Earlier this year, on a damp February morning, I played a game of cricket. But the winter weather wasn't the most unusual aspect of the occasion. Far more memorable was the fact that every one of the players spent the match on a horse. This was the first game of cricket on horseback to be played for 200 years.
It was a single paragraph tucked away in the advertisements of an edition of the Kentish Gazette from 29 April 1794 that inspired the contest: "A very singular game of cricket will be played on Tuesday, the 6th of May, in Linsted Park, between the Gentlemen of the Hill and the Gentlemen of the Dale, for one guinea a man. The whole to be performed on Horseback." There was no mention of who won but that wasn't important. It sounded like fun. As soon as I read that footnote, I knew I had to play such a singular game myself.
The path that led me to the article and, eventually, the equestrian cricket crease, began in Hay-on-Wye. While foraging in one of the many second-hand bookshops there, I'd found a Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English put together by John S Farmer and W E Henley in 1901. As I flicked through its yellowing pages, alluring words leapt out at me. I learnt that a "quockerwodger" was once a puppet on strings, a "knocksoftly" a fool, and a "hoofpadder" a pedestrian. But the terms that really stood out were those that hinted at the games once played across the land. A "grape-vine", I read, was a hold in wrestling, "knock-em-downs" were a type of skittles, and "King Arthur" was a game played by sailors which culminated in a bucket of water being poured over the loser's head.
Unfortunately the details of these activities were teasingly scant but the editors did provide a generous "List of the More Important Dictionaries", from which I plucked the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by one Captain Francis Grose. Born in 1731, Grose was an antiquary and draughtsman as well as a lexicographer who seemed easily distracted, like me, by curiosities such as "pig-running", which he described as follows: "a large pig, whose tail is cut short, and both soaped and greased, being turned out, is hunted by the young men and boys, and becomes the property of him who can catch and hold him by the tail, above the height of his head".
Through Grose I discovered hot hasty pudding eating, the prize for which was "a laced hat", and travelling piquet, the original version of I-spy, in which participants were awarded 60 points for spotting "a cat looking out of a window" and won the game if they saw "an old woman under a hedge". But as intriguing as these spectacles sounded, I was more interested in events that fall more squarely under the category of sport and, after a little digging, I unearthed a more specific book by another antiquarian called Joseph Strutt. Twenty years Grose's junior, Strutt was also an engraver and artist and his illustrated Sports and Pastimes of the People of England was his most celebrated work. Each game was described in such detail, with rules and equipment detailed better than any modern manual, that I couldn't be content merely to read about them. I had to play them.
Today, the sporting landscape is dominated by the Sky(Sports)scrapers of cricket, tennis and rugby, with football clambering over them all like King Kong. But, as Strutt explained, it wasn't always this way. Just 200 years ago, there was no such thing as a national sport. Instead, local games sprouted across the country, occasionally pollinating the neighbouring town, or even county, then often dying down when the next fad emerged.
But no matter how brief its lifespan, each game was once played with enthusiasm and vigour. The exotic-sounding quintain, for example, was a common sight across rural England in the 17th century. Essentially pedestrian jousting for those many people who couldn't afford horses, it started as a military exercise but, like the javelin, soon turned into something more competitive. Prevalent too was "the jingling match", which involved up to 10 people wearing blindfolds and competing to catch the jingler, who had to ring two small bells incessantly. Now that's a sport.
Some of the games were more exclusive than others. The Kentish Gazette's game of Cricket on Horseback, for example, was contested by two teams of "Gentlemen", the sort of fellows who had enough money and time to devote to such ambitious events. But, according to Strutt, everybody was playing a game of some sort. Twelfth-century Londoners, he wrote, would throw anything they could lay their hands on in the name of competition; "the attention of the populace was so much engaged by this kind of exercise, that they neglected in great measure the practice of archery, which occasioned an edict to be passed in the thirty-ninth year of Edward III prohibiting the pastimes of throwing stones, wood and iron".
Running was also a common pursuit, but not in the prescriptive manner we're accustomed to today. Instead Strutt notes how "a young gentleman, with a jockey booted and spurred on his back, ran against an elderly fat man (of the name of Bullock) running without a rider". It was this imagination that seemed to interest people then and excites me now. Throwing and running were combined to create new games like quoits and the now-extinct base, a team sport that involved holding hands and chasing the opposition.
Some of these games refused to die. Stoolball, for instance, is still played, particularly in Sussex, where it was invented some 500 years ago. Often cited as the mother of modern cricket, the game was concocted by bored milkmaids who first tossed round a turnip or two, and then began using their stools – either as bats or targets – to develop it into a game. While men have gradually introduced laws, body armour and hawk-eye technology to turn it into cricket, the original stoolball is still played in its purest form by leagues of women across the country.
So why did stoolball survive and quintain die? Why is there no cricket-on-horseback World Cup? Even after recreating many of these games, I don't have the answers. The evolution of sports seems to be based more on luck and timing than any tangible ingredients. Football was "little practised" in Strutt's time. Indeed, he wrote that "at Dorking, efforts are still made to maintain the annual street game". And yet somehow these efforts resulted in the international game we are all too familiar with today.
I think it's a shame some games didn't make it. The football World Cup that dominated this summer was regarded as rather dull, in sporting terms at least. Now that the game is so widespread and so commercial, the style has become depressingly homogenous. But perhaps it's not hopeless. New sports do still crop up every year. Ultimate frisbee, for example, is often cited as Britain's fastest-growing sport, and the equipment was invented only in the mid-20th century. Others may make their own claims, but many believe the Frisbie Baking Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut to be responsible for the flying disc. Frisbie pies were sold in circular tins to students in New England, and like those milkmaids in the 1500s, these students started throwing them around. By 1967, they had laid down the rules and the sport was established.
The British can be rather sniffy about sports invented overseas, especially in the USA. They didn't invent American Football, we say; William Webb Ellis did when he picked up his school's football in the late 1800s. We even claim to have invented baseball, pointing to Catherine Morland, a character in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, who played "baseball" during her tomboy days. We'll boast to anyone who will listen about St Andrews being the home of golf, Lord's the home of cricket, and Wembley the home of football. We may not be the best in the world at any of these games but we don't care, because we're the best at inventing them.
I don't subscribe to this view. The impulse to play sports seems to me to be a human trait, not merely a British one; we happened to be in the right place at the right time to give our sports the push they needed to go global. At the height of industrialisation, Britain was the most powerful country in the world and so we had the means to modernise and formalise our sports before spreading them to the furthest corners of the Empire.
But that doesn't mean other people weren't playing their own games. We now know of the Watusi tribe in Africa, who practise jumping-based sports to such a level that males are recognised as men only when they can jump higher than their own height. By this rationale I am certainly no man yet. The Masai tribe play a game which involves throwing spears at a log rolling down a hill. I would much prefer to watch that than the javelin or darts.
So the path that led me to Cricket on Horseback has not come to a dead end. I want to keep exploring the ever-inventive world of sport, to keep playing ingenious games, free from the shackles of football, because sport is not about winning, it's about having fun.
Alex Horne appears in 'The Games That Time Forgot', Monday 26 July on BBC 4 at 9pm. Alex will be performing his new show, 'Odds', at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August. For details, see www.alexhorne.comReuse content