It was late afternoon, and rain spouted down through the trees. For more than four hours, Arthur Coward and Stephen Gill had been pacing the greensward on the grounds of Chatsworth House, near Bakewell, hands tied behind their backs, each with a 21-pound bundle of bricks dangling from his mouth by a strand of twine. The twine cutting into Coward's lower lip was red with blood, but on he walked, a village stalwart, doing an occasional jig to demoralize his opponent. Gill retaliated with a Churchillian stiff upper lip, and walked even faster.
These odd goings-on had nothing to do with Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, but rather were last month's inaugural Village Sports Challenge in the English Midlands, not far from Queen Mary's Bower, in which Lord Shrewsbury interned Mary Queen of Scots, and the parterres that William Cavendish, the First Duke of Devonshire, had planted while lying low to escape a ¬£30,000 fine for tweaking the nose of a certain Colonel Culpepper. A couple of British television journalists named Peter Fairley and Tony McCarthy founded the English Village Sports Society this year to revive old pastimes engaged in by Englishmen, among them knur and spell, duddlums, and Nine Men's Morris, a board game that was all the rage in the 14th century. The official press kit explained Nine Men's Morris as "a mobile form of noughts and crosses"—if that's any help.
A work crew busily removed the last vestiges of the earlier games: horseshoes and hay bales, rabbits and burlap sacks. Darkness crept across the turf at Chatsworth, near the banks of the River Derwent. The boisterous, boozy crowd of 1,500 had dwindled to 100.
Coward and Gill were finalists in the brick-carrying competition, an event that requires a certain taste for suffering. Contestants aren't allowed food, rest stops or breaks for tea. The bloke who carries the bricks longest wins.
October 21, 1984
The favorite appeared to be Gill, dubbed the Hare, who was still chipper after four hours and nearly 15 miles of walking in an ellipse. Coward, the Tortoise, hung on by the skin of his teeth: He staggered along looking ready to drop his load at any step.
Representatives of the sponsors, Gilbeys Gin, had predicted the event would be over "relatively quickly." But after the fourth hour they themselves were pacing the sward, looking anxious. In voices grave and firm they repeatedly begged the two to quit. But Coward and Gill vetoed their objections.
Coward, a 42-year-old video-shop proprietor, represented Cross Keys pub of Stairfoot. Gill, a 26-year-old painter, competed in the name of Cock and Castle of Harrogate. Both towns are in Yorkshire, home of fiery miners' union leader Arthur Scargill and Splendid Splendid Sam Smith nut-brown ale. The 13-member teams of Cross Keys and Cock and Castle included at least two striking miners apiece. Cross Keys had another four or five competitors who were on the dole.
The sports they played were those of Olde England, but the sportsmen were new Englishmen. "The coal strike has really flattened everything in Stairfoot," said Cross Keys' Ray Evans, a scrap-metal merchant. The grand prize of about $6,500 looked awfully attractive.
Two rounds of semifinals were held in August, one at Castle Howard in the north, the other at Knebworth House in the south. Eight English pubs sent teams to the Chatsworth finals, and they competed in such arcane events as turnip skittles, tossing the hay, milk-churn racing, smock racing and egg tossing (not to be confused with egg jousting, the Afghan game that begins with the challenger saying, "With my head I will break your head").
There were more mundane sports, including horseshoe pitching, rabbit racing and "drop" skipping (skipping rope until you drop). But the organizers ignored such oldtime favorites as pack gnat, jellyfish, plunkers, hot rice and Are You There, Jenkins? Still, there was room for Devil among the Tailors, Toad in the Hole and, of course, dwyle flunking, a bizarre ritual in which a circle of dancers are flogged with wet mopheads.
Despite the organizers' best efforts to keep the games authentic, the modern world kept intruding. A high-jump bar replaced the customary privet hedge in hay tossing. The milk-churn race was diluted when water was used instead of milk. And the sponsors sanitized the ancient sport of cow-chip tossing into a weighted Frisbee contest. In the old days, a competitor in the brick-carry was more likely to be a quarryman dangling stones, a miner mouthing a load of coal, or a dairyman lugging a wheel of cheese.
International trade adulterated the tournament, too. The turnip-skittles contest turned into cabbage skittles because of the Common Market. The exigencies of membership in the European Economic Community has created in England a shortage of turnips for knocking down skittles, or bowling pins. So, the village games had to make do with cabbages, which added a nice touch to the proceedings, bounding, as they did, across the vast and tidy lawns and shedding their leaves on the spectators. (Skittles has always been a dangerous sport for onlookers. During the English Civil War, cannonballs were used in roadside matches until too many cows wound up with broken legs.)
But these games haven't gotten tamer over' the years. One unlucky fellow slipped on a cabbage and broke an ankle. That wasn't the only mishap. Coward got too pumped up during a brick-carrying practice session and swung his test load through a closed window, smashing the glass. In the semis, he split his lips and gums. One of Coward's competitors truly lost his grip: When the bricks crashed to the floor, so did his dental plate.
Some contestants were born to their sports, e.g., Nottinghamshire farmer Rodney Pitchfork, who was a co-winner in the hay-bale tossing. Others had to train. The team from the Morning Star pub in Peckham practiced once a week for two months for the rabbit race. Their entry had been secretly stabled in the cellar for three weeks. The Chequers pub in Barkingside held once-a-week workouts for its bunny. "This pub is sports mad," said Brenda Hunter, the landlady. "We can't have a lazy rabbit letting us down." It did, nonetheless. Speedy, a black rabbit from the Good Intent pub in Sawbridgeworth, won the 20-yard dash.
Cross Keys landlord Jeff Benson had his team work out an hour and a half every Sunday morning. Its members had plenty of time to practice—nearly half of them were out of work. Benson figures Coward's gritty brickwork galvanized the group. "We knew he'd be perfect," said Benson. "He'd go through agony to win."
When it came to churning it out, no one could top Carol Cory, a 20-year-old receptionist, who masterly ladled 36½ inches of water in just three minutes. She did it without using her hands, which by rule had to balance the yoke on her shoulders. The object is to fill the two buckets hanging from opposite sides of the yoke, hobble across the field and empty the buckets into the narrow mouth of the churn.
"Cory stuffed her foot inside each bucket so she could dunk it into the water barrel," reports SI London correspondent Margaret Wright. "Resting one bucket on the ground, she nipped the other one with her teeth, wedged it between her elbows and poured. Not a drop was wasted!"
The British villagers enlivened the sack race by bagging their heads instead of their legs. The event supposedly had its heyday during the Victorian era, when railroads gave farmers free sacks to encourage them to ship grain by train. Cock and Castle divided its winnings 21 ways among its 13 outdoor competitors and eight others who won separate indoor events in darts and shove-ha'penny, or shove-groat, as it was called in Elizabethan times. It's an old bar game that Falstaff alludes to in the Boar's-Head Tavern in Henry IV, Part II. You score by pushing ha'pennies across a wooden board into one of nine narrow furrows.
Dave Ferguson, a 42-year-old roofer from Sleaford, became the All-England nurdling champ by flipping seven of 13 old British coins into a tiny hole in a wooden bench nine feet away. Dave Thompson and Lynn Cornhill from Barkingside scrambled their opponents in the egg toss: Cornhill chucked an egg 98 feet to Thompson without cracking it.
Alas, the Guinness Book of World Records lists an egg toss of 317'10" by a couple of hard-boiled Finns named Risto Antikainen and Jyrki Korhonen. And the world record for drop skipping was set by Frank Oliveri, a Yank—120,744 turns in 12 hours and eight minutes. Games champ Margaret Sharman, the wife of a Caunton mushroom farmer, skipped for a mere 35 minutes. Even in some of her native games, England has become a second-rate power.
It was left to Coward and Gill to prevent the sun from setting on the Commonwealth. After an unparalleled four hours and 17 minutes, Gilbeys convinced the two competing pubs to divide the first-and second-place prize money, a total of about $9,100. Coward beamed as regally as Prince Charles on his wedding day, and Gill looked as bemused as the Duke of Edinburgh. They shook hands like gentlemen, swilled champagne from the winner's silver cup and groused at friends who clapped them on the back a little too enthusiastically.
Gill's mouth ached so much that he couldn't even smile for the photographers. Asked if he planned to compete in the '85 Challenge, Gill said earnestly, "Well, yes, we'll have to defend our title. Isn't Arthur doing it?"
Apparently not. "Next year," Coward said through a broken lip, dried blood caking his chin, "I do the Frisbee throwing."