Category Archives: Pancake race

Custom revived: Olney Pancake Race

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You might drive past or through Olney and not stop. It is one of countless small towns in the midlands, the backbone of Britain. However, some people will pass through and remember that Olney is famed for its annual pancake race – the town sign helps of course. Perhaps the most famous place to do a Pancake Race.

Flipping good time?

There certainly is a great atmosphere on Shrove Tuesday in Olney. Schools close, people crowd the streets around the Bull, and pans are ready. Of course there are many pancake races ran on this day up and down the country, but Olney has a unique feeling. Part of this is due to the dress of its female (the only people other than children) allowed to race – there is no equal opps here I think!

No pancakes provided but a pan is, as the message on their website reads:

“Things you need to bring with you on race morning ** You will need a skirt & a pancake Running t-shirt, headscarf, apron, frying pan will be provided”

And as a sign of the times:

“Please do not wear any sponsorship logos apart from those given to you by the race organisers, (charity runners are encouraged to promote their charitable cause).”

Such events need such sponsorship to survive…and there is nothing wrong with that! In 2016 I see unsurprisingly its DuPont™ Teflon® I’d be upset if they did not! Of course in the modern age we need to be enacting and again the website guidance states:

The Race: Once you are all lined up the churchwarden will ring the pancake bell and say ‘Toss your pancakes’…….., please then toss your pancake…..   He will then say; ‘Are you ready?…..on your marks……get set…….go!’ Once you have passed the finish line please toss your pancake again.”

No mid race tossing perhaps they are concerned an accident and the pan-ic that might ensue?

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Flipping good legend

A local legend is provided to explain the race. It is a common legend in other places. It is said that upon hearing the Shriving Bell, a local housewife too busy cooking rushed to the church carrying her frying pan.

Flipping not true?

The website states:

Run since 1445 whatever the weather – so turn up, have fun and good luck!!!”

Ask a resident of Olney and they’ll say that it was first run in 1445. Others claim that it even took place during the War of the Roses in the late 15th century. They claim that it has lapsed over a number of years….but sadly there is no evidence! Although the weather statement is!

What is fairly certain is that the Reverend Canon Ronald Collins in 1948 revived the custom after finding some old photos of the races from the 1920s and 30s. He appealed for volunteers and that year thirteen runners ran on Shrove Tuesday.  Going beyond this becomes more more and more difficult. Steve Roud (2006) in The English Year states that it is believed that the custom begun just before the First World War, then lost, then revived in the 1920s, then lost. An article in The Times from 1939 is apparently the first to describe the race and records it was revived 14 years previous. However, one cannot go back further than this and it is significant that no notable historical research writer on days gone make reference to it! What is more likely that like other villages and towns a pancake bell or shriving bell was indeed rung and people confused the tradition.

Flipping liberal

What also makes Olney unique is that every year since 1950 it has been an international event. As the website again notes:

The link with liberal (Kansas, USA) will take place in the Church Hall at 7.00 p.m. Please would the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd runners take part in this.”

A second race takes place at the same time as Liberal in the US. The race is run on how fast they are but I amazed in this day and age no-one has thought of a video link. Perhaps hologram race in the future.

Olney was one of the first such events I attended back in the 90s when I became interested in our curious customs. I haven’t unfortunately been back since but I’d imagine is everyway as flipping fun as it was back then and will forever.

Custom survived: East Hendred Shroving

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“Pit pat, pan’s hot,
Here we come a’ shroving
With a batcher up my back
A halfpenny is better than nothing.”

Ask anyone to name a custom associated with Shrove Tuesday – pancake making come top of the list, many say pancake racing, some may say football and a handful skipping…not many I would guess would suggest the oldest of shrove customs…the one more faithful to the reason for the day – Shroving.

Originally the purpose for Shrove Tuesday was to get shriven and be absolved of sins in preparation for Lent. One way in which you could absolve yourself of earthly desires was to give to charity and in many villages the less well off and often children would take advantage of this. As a result Shrove Tuesday became one of the begging days in the calendar and it became the duty of the local Lord of the manor to provide for the parishioners at this time.

Shrove off

Oxfordshire is fortunate to have a number of Shroving rhymes recorded by Percy Manning in his Stray Notes on Oxfordshire Folklore (Continued) for Folklore in 1904. He notes:

At Shrovetide, on the Tuesday, the children at Baldon go round the village begging pence, and singing the following song:

‘Pit-a-pat, the pan’s hot,

I become a Shroving.

Catch a fish afore the net,

That’s better than nothing.

Eggs, lard, and flour’s dear,

This makes me come a-Shroving here.

If the singers do not get any money given them, they go on as follows:

‘Pit-a-pat, the pan’s hot,

I be come a Shroving,

A bit of bread and a bit of cheese,

That’s better than nothing.

For eggs, lard, and flour’s dear,

So I be come a Shroving here. (1895.)

The following is from OAKLEY and ICKFORD, on the Buckinghamshire border of Oxfordshire :

‘Pit-a-pat ! the pan’s hot,

I be come a-Shroving;

A bit of bread, a bit of cheese

Or a cold apple dumpling.

Up with the kettle !

Down with the pan !

Give me a penny, and I’ll be on.’ (Circa 1897.)

At Islip in Oxfordshire, the children, on Shrove-Tuesday, go round to the various houses to collect pence, saying:

‘Pit-a-pat, the pan is hot

We are come a-Shroving ;

A little bit of bread and cheese Is better than nothing.

The pan is hot, the pan is cold;

Is the fat in the pan nine days old ?

O. HALLIWELL, Popular Rhymes (1849), pp. 245-6.”

Another is recorded by Brand’s Popular Antiquities:

“In Oxfordshire the following version has been met with:

‘Knick, knock, the pan’s hot,

And we be come a Shroving;

A bit of bread, a bit of cheese,

A bit of barley dompling

That’s better than nothing,

Open the door and let us in,

For we be come a-pancaking.’”

Ironically despite a more detailed recording of the custom than many other counties it misses what is now a significant one; the only surviving locally and perhaps the least known survivor of this tradition being found in a little known Oxfordshire village of East Hendred.  Here the squire of the manor at Hendred House for 100s of years has maintained a custom with the rhyme similar of course to above:

“Pit pat, pan’s hot,
Here we come a’ shroving
With a batcher up my back
A halfpenny is better than nothing.” 

Schools out!

The custom of course is not exactly like those described above, the children do not beg around the village but evidently at some time the Squire wanting to provide for the parish but prevent begging, established the custom of giving. This may have even been for adults but now is for children. Clearly the presence of two faith based primary schools, particularly the Roman Catholic, significantly established by a previous occupant of Hendred House, has helped.

Interestingly, unlike many other Shrove Tuesday customs which now do not occur when the date falls in half-term, this continues, although the numbers are usually less.  The children snake from their school for noon, shepherded by their teachers and parents down the drive to the house and in the courtyard. At arrival they chant their rhyme whilst waiting for their gift. I wonder how many of them understand the words?

Mr Hine, a local historian, informed me that he remembered when he was a child in the 1950s that the Headmaster from his C of E school went along and would attempt to stop them singing the line ‘a halfpenny better than nothing because he thought it might upset the Squire! Now no such sensitivities no longer exist! The Hine family have a tradition with the village and Mr. Hine told me his father also attended the custom and it had not changed in that time!

Inflation hits!

Sitting on the pebbled courtyard is a table stacked with trays of sticky hot cross buns. They looked delicious. The children gleefully accepted these although some were probably a bit bemused by the monetary gift; a penny. Mind you they should be grateful they would have originally got a half-penny! Not that that either has any real buying power..unless the class teamed together to buy a packet of crisps. Let’s hope it went to charity.

A small but curious custom but a rare one and hopefully with the support of both schools and the community it should survive..although I was surprised when researching it to find some local people had never heard of it..but then when you work and were never a child there that is likely I suppose.

Customs survived: The Winster Pancake Race

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Flipping good time

I was fortunate to off work one Shrove Tuesday and witness the Winster Pancake race. Now of course there are pancake races up and down the country, but really it appears that only two can claim any greater heritage than Olney and Winster. Indeed, Winster claims to be the oldest…a fact disputed by the 15th origin quotes for Olney….but it certainly is interesting how it originated.

The history

Curiously the races here was a conscious revival by local antiquarian. Back in 1870, Llewellyn Jewitt, founder of the Reliquary, invented the pancake race, when he lived in Winster Hall.  I cannot find direct evidence of this but I do know he wrote of the village:

“Shrove Tuesday was a half- holiday, or rather more, for whenever the pancake bell was heard the school was broken up, and every urchin went home to dine on that annual dish.”

Perhaps the idea came after this. Porteous (1976) in his The Ancient Customs of Derbyshire noted:

“The first time I went I took a young friend and smuggled into the car boot a farmhouse O.S frying pan..when I produced the pan from behind my back for her to race..there was some embarrassment..larger than usual pans are taboo. Small regulation pans are provided”

In 1958, Porteous (1976) noted that the first time ever a grand mother, daughter and grand daughter were involved in the race, and that day, he states there was snow on the ground.

Give a toss

There was no such snow when I arrived. Indeed there was not anyone! For I arrived in this picturesque small town at around 1, the races were to begin at 2, and it was completely empty. Even the local shop which claimed to be opened was shut and the only place open was the church. Taking rest here for a few minutes, I soon heard a bell rung, and I left and then was confronted with a throng of people all summoned by the bells and the thought of the pancake race.

The race route, covering 100 yards, from the Dower House at one end of the street to the Market House at the other was made safe by a group of officials at the taped off finishing line and the road was closed. Then began the races and never had I seen so much earnest, especially with the mother’s group who more than made up by the slightly confused assembly of pre-schools who appeared to be marshalled with their mums earlier . The fathers and even grandfathers ran and appeared to be very competitive. Overall it is great to see the Winster pancake races continuing, bucking the trend that suggests that the dreaded health and safety executives have ‘stopped’  races elsewhere.