Beer, Pie and a fight…the average night out in town!
Hallaton is one of those villages if visited, outside Easter Monday, it would be quiet serene and probably completely empty…but go on Easter Monday and what a difference. In what could be described as the most verbose custom is actually two customs rolled into one..and if that was not enough, there’s a third tacked on too.
The idea of beer, pies and fights may be sometime familiar to those Friday nights in town, but I guess very few would be eating hare pie, drinking their beer from a small wooden casket, rescued from a fight were there are no rules.
The day starts ordinarily enough with a procession. The peace of the town being pierced by the sound of the bagpipes of the band and soon there appears the Warrener, suitably dressed in medieval custom. He carried aloft a pole which has a bronze hare affixed. Traditionally this was a live one caught and tied (presumably after being killed) to its end. I was lucky in 1994 to see this splendid sculpture on its first outing but it looked just as fine 10 years later! The most noticeable feature then are the three bottles, a mighty pie and a lady also suitably dressed with the basket of loaves.
The first part of its name comes about in the morning. At the Procession’s arrival at the church, the hare pie is solemnly placed on a table at the gates of the church, blessed, and a crowd surround it ready for its distribution. A large knife is produced and given to the vicar who duly cuts into the hefty pastry and like any clergy worth his salt is keen to distribute it. However, this is no sermon on the mount, I don’t recollect Jesus grabbing the fishes and bread and then throwing them into the assembled crowd. Mind you if he had it might have gone even further. However throwing the pie, pasty and all occurs after great dollops are handed out to the crowd. Pie goes everywhere coat, hair and open mouths, people scramble to have a piece – good luck apparently coming with it. What’s left is then poured into a bag and tied up to disposed of later.
At the bank the crowds assemble to watch the sacks open and then swayed back and forward; empty ceremonially its contents upon the ground.
There is a sort of strange hush and one can feel the tension in the air. This is built up even more by the throwing up of the three bottles in succession by the Master of Stowe. Bottle one! Everyone waits. Bottle two! A few legs twitch and an. Bottle three! Then as it falls to the ground, it vanishes beneath a pile of heavy bodies. Somewhere in that mass is the bottle and we all await for its appearance. Screaming shouting and seething it appears we could wait a while for any movement. An elderly lady leans in to get a better photo and then bang! Someone breaks free! The bottle is in his arms. The crowds scatter. The old lady is cast to the floor, legs in the air, underwear for all to see. He body appears in tact if not her dignity!
The escapee does not get far and soon he is pounced upon by someone who appeared at first to be a spectator. Good tactic! Soon others join with the original man and his bottle as its nucleus, slowly it moves down towards a stream below.
The stream below is significant, for it is Hallaton’s goal a few yards below the Hare pie bank, at quite a steep incline. From this field, one cannot see Medbourne’s goal a field boundary some greater distance away, about a mile but uphill to get there, less steep and with two boundaries! At first this does not appear fair but surprisingly the worm turns and the scrum moves upwards. Their goal a hedge behind the bank, get there and it’s downhill to Medbourne’s goal. Soon after another breakaway to beyond the hedge, spectators and participants push, barge, trample and hurtle themselves over the hedge. Some climb the trees and somersault into the field beyond. Here the scrum reformed.
Not hare today gone tomorrow
The scrum swayed and heaved and despite the obvious help of gravity which would mean a Medbourne win, someone broke free from Hallaton and made a break to the Hallaton goal. The assembled mob appeared a little confused at first and then in a few seconds like some giant amoeba poured towards the fence separating the fields. A great mass of humanity pushed dangerously upon this sturdy fence, a call came out to pour it back..too late, crack, it gave way followed by members of the scrum tumbling headlong onto the mud and mire below. There was a gate nearby could they not used this I thought. Now the barrier was breached and it only needed one person to break free with the bottle. It happened and off they went the stream in their sights. A few tackles appeared not to stop him but gave him greater velocity, he slipped, he fell and begun to appear to cartwheel downwards. However, his passage was not completely free. Getting ahead of him I stood by the bank ready for a photo. I was not the only one so were the Medbourners. Just at the last moment the grabbed him and tried to force him uphill, but the muddy bank edge was in his favour, he slipped and the bottle fell into the stream. A cry went out especially from the pub overlooking, but we it’s not over! Best of three.
We return to the bank and slightly worse for wear the participants await and we are off again! The scrum again envelopes the bottle and it heaves and pushes, occasionally there is a gulp of air and a hand thrown up, for despite any real rules, the crowd respect the need to relieve someone and the scrum disassembles and the weary person stumbles out. Broken bones can often be the trophy of the day but in one sad occasion recently a fatality, although his death was not directly related to the scrum.
This contest appears to be clearer cut. Had the Hallaton crew got the wind up their revivals by the first goal- two out of three a Hallaton win! It seemed so. Soon the bottle was back in the stream. Despite being an ‘easy win’ for the village other times Medbourne were the winners perhaps because anyone outside the village, such as professional rugby players, join the competition.
After the game, participants and spectators return to the village. Those players who put in an especially good effort (for example, carrying a barrel across the goal stream or holding on to a barrel for quite some time) are helped up onto the top of the ten-foot-tall Buttercross, and the opened bottle is passed up for them to drink from before being passed around the crowd.
Pie in the sky notions?
Like other street or mob football customs, the origins of the custom are difficult to trace. The earliest written record appears to be in 1698 from a Glebe terrier which records a hare pie bank. A local tradition tells that a raging bull was and came charging towards two women, it was then startled by a hare Local lore claims that the custom began when two ladies of Hallaton were saved from a raging bull by a startled hare, who distracted the bull from charging. They showed their gratitude to God for sending the hare by donating money to the church on the understanding that every Easter Monday, the vicar would provide a hare pie, twelve penny loaves, and 2 barrels of beer for the poor of the village who then would fight for them. The provision by the church continued until 1962 meaning that there may have been some found basis in the charity if not the legend.
It is probable that the competition only involved the H
allaton villagers who would fight each other for the food and drink! The Medbourne villagers apparently once stole one of the bottles and hence after a tussle to regain it, they became a regular part of the event. Although it may be more likely that the event arose from some pagan rivalry between neighbouring tribes and that the bull is possibly significant and perhaps the object they fought over was the head of the bull!
Some authorities drawn reference to the hare aspect and of course hare hunting was often undertaken at the time. This may be because this usual corpuscular creature is very often seen frolicking in the fields at March and so became easy game. Folklorists would prefer to believe that it was a sacrifice to the Saxon Goddess Eostre. You decide.
Certainly, it is easy to see a pagan origin to the Bottle kicking. Although it is known that land called Hare crop leys was given in 1771 to provide for the expenses, the association of a St Morrell’s chapel being positioned on the Hare pie bank is significant. It is possible that the chapel was built on a old pagan site to Christianise it. However, the Christian connection with the contest has since been up-and-down with a famous rector attempting to cancel the hare pie and discourage the bottle kicking in 1790. A local tale states that the next day a sign on the vicarage wall read “No pie, no parson and a job for glazier”. Since then there does not appear to have been any notable priestly disapproval indeed the local clergy appeared to enjoy the event greatly..
– images copyright Pixyled Publications