Just For Fun: Olney Pancake Race - Shrove Tuesday

Everyone's familiar with Mardi Gras and the wild and crazy, dare I say licentious, Carnival celebrations that take place in New Orleans and elsewhere around the world just before Lent. "Mardi Gras" means "Fat Tuesday,"  part of the church calendar for Catholics and Anglicans. In anticipation of forgoing rich foods during Lent, participants indulge on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, eating pastries made from fats and dairy foods, often those given up during the fasting period leading up to Easter. This year Fat Tuesday falls on Feb. 21, which happens to be today.

But did you know that in England Fat Tuesday is called Shrove Tuesday, or even Pancake Day? Yep, good old pancakes are the food of choice for this holiday because pancakes dripping with butter and syrup make a good way to use up ingredients which would be forbidden during Lent. And in Olney, England, Buckinghamshire, the home of that marvelous hymnwriter and former slave trader, John Newton, a wonderful tradition has arisen that dates back to the 15th century.

Every Shrove Tuesday for centuries, the residents of Olney have gathered at noon for a service in the church. One year a harried housewife was still busy making her pancakes when she heard the shriving bell begin to ring, signaling the faithful to church. Not wanting to be late, she hastily ran out the door, skillet in hand, and flew down the street. To commemorate this woman's rush to the church doors, the town has held an annual race since around 1445. (It was not run during World War II, but the War of Roses didn't put a damper on the affair.)

Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Olney (Google Earth)
The rules are simple: participants must be women over the age of 18, they must have resided in Olney for the past 6 months, they must wear a skirt, apron, and head covering, and they must carry a skillet with a pancake which they flip at the start and finish line. After completing the 415 yard race, participants and observers head into the church for a service which includes some of the famous Olney hymns. I'm not sure which ones they sing, but John Newton and his gifted but troubled dear friend,  poet William Cowper, graced the church with an abundance of gems including these:

"Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken"
"Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat"
"God Moves in a Mysterious Way"
"Oh! For a Closer Walk With God"
"There is a Fountain Filled with Blood"

If I ever make it to Olney (and there are some charming cottages for rent at reasonable rates, near to walking and cycling paths - hint, hint, oh husband of mine), the Cowper-Newton Museum will be one of the first places I'd visit.

Orchard Side garden at Cowper and Newton Museum


Kristen Wegener said…
But people get murdered in little villages like that.
Anne said…
Only on the garden tour.

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