A roundup of the world’s odd, weird and wonderful competitions, including the Haxey Hood, Beer Pong World Series, Camel Wrestling and Cockroach Racing
Boys in the Hood
In a far-flung corner of the north of England, a 700-year-old lady is still worth fighting for…
By Richard Lenton
For 364 days a year, Visit Britain, the UK tourist board, would be hard pressed to persuade anyone to visit the sleepy northern village of Haxey. However, on the 12th day after Christmas, this unassuming farming community is transformed into the setting for England’s oldest traditional sporting tussle – an annual re-enactment of a 14th century act of chivalry known as The Haxey Hood.
Legend has it that Lady de Mowbray, the wife of wealthy landowner John de Mowbray, was riding through the village one blustery, medieval day, when her silk riding hood was blown from her head and across a field. Thirteen farm workers rushed to her aid, chasing the hood until it was finally caught. So amused was Lady de Mowbray by the gentlemanly efforts of the farmhands that she donated 13 acres of land to the village on condition that the battle for the hood would be re-enacted every year. Resembling a giant, slow-moving rugby scrum, The Haxey Hood has been played annually for over seven centuries.
Before we go any further, I have to confess that I was brought up in a neighbouring village to Haxey, and despite being a local boy, nothing could have prepared me for my first Haxey Hood experience. On 6 January 1989, my friends and I arranged to meet at the King’s Arms at 9am, which seemed an ungodly hour for anyone to be entering a public house, let alone a group of 14-year-old boys. I approached the front of the pub with some trepidation, but as the door swung open it appeared as if the entire population of the village was already inside, singing and swigging with the enthusiasm of a gang of London looters.
Before I knew it, I’d been handed a pint of bitter and a bacon buttie and as I surveyed the scene, I noticed my school friend’s dad in a passionate embrace with a young lady who was only a few years older than me. He later claimed that he was merely administering some much-needed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation after she complained of feeling faint… This prelude to The Hood set the scene perfectly for the carnage to follow.
At noon the pomp and ceremony begins, as various characters based on the original 13 farm workers – and dressed in bizarre ancient attire – begin The Hood procession through the village singing traditional folk songs and occasionally popping into one of the local hostelries for a drop of light relief; on the house, of course.
At 2.30pm, the Fool – named after the medieval farm worker who caught Lady de Mowbray’s hood but who was too shy to personally hand it back to her – makes a pre-battle speech from outside the local church, as a fire is lit behind him using damp straw; an act known as “smoking the Fool”. He ends with the traditional words: “Hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon, if a man meets a man nok ’im doon, but doant ’ot ’im”, which roughly translates as: House against house, town against town, if a man meets a man, knock him down but don’t hurt him. A “sway hood” wrapped in a leather tube is then thrown into the middle of the village field, and the fight to transport Lady De Mowbray’s pride and joy to one of the four pubs in Haxey begins.
The actual hood, which can’t be thrown or run with, is moved slowly among the 200 or so scrummagers by “swaying” in the direction of their chosen pub. It tends to snake around, stopping occasionally as bodies are pulled out of the mud, and, despite the efforts of the Lord and the Boggins who act as referee and stewards, broken bones and other injuries are a regular occurrence. In the battle of 1989, an ambulance rushed to the scene to cart off a young chap whose leg was so badly mangled it looked as though he’d been wrestling a combine harvester. As he was stretchered from the scrum, he defiantly yelled, “I’ll see you in the King’s tonight!” It epitomised what the event is all about.
For hours on end the hood is manoeuvred back and forth, until finally it arrives at one of the pubs. Once it is touched by the landlord on his front step, the contest is over, and that pub takes ownership of the hood for the year. In an unremarkable village in the north of England, the spirit of Lady de Mowbray and the art of chivalry are very much alive.
If you’re looking for thrills and spills of a different kind this January, why not try these instead…
Beer Pong World Series
Las Vegas, 1-5 January
The most prestigious event on the calendar for the genius drinking game in which players lob a ping-pong ball across a table and attempt to land it in a cup of beer at the other end. Does it get any better than knocking back beer while competing? First prize last year was a whopping US$65,000.
Camel Wrestling Championship
Selcuk, Turkey, 20 January
The men do the fighting, but it’s the women who have the power. An alluring female camel is brought into the arena to persuade over a hundred disgruntled males to go head-to-head. Next thing you know, the head-butts are flying in as the fellas do battle for the girl. The wrestling ends when one of the camels falls or flees.
Australia Day Cockroach Racing
Brisbane, 26 January
They say Singaporeans will bet on anything, but surely the line would be drawn at racing cockroaches? Not so our Australian brothers. The Australia Day races began back in 1981, and by 2004 over 7,000 people were turning up to watch. You couldn’t make it up.