Custom contrived: Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship

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Image may contain: one or more people, people standing and outdoorAs I am writing this blog post on Easter Monday bemoaning the deluge of rain pouring off the house making this one of the worse, weatherwise, Easter Monday I can remember. But then a message pops up that there’s heavy snow in Wakefield….last year I was making my way to the Gawthorpe Coal Carrying Championship; this year the heavy snow was putting it at risk. However, they are made of tough stuff up north and as they claim nothing has cancelled it in its 55 year history…and indeed it wasn’t!

But where is Gawthorpe? The Sat Nav did not appear to know. But the mass media did find it on this day which draws this small hamlet out of obscurity and into international attention

This was proud coal mining land and carrying coal would have been a common enough occurrence for someone to think it could be turned into a competition. The competition website tells the following story of its creation:

“At the century-old Beehive Inn situated in Gawthorpe the following incident took place one day in 1963. Reggie Sedgewick and one Amos Clapham, a local coal merchant and current president of the Maypole Committee were enjoying some well-earned liquid refreshment whilst stood at the bar lost in their own thoughts. When in bursts one Lewis Hartley in a somewhat exuberant mood. On seeing the other two he said to Reggie, ” Ba gum lad tha’ looks buggered!” slapping Reggie heartily on the back. Whether because of the force of the blow or because of the words that accompanied it, Reggie was just a little put out.‘’ Ah’m as fit as thee’’ he told Lewis, ‘’an’ if tha’ dun’t believe me gerra a bagga coil on thi back an ‘ah’ll get one on mine an ‘ah’ll race thee to t’ top o’ t’ wood !’’ ( Coil, let me explain is Yorkshire speak for coal ). While Lewis digested the implications of this challenge a Mr. Fred Hirst, Secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee ( and not a man to let a good idea go to waste) raised a cautioning hand. ” ‘Owd on a minute,’’ said Fred and there was something in his voice that made them all listen. ‘Aven’t we been looking fer some’at to do on Easter Monday? If we’re gonna ‘ave a race let’s ‘ave it then. Let’s ‘ave a coil race from Barracks t’ Maypole.’’( The Barracks being the more common name given by the locals to The Royal Oak Public House )”

So it could be claimed to be the grandfather of the increasingly common ‘customs made up in a pub’ and indeed the pub is pivotal to the custom starting as it does at the Royal Oak strictly speaking in Ossett and ends uphill at the village green where the Maypole resides a not so easy 1012 metres. It is curious that Easter Monday was chosen as it was the traditional time for heaving…not sure if heaving a person or a coal bag would be harder work or not!

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At the coal face

It is indeed hard work. At the start the contestants full of enthusiasm and energy. The contestants laugh and occasionally rib each other as they psych themselves up. This might seem a rather bizarre and comical event but it has become a serious measure of ability and stamina. Firmly, becoming on the list of endurance things to do. Some people even had coaches running along with them shouting words of encouragement! Serious stuff. It certainly was as the gentle slope near the start became steep and steeper. At first the event is attended by a few curious onlookers but as the centre of the village is approach the crowds become greater, each side of the road kept at bay by metal railings, waiting here to see the contestants try to attempt the most crueling part. I waited here and watched as the contestants now covered in black soot, in some cases only the whites of their eyes escaping, huffed and puffed up the hill.

Carry coals to Newcastle

When the custom started this was a proud mining community. Its still now proud and so it should be having two notable traditions for such a small and rather indistinct. However, this is far from a coal community, coal comes from elsewhere, the mine closed and miners long gone into retirement or other jobs. The custom might seem a bit outdated; a bit superfluous! But no it is now a great source of income for local pubs as now the custom attracts people from all across the country and across the world in fact. As Julia Smith in her Fairs, Feasts and Frolics customs and traditions of Yorkshire, 25 years in it had already taken on the air of professionalism:

“The event has changed considerably in its twenty-five years. As news spread, more people became interested and wanted to take part. The competitors are now drawn from a wide area and it has become sport orientated. The local pit has closed and the miners have been replaced by serious athletes who wear regulation running gear and train thoroughly sometimes all year round.”

Now adult racers either carry 50kg men, or 20kg, women (no one’s crying out for equal masses here I notice), and smaller masses for children and veterans. Again Smith was informed that:

“it was not necessary to be big and hefty to take part as not was often fell runners wo did well, wiry types with good strong legs.”

Of course the professionals have not taken over the event, it is clear that some have entered to prove they could do it – they are not going to win, never have a chance of winning….there is some achievement carrying fifty kilos of coal and all the back breaking, dust covering, a hot sweatiness is worth it to say you entered and did it. For some its for charity, some as a personal goal and others on a spur of a moment…how many regret half way through as there’s no dropping a few coals on the way: the bags are sown up! As I watched the runners it was indeed clear they were achieving sometime and the atmosphere from the crowd as they cheered they on was electric. Over two thousand people cheering is nearly enough to get over the fact they are carrying coal on your back!

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Hot coals on snow

As the Huddersfield Daily Enquirer’s Nick Laviguer in a piece called Snow fails to stop famous Gawthorpe Coal Race reported:

There was doubt the spectacle would take place this morning after several inches of snow fell on the course in Ossett, causing the cancellation of the children’s event. But at 11am with the thaw beginning to set in, organisers decided to go ahead and allow the more than 100 competitors to complete the challenge –. Women’s champion, was local teacher Danielle Sidebottom, who has entered numerous times but never won before. In the end, victory was taken by reigning men’s champion Andrew Corrigan of Driffield, who actually improved his time from 2017 by two seconds.”

Who would of thought that an idle discussion in the pub would last over 50 years and become a national icon, that snow will not even stop and as it appears above improve it…well at least they had the hot coals ready to melt it.

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