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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence