The Olney Pancake Race - A 550-Year-Old Tradition Gets Even Better

"Housewives" in Skirts and Aprons Run a 400-Meter-Dash While Flipping Pancakes

Olney Pancake Race
••• Contestants in the Olney Pancake Race. Robin Myerscough Creative Commons

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 Lent, goes back hundreds of years. In the Buckinghamshire village of Olney - also home of the hymn Amazing Grace -  frying pan-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 this mad dash from taking place.

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, maybe 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.

"Traditional Housewives"

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. They must carry a frying pan with a pancake in it and they must flip the pancake as they cross the finish.

American Cousins

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.

Innovations in 2016

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. There, a BBC television celebrity chef, along with two local chefs, is scheduled cook a pancake breakfast and later judge 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 should add an extra element of fun for spectators. In 2016, the lengthy list of prizes included a bicycle and a £200 voucher for a local restaurant.

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.

Essentials

  • 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, in 2016 February 9, from 8:30am to 12:15pm.
    • Celebrity chef breakfast from 8:30 to 10am (limited number of tickets, £5 by email)
    • The main race begins at 11:55 and is over in seconds so be there on time.
  • Contact: Email -  olneypancakerace@yahoo.co.uk or contact through social media:
  • Visit their website