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Weird and wonderful

Flipping weird – England’s Pancake Day traditions

Tossing pancakes? You haven’t seen the hurling.

Shrove Tuesday, any schoolchild will tell you, is Pancake Day. And, by Jove, do Brits like to celebrate it in the most heartwarmingly eccentric ways possible! From pancake races to 300-a-side hurling matches, we take a look at some of Britain’s weird and wonderful Shrovetide traditions.

Olney, Buckinghamshire

You can witness many traditional pancake races in many a village, such as that run at Olney, Buckinghamshire, since 1445, allegedly the mother of all pancake races, commemorating an absent-minded woman who ran late to church upon hearing the bell, without putting her pan down.

Only Pancake Race Buckinghamshire Shrove Tuesday by Robin Myerscough Flickr
Olney’s pancake race is one of most famous in Britain © Robin Myerscough, Flickr

The service would have been a shriving, or blessing to help the faithful through the Lenten fast until Easter: hence Shrove Tuesday. Rich foods would have been used up, hence the pancakes and the name used elsewhere, Mardi Gras, meaning Fat Tuesday. And if you weren’t given the full shriving, at execution for example, you received ‘short shrift’.

The Olney Pancake Race starts at the marketplace and ends at the church, where the winner gets a prayer book and a kiss from a verger.

Ashbourne, Derbyshire

At Ashbourne in Derbyshire, for instance, there’s the Royal Shrovetide football game between the Up’ards and Down’ards, defined as people living on opposite sides of Henmore Brook, along whose course the riotous game, starting with the ball being ‘turned up’ at 2pm on Shrove Tuesday (and again on Ash Wednesday), runs back and forth until well into the evening.

Ashbourne Derbyshire Shrovetide Football Game England's Pancake Day traditions by Adrian Roebuck Wikimedia Commons
The Shrovetide Football Game is a Pancake Day tradition in Ashbourne © Adrian Roebuck, Wikimedia Commons

The ball for each day is beautifully made from leather stuffed with cork and painted with scenes relevant to that year’s ‘turner-up’. Those won become prized family heirlooms. The goals are three miles apart at Sturston and Clifton and the shops are boarded up against damage as ‘the hug’, as it is called locally, heaves back and forth. Trees are split, fences flattened, and washing poles uprooted. No-one knows what started it all. 

Workington, Cumbria

A similar mass football game to the Ashbourne one takes place at Workington, Cumbria, on Good Friday, and also shortly after Easter – usually the next Saturday and one other day. 

Workington Cumbria Shrove Tuesday Hurling Ball England's Pancake Day traditions by Craig Sowerby Flickr
The two teams, the Uppies and Downies, battle it for possession of this ball © Craig Sowerby, Flickr

Hailing the Ball involves a specially made coloured ball being thrown up at the Cloffocks car park and two huge teams, the Uppies and Downies, heaving up and down to get the ball their side of the River Derwent.

Atherstone, Warwickshire

In Atherstone, near Nuneaton, Warwickshire, another great scrummage of a Shrovetide football game starts with the ball being thrown from the upstairs of Barclays Bank at 3pm, and the main road is closed for the game.

Atherstone Ball Shrove Tuesday England's Pancake Day traditions by Adam Collins Flickr
One of Atherstone’s balls is covered in the signatures of previous participants © Adam Collins, Flickr

No-one knows exactly why, but here the ball can be water-filled, and the winner is the person holding the ball at 5pm.

St Columb Major, Cornwall

The raucous scenes are similar at St Columb Major near Newquay in Cornwall at 4.30pm on Shrove Tuesday, when Hurling the Silver Ball starts. With the Townsmen versus the Countrymen, and up to 300-a-side, the fast-running game can degenerate into a huge heaving scrum from which the £200 silver ball can be smuggled out to ‘lie luff’ under a hedge until there’s a chance to go for one of the goals – stone troughs two miles apart.

Again the shops are boarded up – ‘You’d think the Hezbollah were coming through,’ said enthusiast Ivan Rabey – and as the pitch covers the parish, the game makes Guinness World Records for having the largest playing area. The game was already old by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Its origins? ‘No-one knows,’ said Rabey.

St Ives, Cornwall

Near St Ives, Cornwall, another Hurling the Silver Ball takes place on the Monday nearest 3 February, but not on 3 February. It is thrown by the mayor some time after 9.30am and passed, not hurled, from person to person over the whole town; whoever is holding it at noon wins a crown coin.

At one time, the sides were selected as simply anyone called John, William or Thomas against the rest of the world.

Corfe Castle, Dorset

Very different is the ritual at Corfe Castle, Dorset, where at noon on Shrove Tuesday those who have completed quarrying apprenticeships must carry a quart of beer, a penny loaf and the equivalent of 6 shillings and 8 pence to the town hall for the solemn conclave of the Ancient Order of Purbeck Marblers and Stonecutters.

Corfe Castle Dorset by Alexandra Richards
The village is nestled at the base of the hilltop ruins of Corfe Castle © Alexandra Richards

They then kick a football all round the town and carry a pound of pepper – why pepper, no-one really knows – down to Ower Quay in Poole Harbour to mark their right to carry stone there.

Scarborough, Yorkshire

A more elegant form of exercise is undertaken at Scarborough, Yorkshire, where, when the Pancake Bell is rung at noon, the town takes to the South Foreshore for skipping in great lines with Ag ropes, plus a few pancake races.

The bell is a remnant of that once-common old shriving bell. But why skipping? A tourism official said: ‘Well, it’s been going on for at least 200 years, and it helps get an appetite up for pancakes, but the truth is, no-one knows.’

More information

Learn more about Britain’s eccentricities in Ben’s fascinating books: