Ancient traditions and peculiar customs - there's no doubt about it, the English love them. That fact is clearly illustrated by the huge number of events taking place annually in various parts of the country. Wherever you go in the UK you're likely to find something folky and traditional going on, and usually it will involve men dressing up in strange costumes, dancing around flagpoles, and drinking lots of beer. Staffordshire has the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, Lincolnshire has the Haxey Hood - and Gloucestershire has (amongst other customs) Chipping Campden's Dover's Games.
Dover's 'Olympick Games' began way back in 1612 when Robert Dover (1582-1652) obtained permission from King James Ist to hold a festival of horse-racing, wrestling, sword-play, music and dancing on a hill at Saintbury. Earlier mediaeval celebrations may well have been held at the same elevated spot Dover chose, but his Games were on a much bigger scale than anything that had gone before.
A blast on a hunting horn marked the start of proceedings, calling competitiors to the hill, where they enthusiastically threw themselves into contests of all kinds. The horse races and coursing events were very popular, but it was also possible to watch people engage in sword-play, wrestling, hammer-throwing - and a particularly painful contest called 'purring'. This was an event in which you kicked the shins of your opponent as hard as possible, trying to inflict maximum damage until he was forced to submit. As the following eye-witness account indicates, the original purring contests could get pretty bloody:
'McWilliams kicked Tavish five times in the twenty-third round; then the latter dropped like a log and refused to go on. His legs, from knee to ankle, were covered with cuts, and were raw as beefsteak.'
Yes indeed. We knew the true meaning of entertainment back in those days.
It wasn't all manly violence and tough sports, though. Prizes were also awarded for singing, dancing and playing the pipes - and even lovers of chess were catered for with boards and pieces made available in one of the tents.
Perhaps the most famous feature of the Games was Dover's Castle, an "admirable portable fabricke" which housed cannons that were fired to begin events, just as starting pistols are used today.
In 1636 the fame of the Games spread when a book called Annalia Dubrensia was published. It used a picture of Dover's Castle as its frontispiece and contained poems in praise of the Games from many of the best known writers of the day, including Ben Jonson and Thomas Heywood.
The English Civil War put a stop to the festivities for a while, but after the Restoration they were revived. In 1826 a satisfied visitor wrote: "It is still a great holiday for all the lads and lasses, and is attended by a great number of gentry and people of respectability in the neighbourhood."
By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, the Games had gained a reputation for attracting "the riff-raff of society" - a group of people who brought with them all manner of rowdy behaviour. So in 1852 Saintbury Hill was enclosed and the Games came to an end.
In 1963 they were revived once again and they now take place yearly on the first Friday evening after the Spring Bank Holiday. In 2005 that was Friday 3rd June.
The formal opening is at 7.30 p.m. when a modern version of Robert Dover (on horseback and in period costume) arrives on the scene. A trumpet sounds, hounds race across the arena, and the bands begin to play. Then the games begin in earnest, and visitors are able to watch events such as The Championship of the Hill, Tugs of War, and a modified form of Shin-Kicking.
The Championship of the Hill
This contest involves teams of five competing in various ways, and includes a traditional sackrace. The sackraces I've had the misfortune to take part in involved sacks that ended at the waist, but for the Championship of the Hill the sack is tied around the competitor's neck. There are also straw-bale obstacles to negotiate and much use is made of water!
The competitor who shines most brightly at the Standing Jump, Putting the Shot, Throwing the Sledge-Hammer, and Spurning the Barre (a form of tossing the caber) is judged the Champion of the Hill. These four activities were very much chosen with the past in mind: they're all illustrated on the Annalia Dubrensia frontispiece and therefore provide a link going all the way back to 1636.
Although not quite as violent as it used to be, shin-kicking is still a feature of the Games. The judge for these contests is known as the Stickler, and it's his job to make sure contact is made with the shins before a contestant is thrown to the ground. The people taking part wear the traditional white shepherd-smocks, but unlike the original kickers they're allowed to protect themselves by padding their shins with straw. Apparently early 19th century shin-kickers would harden their shins by hitting them with coal hammers, and when engaged in competition they wore boots tipped with iron. Not surpisingly broken legs were common, but I'm glad to say modern shin-kickers are a little less gung-ho.
What Else Can I Expect to See?
There are various other attractions that make a visit to Dover's Games worthwhile. One of the oldest Morris groups in the country - The Campden Morrismen - entertains the crowd, as does Punch and Judy. In the past there has also been a healthy mix of music from an old time fairground organ, the St Andrew's Pipe Band of Cheltenham, and the Coventry Corps of Drums.
The climax of the Games arrives when dusk falls and a huge bonfire is lit by the Scuttlebrook Queen. This is followed by a firework display, and then a torch light procession, which is led by the modern-day Robert Dover. The procession winds down from Dover's Hill to the town square in Chipping Campden, and here there is usually yet more singing and dancing to conclude the evening.
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