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?
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.
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.