Wrestling: Grasmere's stranglehold on tradition

Simon Turnbull finds the damp and the dutiful among the Lake District wrestlers
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The Independent Online
The clouds above Grasmere were anything but lonely. A cumulo- nimbus convention had gathered on Thursday afternoon, affording a traditional Lakeland welcome to those who had come to challenge the local heroes at Grasmere Sports. Not that the rain bothered Karl Erlingsson. To an Icelander it was merely water off a whale's back. Knickers, in fact, were the cause of him getting into a metaphorical twist - or, specifically, the lack of them.

You could be blessed with sufficient strength to grapple Moby Dick into submission, but you would not be allowed to get to grips with the Cumberland and Westmorland wrestlers at Grasmere unless you happened to be wearing a sequinned codpiece and a pair of longjohns. The lightweight competition was held up while the Scandinavian swapped his tee-shirt and his red nylon shorts for borrowed traditional garb. The dressed-up meat cutter was swiftly cut down himself, however, by 11-stone of lean Cumberland beef. "And I really thought I would win," he said.

The pounds 50 prize could not explain why a 34-year-old meat cutter from Reykjavik came to be standing in a pair of soaked and muddied longjohns in the corner of a field in Cumbria. Karl Erlingsson just happens to be a student of the noble and unappreciated art of wrestling. He is a champion at glima, the style considered to be the national sport in Iceland. But to master the Cumberland and Westmorland form, by becoming a champion at Grasmere is to carry a kudos which stretches back to William Wordsworth's days.

Records of Grasmere Sports have been traced to 1852, two years after the death of the Lakeland bard but it is known that Wordsworth watched wrestling and fell running in the natural amphitheatre of Grasmere Vale, which suggests that the annual gathering has its roots in the early 1800s. It survives today as a glorious anachronism in a sporting age of overhyped televised tripe, the biggest in the dying breed of old English sports days. On Thursday it survived another potential damp squib with the dryness of Glenn Tubman, the star turn on the public address system. "D'you know," he mused after the blanket finish to the 90m sprint final, "if this were on telly they'd be replaying that five times. Aye, one day there'll be a great giant screen put up at Grasmere, and you'll be able to see that again. When Sky come in, mebee."

The thought of Andy Gray and his magic marker outlining the tactics of the hound trail boggles the mind, let alone the goggle box. They could always employ the inestimable Mr Tubman - "You two up on the hill with the umbrellas, the hounds are coming down, and they haven't been fed" - but Sky's sporting limit is probably drawn some way short of Grasmere and its hounds, its fell runners and its muddied wrestlers.

"Oh, I've seen it a lot worse than this," Roger Robson said, his eyes trained on the wrestling ring from the meteorological sanctuary of the pavilion. "I actually won the 12-stone division myself in 1970 and every time you took a step your foot disappeared under water. I was moving to Carlisle at the time and there was a picture of me in the local 'paper with my hair plastered down, mud all over my face and looking all hyped up. It said underneath, `The new English master at Trinity School'. Funnily enough, I never had any discipline problems."

A farmer now, and wrestling correspondent for the Cumberland News and the Westmorland Gazette, Robson restricts his educational role these days to teaching the finer points of his beloved sport. There is no showboating of the Jackie Pallo or Hulk Hogan variety in Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling. You clasp hands behind the neck of your opponent and the first man to break the hold or to hit the ground is the loser. "It looks simple," Robson said. "But it's like draughts. You have to think it through. That's why draughts players can beat chess players at their own game. It's very subtle. Look at Tom there. He knows exactly what he's going to do before he gets into the ring."

Sure enough, after depositing his wellington boots and his spectacles in a plastic bag, the squinting Tom Harrington felled his opponent with the merest flick of the hips. With his flaxen hair, his "four" eyes and his ruddy complexion, Harrington is Cumbria's Clark Kent. When he pulls on his longjohns and his sequinned codpiece this modest- looking farm hand assumes superman powers. The 19 titles he has collected at Grasmere is a record, eight more than his cousin, Alf. The 20th proved elusive this year but, then, Tom Harrington is 53.

"I'm thinking of packing it in now," he confided. "I'm enjoying the youngsters coming through." Harrington, in fact, was toppled by a young buck in the 13-stone semi- finals. At 22, Lee Wall went on to join a rare breed who have notched a Grasmere double. And the first thing he did after capturing the 12-stone and 13-stone titles was thank the coach who has nurtured him at Carlisle Wrestling Club - Tom Harrington. Now the young stonemason has something monumental to chip away at: the old master's Grasmere record.