rules of Engagement for the Noble Game of Conkers at the Ashton Conker Club World Conker Championships:

i.  All Conkers and Laces are supplied by Ashton Conker Club.  Laces must not be knotted further or tampered with.  Each player is given a new conker and lace at the start of each game. Players may not re-use conkers from earlier games.
ii.  The game will commence with a toss of a coin, the winner of the toss may elect to strike or receive.
iii.  A distance of no less than 8 inches or 20cm of lace must be between knuckle and nut.
iv.  Each player then takes three alternate strikes at the opponent’s conker.
v.  Each attempted strike must be clearly aimed at the nut, no deliberate miss hits.
vi.  The game will be decided once one of the conkers is smashed.
vii.  A small piece of nut or skin remaining shall be judged out, it must be enough to mount an attack.
viii.  If both nuts smash at the same time then the match shall be replayed.
ix.  Any nut being knocked from the lace but not smashing may be re threaded and the game continued.
x.  A player causing a knotting of the laces (a snag) will be noted, three snags will lead to disqualification.
xi.  If a game lasts for more than five minutes then play will halt and the ‘5 minute rule’ will come into effect. Each player will be allowed up to nine further strikes at their opponents nut, again alternating three strikes each. If neither conker has been smashed at the end of the nine strikes then the player who strikes the nut the most times during this period will be judged the winner.

Bowl of conkers


Since its inception, the World Conker Championship has twice been won by foreigners: in 1976 by a Mexican, Robert Ramirez; and in 1998 by a German, Helmut Kern.

The game of conkers is decentralised and has no standardised rules.  Due the requirements of the championship format, the Ashton Conker Club have instituted their own, but in non-event contexts many differences will emerge.  For example:

  •  Strikes may be alternate (one at a time) or continue until a miss.
  •  A dropped conker, or one which comes off its string, may be trampled.
  •  Scoring system: a winning conker may assimilate the previous score of the losing conker.  In this scheme, a new conker has no value – it is a noner – yet by breaking another noner it becomes a one-er.  If it beats a one-er it becomes a two-er (one for the victory, one for the score of the opposing conker) and so on.  In some parts of Scotland, the scoring system uses the terms bully-one, bully-two etc.

Nettle Eating



The Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant, native and widespread in Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America.  It also hurts like crazy.  Covered in thousands of microscopic hypodermic needles, a cocktail of chemicals pour over and burn the skin when the tips are disturbed.  Little more than an annoyance to most, nettles have also been eaten since antiquity, usually cooked like spinach or in soups, and are unusually nutritious.

The sport of competitive nettle eating is a modern creation. In 1986, two neighbouring farmers were having a drink in the Bottle Inn, in Marshwood, Dorset.  Both had infestations of the weed and were arguing whose nettles were longest.  The initial ‘mine is bigger than yours’ local competition this provoked lasted three years, until one competitor, Alex Williams, declared that he would eat whichever nettle beat his 15’6 monstrosity.  When this duly happened, Williams gamely ingested, and continued to do so whenever he lost the competition until 1997.

At that time, new owner Shane Pym took over the Bottle Inn and instituted a summer beer festival, at which Williams took on all-comers at nettle-eating.  From there, it was only a small step to the fully-fledged world championship which exists today.



The World Stinging Nettle Eating Championship, to give its full title, is held annually in mid-June, usually just before the summer solstice, in the beer garden and car park of the Bottle Inn.  From small beginnings it has gained significant notoriety, attracting competitors from around the world as well as crowds of upto a thousand.


Due to the potential for skulduggery by competitors, nettles for the championship are all grown by local landowner Richard Hooper, who also acts as competition judge.  The nettles are distributed in two foot portions, and the cumulative length calculated by measuring the combined stalks that have successfully been cleared of leaves.

The rules are strict, with disqualification automatic for spitting leaves out, vomiting, hiding them, or leaving the competition table for the toilet – which, as nettles are a virulent laxative, is quite a limitation.  The competitors eat for an hour (or as much of an hour as they can stomach), before the stalks are counted and the King of the Stingers declared.



Critical to the championship’s outcome (according to the Daily Telegraph) is the quality and character of each season’s nettles.  Much is determined by the weather with lush, moist plants considered more palatable than the drier variety.  Nearly all the big scores have been achieved after wet conditions.

All Time King of the Stingers: Simon Sleigh of Hawkchurch – 76ft
All Time Queen of the Stingers: Mel Lang of West Bay – 48ft


Tar Barrel Running

Barrel flames


Burning tar barrels are known to have been run through the streets of Ottery St Mary since 1688, and the tradition almost certainly dates to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – the event is held on Guy Fawkes Night – whilst possibly being a remnant of other more ancient midwinter fire festivals.
While the West Country has a history of torchlight processions and burning barrels, it is only in Ottery that such a tradition has endured.  Carrying fire through streets or around properties has been used as a method of driving out evils spirits since the pre-Christian era of the region, and it is therefore likely that at least some of the event’s heritage is pagan or neo-pagan.


Earlier in the year, oak barrels are selected and their inside surfaces coated with coal tar.  On the night of November 5th, straw and paper are inserted to get the tar lit, and once it is burning, it will not stop.

Barrel mits

Carrying a barrel is considered a tremendous privilege, and only those born in Ottery, or long-term residents there, may do so.  On a schedule between 4pm and midnight, each barrel is lit outside one of the village’s pubs (or their former sites in several cases) and carried on the shoulders with only sacking mits for protection.  Children’s and women’s barrels precede the men’s, which are the largest and longest burning.  The barrellers are completely surrounded by heaving crowds, and run at speed straight through the throng before handing on the barrel, with multiple family members often involved.  Finally, the barrels’ remains are thrown on the town bonfire.


Although (of course) not native to Ottery, the accompanying bonfire is a key aspect of Tar Barrels, providing a focal point, backdrop and sense of anticipation to the event.


Material for the bonfire begins to be collected three weeks before Guy Fawkes Night, and brought to its regular site on St Saviour’s Meadow, on the flood plain of the River Otter.  Many villagers contribute to the stack, which eventually reaches a height of 35 feet, with a girth of over 50.  A Guy is set atop the bonfire, provided at present (and since 1958) by the Young family.  The bonfire burns throughout the evening.