One of the main events of Shrove Tuesday at Olney in Buckinghamshire is the pancake race. This race is said to have been first run there in 1445, and to have continued intermittently ever since, with occasional lapses and revivals. One such lapse occurred, for obvious reason, during the Second World War, but in 1948 the custom was restarted and has not since suffered interruption.
The competitors are housewives who must be inhabitants of Olney, or the nearby Warrington. The rules also require them to wear aprons and to cover their heads with a hat or scarf. The course to be run is from the village square to the parish church, about four hundred and fifteen yards. A bell rings twice before the race, once to warn the women to make their pancakes, and again to bid them assemble in the square, each one carrying a frying-pan with the cooked cake in it. Finally, the Pancake Bell is rung to start them running. The pancakes have to be tossed three times during the race, and some, inevitably, land in the road, but this does not disqualify the runner, who is allowed to pick it up and toss it again. At the church door, the Vicar waits to greet the breathless woman, and to award the winner and the runner-up a prayer-book as prize. With him stands the verger who has the right to claim a kiss from the winner, and is usually given her pancake as well. Then all the pans are laid round the font in the church, and a short service of blessing is held.
The Olney Pancake Race
The Olney pancake race dates back to the Middle Ages. On Shrove Tuesday, every Christian household would find ways to use the perishables before the long forty day fast of the Lenten season. Some celebrated with debauchery and wild parties with rich foods; others made pancakes. And when the shriving bell tolled from the church tower, every parishioner was expected in church to ask forgiveness for their sins. History tells us that one startled housewife lost track of time and began making pancakes
for lunch. When she heard the bells, she knew that she was tardy and ran to the church wearing her apron and carrying a pancake filled frying pan. At that moment a tradition was born.
Nobody outside the village took very much notice of it until 1950. Then the inhabitants of Liberal, which is a town in the United States, decided to run a pancake race of their own over a similar distance and challenged Olney to an international speed contest. The housewives of Olney, with hundreds of years of practice behind them, accepted the challenge with some confidence, but their rivals across the Atlantic have proved speedier than was anticipated. We have to confess that of the 17 races since the Americans issued their challenge, Olney has won eight and Liberal nine. The situation is in danger of getting out of hand and, if Olney does not level the score on February 7th, there will have to be some hard thinking about the future. Is it possible, for instance, that the present reward does not offer sufficient incentive? Should there, perhaps, be two kisses for the winner instead of only one?