The ladies of Olney have been running their pancake race for more than 550 years, but lately the glow of publicity has made it a crowd - and sponsorship - puller.
The tradition of making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, goes back hundreds of years. In the Buckinghamshire village of Olney - also home of the hymn Amazing Grace - fryingpan-wielding women and girls have probably raced while flipping pancakes almost as long. Even the Wars of the Roses (1445 - 1487) didn't stop this mad dash from taking place - in fact, it appears to have been started during those tempestuous times.
These days there are pancake races, where participants must run a fixed distance while flipping a pancake in a frying pan, all over Britain (and several in the USA). The Olney race, however, may be the Grandaddy (or should we say Grandmammy) of them all. It's also unique in that men and boys (who have been seen flipping pancakes elsewhere) are not allowed to enter.
Unlike some other races, where sports figures, celebrities, and even MPs participate, the Olney Pancake Race is limited to "housewives and young ladies of the town". They must have lived in Olney for at least three months and be at least 18 years old. Several children's races take place before the main event - limited to little girls.
Twenty-five participants run a distance of 415 yards from the Olney Market Place to the Parish Church, while dressed as "traditional housewives". That includes wearing a skirt, an apron and a kerchief (though nowadays this outfit is more of a fancy dress costume and its worn over typical runners kit - leggings, t-shirts, and sneakers - called trainers in the UK). They must carry a frying pan with a pancake in it and they must flip the pancake before the start of the race and as they cross the finish. Participants must bring their own pancake but frying pans are provided by the race sponsors and are part of the prize racers receive for taking part.
In 1950, after the ladies of Olney had been racing and flipping pancakes for centuries, they were challenged by their counterparts in the town of Liberal, Kansas. Now the race takes place on both sides of the Atlantic. But while the Olney race stays true to its traditions, the Americans have turned their Pancake Day into a four-day festival with eating, flipping and cooking contests and a parade as well as the race. They're also currently leading in the number of races won during the more than 70 years they've been competing with Olney.
With Internet fame, it was only a matter of time before national sponsors came knocking. Alongside local restaurants and shops, a famous maker of the non-stick coating used on pots and pans has sponsored a marquee since 2016. There, a BBC television celebrity chef (Lesley Waters in 2018), along with two local chefs, cooks a pancake breakfast and later judges a filled pancake recipe contest. There are cash prizes for all race participants. And a raffle to benefit the repair fund for the local church adds an extra element of fun for spectators - there's a lengthy list of prizes.
And an Amazing Grace
While you are in Olney, stop by the Cowper and Newton Museum dedicated John Newton. While Newton was curate in the town he and poet William Cowper wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. The museum, home to the "pancake race bell", reopens for the season on pancake race day and adds a Georgian flavor to the day's events.
- What: A traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake race that's been run for more than 550 years in a small Buckinghamshire town.
- Where: Olney, Buckinghamshire, Market Place to Parish Church
- When: The Tuesday before Lent (February 25 in 2020) from 8:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m.
- Celebrity chef breakfast is usuall held from 8:30 to 10 a.m. Find out more by emailing the organizers or checking the website.
- The main race begins at 11:55 and is over in seconds so be there on time.
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