THE FOUR burly men eyed their target precisely. 'Let's get the bird in the black,' one of them said.

Thrusting their way through a crowd of people, they lifted a young woman, dressed, wisely it transpired, in a black trouser suit, and carried her kicking and yelping to where their accomplice stood waiting. As the foursome held the woman upside down, the fifth man took a hammer, several nails and proceeded to bash a decorative horse-shoe on to the sole of her patent stilettos.

Other towns in England have their Maypole dancing, their hairy folk musicians, their morris men, but none can boast a spring-time tradition quite like Hungerford's. On Hocktide, the second Tuesday after Easter, the small Berkshire town, known mainly as the scene of a mass shooting in 1987, goes into a bizarre alcoholic frenzy. 'This is the sort of thing we English have gone to war to protect,' said Andrew Sawyer, the local vicar, as he surveyed the horse-shoe shodding process proprietorially. 'This and the right to gather water- cress from the marsh.'

And all of Hungerford's oddity has been created in the name of local democracy. John O' Gaunt was responsible for this unique way of doing things when, back in the 14th century, he granted the inhabitants rights over large tracts of land. To administer their extensive estate, the townsfolk developed a complex local civil service, membership of which was by election.

For most of the year the officials of the Town and Manor of Hungerford and the Manor and Liberty of Sanden Fee, as the ancient body is called, concern themselves with collecting rents and fishing permit fees and thinking up ways to keep New Age travellers from settling on their common, a delightful 160 acres of open space that skirts the town centre ('It's not that they make a mess, they don't,' explained a local. 'We don't want them because, well, you know . . .')

Then on Hocktide, the Town and Manor goes public, indulging in a string of bizarre little ceremonies to mark its annual election. This year it began at 8am with a man blowing a hunting horn from the balcony of the Victorian town hall, calling all the commoners to attend the Hocktide Court, on pain of paying a fine if they didn't.

Three men, known as Tuttimen, dressed in morning suits and carrying poles decorated with flowers, set off to collect the annual tithes from every building in the High Street. If a financial tithe is not forthcoming, a drink will do, or a kiss from any female inhabitant. They were trailed by a crocodile of local schoolchildren, because tradition dictates that any money they receive should be passed straight to the needy.

'Basically all we do,' said one of the Tuttimen, 'is turn up, kiss a few girls, hand out a few coins and get plastered.'

As they walked down the High Street, they passed teenage girls in bonnets and crocheted shawls, giving away leaflets explaining what was going on to passers by. The leaflets had all the clarity of a mud pie: 'The officers to be elected are The Constable, the Portreeve (this passes automatically to last year's Bailiff), the Bailiff, the Water Bailiffs, the Overseers of the Port Down, the Aletasters and the Tithing Men, two of whom will be selected to act as Tuttimen at the next Hocktide.'

According to Tilly Hunt, a local solicitor who is Clerk to the Manor, these positions used to carry serious responsibilities. 'Now it is mainly ceremonial,' she said. 'But it carries on because people want it to carry on. I have to say, it does divide the town. There is a feeling of them and us, though more recently I think those who are not involved are indifferent rather than actually hostile.'

And there have been problems with the local town council. One year, a bit of a fracas arose over who should lay the first wreath at the town's cenotaph on Remembrance Day: the town council's Mayor, or the Town and Manor's Constable. The Constable won.

This year's out-going Constable was John Newton, a man who had clearly attended the John Major school of oratory. He conducted the formal part of the Hocktide proceedings in the town hall with a reverence the Archbishop of Canterbury would be pushed to match. After the Steward of the Court had taken an hour to read aloud a list of rules and regulations ('Equally, commoners are not allowed to graze on the common a heffer wearing a spiked collar such as to prevent suckling from a milk cow, under penalty of 50p') Mr Newton explained to the election candidates what it takes to be a member of

the Court. 'To be a Trustee these days is a very great commitment,' he intoned. 'We need like-minded people, not radicals or initiators, who will continue these traditions and keep our standing within the local community.'

As the sun streamed through the windows of the town hall, several elderly men sitting around the room dozed peacefully. 'It is so hard to concentrate on the business,' one man whispered to his slumbering neighbour. But everyone managed to wake up for the vote, which was conducted in a manner that would be approved of in Havana. The new Constable, for instance, already knew he was home and dry, because there were no other candidates for the post. Every other Hocktide office was filled on the nod, too. In fact, the results had already been printed up before the court sat.

It was then, with much attendant excitement, that the real business of the day began: a lunch for hundreds of locals, to be attended by the Lord Mayor of London. 'We're hoping to get the Prince of Wales one day,' said Tilly Hunt.

Before the lunch, everyone loaded up at the bar with double scotches and gins and Bacardis. Many of the men were wearing discreet Rotary Club lapel pins and the other badges of small town masonry. They were estate agents and solicitors, doctors, dentists: the kind of people who could slip out for a four-hour lunch with no real prospect of returning to work afterwards.

During the lunch, in which prodigious consumption of drink was topped off by the Hocktide punch (basically brandy and rum), a sweep stake was conducted about the length of the Constable's vote of thanks ('Thanks particularly to those who have assisted us ably in our efforts against the New Age travellers'). Whoever bet on 27 minutes won.

Then the tables were cleared for the ancient, boisterous and at times almost violent rite of 'shoeing the colts'. 'Those who are first-timers at the Court are shod,' explained Tilly Hunt, as the Lord Mayor of London was carried off by six men to have his expensive loafers resoled by the local blacksmith. 'I don't really know why. I don't think anyone does.'

The people dragged by old-timers from all over the town hall displayed, as tradition demands, increasing resistance. What with all the alcohol and exersion, several men, necks bursting from their collars, looked as though they might expire in the melee.

'Best of all, they love a girl in a dress,' said Tilly Hunt. 'Then they can turn her upside down and show her knickers.'

Down the High Street, the Tuttimen continued their red-eyed round of the town, each by now carrying a tankard of whisky. Their following of children periodically scrummed down on the pavement for a hand-full of coppers thrown in their direction. Andrew, 9, had scooped up pounds 3 this way. Others had not been so lucky. Joanna, 7, had optimistically armed herself with a Barclays Bank change bag, in which she had managed to deposit 11p. 'I'm only following them till five,' she said. 'Then I'm going to watch Home and Away.'

In 20 years' time Joanna will doutless be protecting her knickers at the Hocktide lunch. It is certain to be still taking place. With the soporific sitting of the Court, the long-winded Constable, the burly Blacksmith and the plastered Tuttimen, Hocktide is thriving as much as ever in its 600- year history, because it gives Hungerford a sense of itself, a sense of differentness.

'Do you know of any other town where this sort of thing happens?' an estate agent asked after the lunch, as he grabbed the kicking legs of a young solicitor. The answer was, well, no.

(Photograph omitted)