England is well known for its quirky customs and unusual events. Derby and the surrounding towns and villages are no exception. Sadly we can’t get out to experience events in person just now so here are a few that you might not have wanted to get too close to anyway!
1. Shrovetide football - Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday
A medieval football game traditionally played between two towns. The game dates back to at least 1683 and likely far earlier. Despite the attempts of many kings to stop football, Shrovetide has thrived. It is said that in the original event, the ball used was the head of an executed man. Rules include that the ball may not be carried in a motorised vehicle and committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited. While the game is most commonly associated with Ashbourne in Derbyshire with visitors flocking from all over the country each year, Derby was also home to one of the most ferocious games of Shrovetide over the years. The game, traditionally played between the two Derby parishes of St Peter's and All Saints was banned
2. Well dressing – May - August
Well dressing is a custom pretty much unique to Derbyshire. Springs and wells around the County are celebrated with large framed clay panels decorated in flower petals and other natural materials to create a mosaic like design depicting an annual theme, anniversary or event. The custom dates back to the eighteenth century but has become more popular in modern times. Many villages take part to create a trail of over 100 Well Dressings through the season. Timing your visit to a specific place is crucial as the period for each village is just a few days due to the nature of the materials. May not be great for hay-fever sufferers! (see what we did there?)
3. Fenny Bentley World Toe Wrestling Championships – June 30th
The medieval custom of toe wrestling is alive and smelly in Fenny Bentley.
Competitors sit on the floor and lock big toes, then attempt to wrestle their opponent’s foot over into a designated arena. Usually set in local pubs and often accompanied by toe themed food. Probably lots of cheese then!
4. Chicken racing at Bonsall – Aug 31
Chicken racing is an old tradition at least dating back to the 1800s. Currently performed at the Barley Mow in Bonsall where 50 or so birds compete in a series of heats. Whilst the birds are generally disinterested, preferring to peck at the ground, there is a good deal of encouragement displayed by the trainers. In an attempt to make the event even more silly, some of the competitors don costumes for the occasion. There is insufficient evidence to determine if this helps their chicken to win.
5. Kinder Beer Barrel challenge - September
Kinder Scout is a mountain in Derbyshire well known as the scene of the famous mass trespass in 1932. To make climbing said mountain as hard as possible, carry a huge beer barrel and make it a race! This is not an event for the feint hearted (not unlike toe wrestling!) Participants will haul a full seventy-two pint beer barrel (with apparatus to carry the barrel that’s more than 120lbs) up the mountain across areas of moorland. You might be thinking that the barrels are highly likely to be considerably lighter on the way down but in actual fact they are full of water, not beer (that’s us out then!) The rules state that 2 team members must remain in contact with the barrel; kicking it down the hill not an option sadly!
6. Derby Tup – Dec 31
The symbol of the City of Derby is the Ram or Tup. The Derby Tup is a play half acted and half sung about a huge sheep being slaughtered. The Tups used in the play were usually simple structures made from a broom or even a turnip, however, in at least one village, it was common practice to use a preserved head. The recital starts with the words “As I was going to Derby, Upon a market day, I met the finest ram, sir, That ever was fed on hay". It goes on to reflect on the impressive size of the Ram and concludes with:
“The man that killed the ram, sir, Was up to his knees in blood, And the lad that held the pail, sir, Was carried away by the flood.
Indeed, sir, it’s the truth, sir, For I never was taught to lie, And if you go to Derby, You may eat a piece of the pie.
And now our song is ended, We have no more to say, So please will you gi’e us a copper or two To see us on our way.”
Vegetarians and people not wishing to part with their coppers, may wish to avoid!
7. Bonnie Prince Charlie weekend - first full weekend of Dec
Swarkestone Bridge near Derby was the most southerly point reached by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s invading army with the Prince arriving in Derby on December 4th 1745. Commemorations take place over both days of the weekend with the focus on Swarkestone on the Saturday and the city of Derby on Sunday. Re-enactors take part in parades, wreath laying and recreations of battle. Actors dress in period costume and engage in pipe bands, wreath laying and living history encampments and skirmishes. Lots of fake firepower and (given the date) soggy but authentic woollen stockings guaranteed!