Hardened Boggans of Haxey give their all for the hood: Marianne Macdonald watches the Fool get smoked before a mud wrestle to the pub

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The Independent Online
IN THE FADING light the unwieldy knot of men staggered like a dying animal across the field. They had been scrumming for hours, with little discernible progress; and the watching locals, sunk to their ankles in mud, were getting distinctly cold.

But there was no hurrying the Boggans of Haxey, Humberside. Deep in the sway, amid the hairy forearms and bulging calves, was the symbolic hood; and it was an unvarying law that no one drank until it was wrestled to one of the local pubs. On the men heaved and pushed, crab-like, across the frosty winter field.

It had all started so well. Twelfth night had dawned sunny and crisp and the bells of Haxey church had rung out to welcome the Hood procession as it marched up the village street.

Spirits had risen further when the unfortunate Fool was smoked over the fire as he - rapidly - chanted the rules: 'Hoose agin' hoose, toon agin' toon/ If tha' meets a man, knock 'im doon/ But don't 'urt 'im.' And then the Lord of the Hood had led the way to Haxey field where the Chief Boggan and his 12 subsidiary Boggans lined up for battle and former Boggans, ancient and fragile, cheered and recalled how they had, in their salad days, fought gallantly in its honour.

For the Haxey Hood Game has gone on in much the same way for at least a century and a half, although the Fool was at one time 'smoked' by being tied to a rope and swung backwards and forwards over the fire rather than standing above it (a practice which ceased after a near fatality), and the sway was, within living memory, a very dangerous proceeding indeed (the Fool's injunction 'don't 'urt 'im' having been introduced only during the First World War).

The idea is to wrestle the Hood to one of four pubs in the villages of Haxey and Westwoodside, providing they all participate - there have been disputes about muddy carpets - where drinks are on the house.

Tradition has it that the game originates from an accident which befell a certain Lady Mowbray in the 13th century.

Galloping across the high land between Haxey and Westwoodside on Christmas Day, a strong wind caught her hood and blew it away, at which point 13 smallholders - or Boggans - gave chase. The one who picked it up was too shy to give it back and named the Fool; but the others did and in return she granted them land with the proviso that the chase must be annually re-enacted.

Detractors have said it is really a ploughing custom, with the Boggans substituted for the bullocks - a suggestion indignantly denied - or a pagan fertility rite.

But these are not, on the whole, worries that dismay the Boggans. On Thursday the manful fighters of the King's Arms won a victory to wrestle the precious hood there by 5.30pm, a pace which quickened as opening time approached. The landlady, Susan Dobing, was waiting with open arms. 'Well done, my boys,' she told them.

(Photograph omitted)