Category Archives: 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 demised: Yarnton Lot Meadows Ceremony, Oxfordshire

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In this quiet Oxfordshire village each July all eyes would be on their meadows. Here survived until fairly recently, a peculiar and potentially ancient custom which would allocate these meadows, called Lot Meadows, according to the drawing of balls – called Mead Balls.

Balls up

These meadows were arranged in 13 lots. There were divided in strips called customary acres which covered as much land as one man could mow in a day or ‘man’s mowth’. The balls represented by these inch in diameter balls, made of cherry or holly wood were inscribed with the name of each lot and of which 4 belonged to the neighbouring Begbroke. The names were thought to represent the names of tenant farmers: Boat, White, Dunn, William, Water Molly, Green, Boulton, Rothe, Gilbert, Harry, Freeman, Walter Jeoffrey and Parry. Traditionally the organisers, called the Meadsmen would proceed to a certain spot in the meadow where the balls were to be draw, but at later times they met at the Grapes Inn in the village.

Here a ball was drawn from the ball and its name proclaimed and as this is done a man would scythe six feet of hay and another would cut the initials of the winner. This was repeated until all the lots were drawn and which point the Meadsman would write down the owners of each strip.  Disputes would occur. A report records that:

“There is a record of one disagreement over trespassing after the lots had been drawn and a fight resulted. This was in 1817, in the reign of George III, and in the ancient warrant for the arrest of the participants the Sheriffs are entreated to keep them safely, so that you may have their Bodies before us at Westminster’. To Westminster they went for their trial and careful record of their expenses they kept, even down to two shillings and ten-pence for the hire of a coach!”

To distinguish the boundary, men would tread up and down the edges and this was ‘running the treads’.

Having a Field Day

The cutting of the meadows themselves developed into a popular intense one-day custom with large quantities of plum puddings and plum pudding being consumed. The day ended with some subsequently rather drunken races for the honour of ‘securing a garland’ which would be proudly displayed in the church.  It was not always good humoured; as riots and one man died as a result in 1817. Consequently, the vicar gave a severe sermon that Sunday and the mowing was spread over three days to even out the alcohol!

Blackballed!

Despite a survival from the Norman conquest and its survival post fatality, numbers dwindled and then in 1978 as a consequence of the area becoming a nature reserve. The balls and the Meadsmen survive however, the latter being a hereditary title should the meadows return to service!  Until then the fields at this time of year are a blaze of local wild flowers and I suppose this can easily replace the loss of an ancient custom.

Custom contrived: Bonsall Hen Race

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You have to admire the creativity of many English pubs. Looking for a clever angle, amidst the special Happy Hours and inventive menus there are pubs which go beyond the obvious. The Barley Mow a small village pub tucked down a narrow country lane in a delightful Derbyshire village perhaps has developed one of the craziest – Hen Race Championships. Or did it?

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Fowl Play

Although, landlord David Wragg of the Barley Mow did start the current races 25 years ago, locals will tell you it was an old tradition at least dating back to the 1800s although details are scant. This was probably because the old tradition involved gambling. The main location was the event remoter hamlet of Ible, where the races focused around the Hope and Anchor. When this ceased, if indeed it has, is unclear but it was certainly in fine form back in 1986 when it was captured in jocular fashion the below video. This custom was done unsurprisingly perhaps on the 1st of April.

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Chicken Run

Arriving at the Barley Mow one quickly encounters the area a track 15 metres long. Being August, the organisers were struggling with erecting a tent, not for the spectators, but for the chickens…this is serious stuff..it was needed as well…it rained loads!

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All around the arena are competitors, sitting in cages, cat carriers and even cardboard boxes..their heads popping out and giving a cluck every now and then. Apparently these were any old fowls but many had been subjected to months of training and the landlord often takes his prize winner ‘Flo Jo’ for training across the moors. Not only that but this is a world championship with entries from as far away as Norway..I would be interested to hear their reasons at passport control.

Pecking order

Around 50 birds entered the races in a series of heats. Soon the races begun and hens were lined up at the starting line…and they were off..or rather not. It wasn’t exactly a speedy event with many of the birds looking quite bemused by it all. Some were more interested in going back to the start and pandemonium ensued when one managed to break through the fencing and enter the crowd! Some were content just to peck the ground beneath them..Despite their trainers were at the other end banging tins of sweetcorn and mealworms. Although the birds were pretty standard…their trainers were not – one being a capped crusader and another had a suit made of cartoon strips…great British eccentricity!

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Some hens were more proactive and one was particularly keen to show its abilities…after a few also rans it was clear that there is either natural variation in the survival instinct of the birds or the training worked. The overall winner was one called Road Runner and a very pleased young man called Harvey and his father Oliver looked as pretty pleased. I could say they were cocky….although I chickened out on that joke!

Custom Contrived: The Race of The Boggmen

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The Suffolk-Essex boarders are a remote place full of delightful small villages many stocked with photogenic old black and white houses and old pubs.  Delightful they may be…but Suffolk is a county devoid of many calendar customs. Great Finborough may not be up there with Lavenham, Kersey or Clare but it boasts something none these have…an old tradition. Or is it? Not really..and one may have had some doubts over the authenticity of the story. Really the Race of the Boggmen is the grand-daddy of the ‘devised by blokes down the pub’ so frequently come across these days…

Bogg off!

The story behind this unique custom is based on an old country tradition that the sowing season begun on Good Friday. The Good Friday in 1887, a Joseph John Hatton was dismayed by the drunkenness of the team of six men, who were he hired Good Friday, being was so annoyed to find his labourers brawling, that he fired them there and then. But of course he still needed labour. Soon to hear about it was a team of men from nearby village of Haughley who appeared and so Hatton had a problem. Two teams were available, and ready to work, which one was best? There’s only one way to find out….race! The man that came up with this idea was a James Boggis of Oulton who happened to be staying at Boyton Hall. He suggested that if they threw the employment contract into the air, the first team to get the contract over the threshold of the pub in Great Finborough was the winner and got it! Fortunately, the Great Finborough team won..

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A bit racy!

The method work and typical when local villages loved rivalry so it was continued as a custom but it appeared to have been forgotten around the First World War, when many agricultural workers went to Flanders and never came back. So it would until a Trevor Waspe doing building repairs found a copy of the contract from 1897.  Now one might be a bit suspicious if it wasn’t for the survival of photos of the teams from 1903 in the pub! The contract reading, parts of which were difficult to read:

“The document made on the Holy Easter Monday in the year of Our Lord Eighteen hundred and ninety six in the reign of Our Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria shall thence for and for the ensuing year…some six strong and goodly men…the contract being for the setting of peas, beans, potatoes and others…”

Beneath this are a list of all the winners starting with that James Boggis finishing with a John Roper 1914/5 a sad poignant name for the list perhaps.

Off to a running start

I arrived around half an hour before the big event. The day was filled beforehand with some great little events such as egg and spoon racing and egg throwing…rolling hasn’t got here yet.

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The contestants were dressed according to old agricultural tradition and a flagon was being handed around…these contestants were a little ‘tired and emotional’ already. Then around three the landlady of the pub appeared and called the traditionally dressed lads to the green opposite where the organiser explained the rules

“Only the leader can score. Keep to the path”

That was it. The leader was identified by a white cross drawn upon his face. The group were certainly ‘tanked up’ as they cavorted around throwing each other to the ground and practising their tactics. Soon the truck arrived which would carry them to Boyton Farm. I hitched a ride in the pick-up which was had perhaps the strangest load- the racers – rather drunk and noisy.

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They arrived noisy at Boyton Farm and the runners poured out of the back of the truck before it had even stopped. In previous years I told that they used to travel in a horse box – imagine your surprise seeing them falling out of that. Once out the organisers, flowers in hand, to placate the elderly lady who owns the farm…after a bit of a debacle last year perhaps…however like all drunk people I wasn’t sure what one of them was doing with the farm’s duckpond would have been appreciated. However, the lady of the farm placated the grouped moved to the start of the path in-line with Great Finborough church. Here the group stood in a semi circle waiting. Haughley on one side, Finborough on the other, for the throw in..although getting a group of inebriated lads in order was difficult, especially as some might not have been from Haughley but it was managed! Hands were shook. The lady of the farm then raised her hand and the contract went into the air, the men reached for it and one grabbed in…then it disappeared into a scrum.

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There was much too and fro and throwing at the start with a number of the contestants ending up unceremoniously in the manurey silage…then in a flash one grasped it and they were off. I jumped back in the truck and was quickly back to the pub…not that quickly it appears for as soon as I jumped out and thanked them, the first runner appeared…then another..then another followed by cheers and claps from the crowd. Despite the pub being just around the corner they arrived at the green opposite where an almighty scrum occurred…the contract appearing and disappearing a number of times..

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Then quick as a flash, catching me unaware, the leader of the Great Finborough team broke free with the contract and barging past crossed the threshold. It was over..bar for some drunken swaying…a great event despite it’s remarkable shortness – from start to finish the race was only  3.08 to 3.23!….no London Marathon but then people aren’t usually drunk on that and I don’t usually laugh that much on that too..

When is it on?…http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/great-finborough-race-of-the-bogmen/

Custom demised: Grove Duck Feast

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07wtpast2All over the countries, fetes and village fairs often have swarms of people waiting impatiently along stream banks. Why? They are waiting for someone to open a netted bag of plastic yellow ducks…a duck race has begun. This staple of any village event with a stream…has a more ancient forbearer which used real ducks!!

The custom attracted hundreds of eager participants along the Letcombe Brook, in Grove, a village near Wantage, in a custom which in the mid 20th century was said to be over 200 years old. The association of this custom with an annual Feast makes it very clear the idea behind it…to catch them and eat them. By the 20th century the eating aspect had disappeared of course.

The custom consisted of 12 races and the aim was to catch the bird without harming it bare handed. An article in the John Bull magazine of 1955 a competitor reported:

“Duck racing isn’t as easy as it sounds,’ says Albert Cook, who one year won five out of six races. I’ve seen a dozen men take twenty minutes to catch a duck.”

 Duck feast

Another Cook, appeared to be involved in the organisation according to the Oxford Mail from July 1956:

“A blast from the whistle of the starter, Percy Cook, was the signal for the competitors, who lined up at the bridge, to jump into the water and race for the duck that Mr Cook had put into the water about 30 yards downstream.”

John Chipperfield in a recent article Ducking and diving in notes that understandably, what with the damning of the brook, large numbers of people and very nature of the event, concerns were raised over the welfare of the ducks. An RSPCA official stating:

 “We strongly deplore these races. We have received many letters of complaint about them, not only from people living in Grove but from all over the country.”

However, the very fact that the ducks often eluded the captors and much of the enjoyment was about people falling in the water was not considered.  Especially as often it is said the spectators got so excited that they leapt into the water fully clothed to join in.

Yet pressure continued and legal action was threatened. Interesting one of the organisers a Mr Knight, noted sagely:

“Our races are not terrible like stag or fox hunting. The difference seems to be that our races are the poor man’s entertainment while stag and fox hunting are rich men’s sports.”

Public pressure caused it to sink without trace in 1960 a nary a plastic duck replaced it!

Custom revived: Ely Hoop Trundle

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“It is up there with rolling a Gloucester cheese down a hill and Eton’s Wall Game,”  

Principal Sue Freestone.

School customs are a fascinating, if frustrating group of customs..many have a long and fascinating history, but often understandably due to the nature of the establishments difficult to witness. Ely’s Hoop Trundle although a fascinating custom it is unlike say Westminster School’s pancake grease inaccessible to the custom crawler…as it is done in public on the Green behind Ely’s imposing cathedral and although not always in May, so a bit of a cheat, it appears to often be on that month and appears set for that day from now on. Easily the best of such events for the spectator with no barriers, it is easy to watch and subsequently become part of the action…as the hoops rolled into the audience on a number of occasions.

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What the hoop-la?

The customs is liked to a tradition of the re-founding of the school by King Henry VIIth in 1541. As he dissolved its educational predecessor Ely monastery, he appears to have had a pang of guilt and so established the school with its first charter with 12 schoolars. Apparently he allowed them to play games in the Cathedral grounds and although this does not appear to happen anymore, by rolling a hoop they retain that right and remember that re-founding.

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Cock a hoop

Despite the press releases which state it has continued since the time of Henry VIIIth,  I believe this is a revived custom probably as the principal agreed being resurrected by a 20th century predecessor probably around the time of the school’s adoption of Queen’s Schoolars in 1973 but I have yet to have that confirmed.

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Hoops outside your head

At the allotted time the green began to fill with the students, staff and parents of the school. An oil can was carefully placed in the middle of the grass and the wooden hoops and sticks collected ready to be distributed. Then scholars appeared in their red gowns and the wooden hoops and sticks were passed amongst. No soon as this happened then they were off rolling them and racing backwards and forth.  I was told that originally it was ran down the road outside the Cathedral but too many grazed knees and cuts would occur and problems with traffic no doubt. Despite what would appear to be a fairly innocuous event danger clearly awaited. For whilst practising, one of the prospective contestants in the clashed with another and when head over hills and appeared to damage his ankle. This appeared to be a fairly rare occasion as he had to be carried off in a work van! Well it was one way of reducing the odds.

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Then the two heats produced their winners, a Euan Richards and Yuki Kimura who proudly, picked up their commemorative wooden tankards and their names entered in the history of Hoop trundling. They posed for pictures holding their hoops aloft and everyone disappeared into the city.

So keep an eye out for the next trundle, I spoke to the principal who said they aimed to ensure it was always on the same weekend as the Ely Eel festival…details of that for another May.

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs …its not on there yet

Copyright Pixyledpublications

Custom revived: Poor Owd Oss

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Neigh Neigh!

Was it raining? It appeared that a month’s rain fell on Kimberley that evening as I made myself to an obscure pub in an out of the way part of the town. It was heavy..cold rain which gets in through your coat, under your skin, chills you…what did I expect it was the week before Christmas and there I stood in watching for the arrival of the Owd Oss…in a small typical suburban pub. Perhaps not the most likely one to see an old custom, but with it’s no nonsense decrepit decor, seats with the leather torn exposing their stuffing and mock Tudor woodwork, perhaps the most evocative. Arriving there early, I enquired if I had arrived at the correct place..yes they said they’ll arrive a little later and asked if I’d like a drink. I did a tea please….it was all I could have to warm me and for once a large mug was produced without any form of tutting or eye rolling! It was clearly a local’s pub, although unlike some local ones, it was in no way intimidating, but I did wonder what they would think when the Owd Oss would appear. Then through the rain appeared the team…running to avoid the wet from their car!!

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A kingdom for a horse!

Mayfield (1976) in his Legends of Nottinghamshire records a rendition done in the Mansfield area. Although called a mummer’s play it contains the least amount of dialogue and is mainly sung. The Owd Oss or Old Horse consisting of a painted horse’s skull on a stick which was often set up for it to snap shut.  The play itself describes a worn out horse. A report of the custom notes:

“A group of men would enter a pub or house and after reciting three verses of a prologue, would bring in Owd Oss which consisted of a man draped in a dark cloth with a carved horse’s head fastened to a stick. Rough music invariably followed the blacksmith’s attempt to shoe the horse, while the rest of the company played their parts. Then drinks were called for and the question was put could the Owd Oss manage to drink? The jaws of the horse were so arranged that a bear glass could be inserted and the moment of truth-and achievement- for the player performing the Owd Oss depending on the ability to take his drink without removing a scrap of his gruesome equipment.”       

Horse whispers…

Poor Owd Oss distribution was a north Midlands – Yorkshire one, with the longest continued tradition appearing to be in the 1970s in Dore on the outskirts of Sheffield. It appears to have been common in Nottinghamshire, particularly in Mansfield in the 1870s, but played until 1914, although as noted there is record in 1921 for the children of the village at school party. The local newspaper Mansfield Chad recorded a revival in 1984, but this appears to be a one off. Nothing appears recorded of the custom in the midlands for over 20 years. Then Dave Mooney, member of the Black Pig Morris and one of the Oss’s musicians apparently had the idea to revive it reading a book on folklore and customs in bed once, which noted that the Poor Owd Oss was enacted in Kimberley written by Mason (1902). He at the time was the member of a local Morris team and thought he would do some research. Lo and behold he found a script that was done in Kimberley and so getting a small group of musical friends together resurrected it in 2005. At first the Oss consisted of a papier-mâché skull, then one made of railway sleepers and finally a real horse’s skull. This skull is painted red, has LED eyes and other lights. Unlike the first skull this structure does not open and close its jaw – which is a shame. All skulls are attached to a pole and carried by a man cloaked and wearing a silver death mask. The reviver of this custom was Dave Mooney who informed me that he came across the custom whilst idly reading a book on traditions in bed! That year, after the discovery of the above script recorded by Mason in 1902 and information that is was done in Kimberley, with some musician friends and Morris men revived it. They custom is only undertaken one night, usually the week before Christmas and involves visiting local pubs usually three or four a night, including in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and mainly Kimberley in Nottinghamshire.

Take a horse to water…

It is also tempting to link the custom with the view of Archbishop of Canterbury Theodore in the 7th century Liber Poenitentialis who complained about tribes dressing in animal skins at the Kalends of January (the 1st) stating:

“whoever at the calends of January goeth about as a stag or bull; that is, making a himself into a wild animal and dressing in the skin of a herd animal, putting on the heads of the beast, whose who in such wise transform themselves into the appearance of a wild animal, penance for three years because this is devilish.”

Perhaps the Poor Owd Oss is a survival of this Winter solstice observation with this custom being a continuation of a form of pagan animal worship. However, it could have equally arisen in the Industrial period as a response with something to do with the skulls of pit ponies to raise some money!

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Horse play

With traditional blackened, reddened and whitened faces, alone the musicians and the Introducer shocked some of the pub’s regulars. Then the Introducer began to sing:

“By leave, you gentlemen all,   Your pardon I do crave, For making bold to come, To see what sport you’ll have. There’s more in company, They’re following close behind; They’ve sent us on before, Admittance for to find. These blades they are but young; Never acted here before; They’ll do the best they can, And the best can do no more.”

At this point the Old Oss arrives and the music is started and the introducer starts the main part of the song. As he does so the Oss parades through the crowd causing mischief: The opening verses were song with great vigour and the arrival of the Oss, a real horse’s skull painted red, accompanied by its stirring banjo, trumpet and drum was very impressive. The song goes:

“This is my poor old horse, that has carried me many a mile, Over hedges, over ditches, over high-barred gate and stile; But now he has grown old, and his nature does decay, He’s forced to snap at the shortest grass that grows along the way;”

At the end of each verse the crowd would cry:

“Poor old horse! Poor old horse!”

 The song would those continue:

“His coat it was once of the linsey-woolsey fine, His mane it grew at length, and his body it did shine, His pretty little shoulders that were so plump and round, They’re both worn out and aged; I’m afraid he is not sound; Poor old horse! Poor old horse!

His keep it was once of the best of corn and hay, That ever grew in cornfields, or in the meadows gay; But now into the open fields he is obliged to go, To stand all sorts of weather, either rain, or frost, or snow; Poor old horse! Poor old horse!

His hide unto the tanner I will so freely give; His body to the dogs; I would rather him die than live: So we’ll hang him, whip him, strip him, and a-hunting let him go; He’s neither fit to ride upon, or in the team to draw;
Poor old horse! Poor old horse!”

Then the team got themselves together and off to the next pub. Here there was a bigger crowd and some of them happily joined in with the verses. Then after their third pub…it was into the night, back to the stable for another year.

Stable revival

What I enjoyed about this revival was it was done for the right reasons, for the need to continue something unique to the area. Richmond, Yorkshire has similarly revived theirs, but with its attendance to proper pubs and working men’s locations, there is something earthier and working class about this revival and more in keeping with its origins I feel. The Poor Owd Oss is a Nottinghamshire – Derbyshire tradition and it is great to see that local people recognise this. The Owd Oss is done because it should be done and long may it continue quietly to be enjoyed in the obscure areas of Nottinghamshire.

– images copyright Pixyled Publications