Ritual Britain: Pancake tradition defies snow and ice: A Buckinghamshire town keeps alive a centuries-old tradition. Marianne Macdonald reports

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The Independent Online
IT WAS touch and go whether Britain's most famous pancake race would take place yesterday. Three inches of snow had carpeted the town of Olney, Buckinghamshire, and there were worried brows among the respected members of Olney Pancake Race Committee.

But the fates were kind. By 11.55am, the start time, the weather had eased, the main street had been cleared, and 16 women dressed in headscarves, aprons and training shoes were at the starting line outside the Bull Hotel.

Tradition alleges that the race began in 1445, when an absent- minded housewife, on hearing the shriving bell, dashed to the church still clutching a frying pan containing a pancake.

The Pancake Race is one of Britain's most popular Shrove Tuesday customs, and contests of more recent origin have been run in Winster, Derbyshire, Ely, Cambridgeshire, and Bodiam, East Sussex. But such was Olney's fame that its annual lenten custom inspired the obscure town of Liberal, Kansas, to challenge it to an international competition.

In 1950, the two towns first competed in the 415 yard race; Olney's victory yesterday by 5 1/2 seconds brought the series to 22-all (one race was declared void after getting messed up by an overzealous BBC cameraman).

Undeterred by the snow and cold yesterday, Olney turned out as one to witness the occasion. Rules decree that only women over 18 who have lived in Olney for more than three months can enter. They must, of course, carry a frying pan and a pancake. The trumpet fanfare sounded, and with a quick flip of their pancakes they were off, haring down Church Lane with the crowd behind hoping to catch the moment when the verger gives a ceremonial kiss to the winner, this year Claire Whittle, 34, with a respectable time of 62 seconds.

With its emphasis on the shriving service which follows the race, Olney's lenten tradition is considerably more civilised than those of other parts of Britain. The competition is far more bitter in Jedburgh, Roxburgh, where its Shrovetide football game, allegedly first played with the severed heads of English border raiders, is waged through the boarded up streets; another in Atherstone, near the Warwickshire border with Leicestershire, originated during the reign of King John in a fierce struggle for a bag of gold.

(Photograph omitted)