Olney Pancake Race, BuckinghamshireThe idea of pancake races has now spread throughout the English-speaking world, but it had to have a starting point, and the town of Olney in Buckinghamshire claims that honour, with tradition having it that the inspiration for the event came in 1445. The story goes either that a housewife was cooking Lenten pancakes when she heard the shriving bell, and eager not to miss absolution for her sins she raced pan-in-hand to the church; or that a crafty woman took along a pancake still warm in the pan to church to bribe the sexton to ring the bell earlier than normal, that the holiday would begin the sooner.
Sometime in the middle of the 20th century the tradition died out for a spell, but a vicar saw photos of previous events and revived the thing much to the delight of his parishioners.
This being Britain there have to be rules, of course: the race begins at 11.55, started with the tolling of a special pancake bell by the churchwarden, this bell lent for the day by the local museum ; only women are allowed to compete, aged at least 18 and having been resident in the town for at least three months; they must be dressed in housewifely garb, including a decent skirt and decorous headscarf; at the start of the race the pancakes are tossed, then the women race the 415 yards between the Bull public house and the Church of St Peter and St Paul ; at the end of the race, another successful toss must be accomplished. A recent winner managed the thing in 62 seconds, which even without pan, skirt and tossing is going some. And the prize for the winner? A kiss from the Verger. If only it were the sexton we could claim Olney women were sexton mad.
More British Folk Customs?