Where: Olney, Buckinghamshire
What is it?
Olney Pancake Race is run on Shrove Tuesday every year and has become quite a famous custom, drawing in crowds from all over the country. The race features local women dressed in a traditional housewife costume, armed with a frying pan and pancake. But why, you may ask?
How it all started
It’s uncertain how the race at Olney originated but one story is that a harassed housewife, hearing the shriving bell, dashed off to church still clutching her frying pan containing a pancake.
The first race was apparently run in the year 1445, pancakes at that time being a popular dish and receiving royal favour. It was run on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent, and the whole day was given over to a festival of celebrations. The race was even known to have taken place during the troublesome times of the Wars of the Roses.
The revival of the custom
After a lapse during the Second World War, the race was revived again in 1948 by the then Vicar of Olney, the Reverend Canon Ronald Collins. In clearing out a vestry cupboard he came across some old photographs, which had obviously been taken in the 1920s and 1930s, of women running with frying pans. Fired with enthusiasm to revive the ancient custom, he called for volunteers, and in response thirteen runners appeared on Shrove Tuesday that year. The race immediately caught the popular imagination, and the people of Olney set out to make their rich past a day of festivity once more.
In 1950 the race became an international event. A challenge was received from the town of Liberal in Kansas (USA). After seeing photographs of the race at Olney, they had conceived the idea of starting a similar custom. Olney readily accepted the challenge and, in a spirit of international goodwill and friendship, the two towns now compete annually and prizes are exchanged.
The race today
The race in Olney is now run from the Market Place to a point midway down Church Lane – a distance of 415 yards. Warning bells are rung from the church steeple and the race is started by the Churchwarden at 11.55 am, using the large bronze ‘Pancake Bell’ normally on display in the Museum. Pancakes are tossed by the competitors at the start and the winner is required to toss her pancake again at the finish. She then receives the traditional kiss from the Verger.
When the race is over, the runners, officials, townsfolk and visitors pour into the Parish Church for the great Shriving Service, when several of the famous Olney Hymns are sung. Competitors in the race place their frying pans around the font and occupy seats reserved for them in the chancel. During the service, presentation of the official prizes from Olney and Liberal takes place. Other prizes for winners and runners-up are presented at an evening party.
Rules for competitors
Those who are qualified to take part in the race must be women aged 18 years or over and either have lived in the town of Olney for at least 3 months immediately prior to the event or, if living away, have their permanent home in the town. They must wear the traditional costume of the housewife, including a skirt, apron and head-covering, though they need not be married. They must, of course, carry a frying pan containing a pancake.