At 8:30 a.m. the starting judge shouts to the teams, “bare ye legs.” All shaving, lubricating, and massaging of the calves must cease and the Tying Men bind the runners’ legs together using jute stripped from old sacks. The knots are very strong and won’t come apart during the race. The teams line up at the start and wait for the starting signal. This is traditionally provided by a caw from the cathedral raven, Bertram, who sits on the shoulder of the Choirmaster character, who is symbolic of the original grievance of the boys in 1541. Some ravens are quieter than others so occasionally the race doesn’t start until around 10 a.m. but traditionally the raven caws quite quickly and the teams are off.
Teams practice for months to find the necessary co-ordination between the team members, as this is an exhausting race if everyone isn’t working together. There are some narrow sections between the gravestones in the cemetery, which require the teams to go along in single file but apart from this area the teams can run abreast. This is apart from the area outside the main entrance to the cathedral where the teams have to progress on their knees, observed closely by the kneeling judges, who penalize teams five minutes of time if all team members don’t remain on their knees for long enough.
This kneeling section is another legacy of the Puritan era. It was introduced by Cromwell because he felt that the teams should be more deferential to the religious purpose of the cathedral. The kneeling judges in those times used whips to keep people on their knees for the requisite distance. Persistent offenders could be burnt at the stake as it was felt that people who couldn’t stay on their knees for long enough must be having difficulty resisting the urge to fly and would therefore be witches in disguise.
The most successful team in the history of the race has been “Goldilocks and the Five Bears” who won 15 times between 1976 and 1995. The team trained for six months ahead of the race and practiced the kneeling part of the race assiduously, sometimes being mistaken for devout pilgrims by tourists. Other tourists would throw them money as they assumed the team were energetic beggars from a Trappist order who needed money.
The festival of seven-legged racing takes place around the cathedral in Exeter on the third Thursday after the second full moon after Ash Wednesday.
The seven-legged race comprises teams of six people who race around the cathedral close in an anti-clockwise direction. The prize is won by the first team to cross the finishing line having completed 66 laps. The race was started in 1541 by boys who had been unsuccessful in their attempts to join the cathedral choir and who wanted to put a curse on the building by invoking the spirit of the Antichrist with their 6 x 66 idea.
Initially, the teams were tied together with a rope that went around people’s waists so that everyone had the use of both legs, but in 1652 the rules were changed by Cromwell, who wanted to make the race less fun and more puritanical by tying people’s legs together. Thus the tradition was born which is maintained to this day.
Excerpt from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions
There’s also the pulling fingernail contest where people have to pull large weights along just using their fingernails. The objects used include ploughs, buses and Nell Gwynn, a local cow with a reputation for being bad-tempered. A rope is tied to the object and the contestant then digs their fingernails into the rope and pulls the objects along with their arms outstretched and their hands facing downwards, so that no muscle strength can be used.
This should be contrasted with the dangling fingernail contest, where the contestant places their arm on a table with the fingernails hanging over the edge. The judge then dangles a weight from the nail for 20 seconds; if the nail breaks the contestant is eliminated otherwise they proceed to the next round where a heavier weight will be used. The record weight is 52 pounds, dangled from the thumbnail of James ‘Gurzel’ Webster in 1812.
In honour of the truffle the main contest is a digging competition where people must use their bare hands to remove seven feet of soil in as short a time as possible. This contest takes place in hard ground where the initial incisions have to be made using the fingernails. Judges inspect the hands of the competitors before the contest to ensure that no-one has filed their nails to a point to gain advantage.
This contest was won six times in the 1930s by Bertie Smallman, who was held as a POW by the Germans during WWII but escaped by digging a 3-mile tunnel from his camp. After the war Smallman became an emergency gravedigger in the Hampshire area, who was called in either when epidemics overwhelmed the existing gravediggers or when he had to dig the grave of a fellow gravedigger.
The longest fingernail contest has been held since 1132. 10 prizes are given to individuals with the longest fingernail on each of the 10 fingers and thumbs. Individuals have their own ideas about how to grow a long fingernail: olive oil is used, as is baby oil and turpentine. A 16th Century vet, Jimmy Cowans, swore that placing his hand inside a cow’s anus for 30 minutes a day hardened his nails wonderfully. Few people were prepared to disagree. Cowan did win five times between 1582 and 1598; however, more often than not at the time of the contest he had a very bad nosebleed due to his nervous habit of picking his nose and so was unable to take part in the contest.
It’s rumoured that the main reason that the Normans invaded England in 1066 was for the truffle-hunting in the New Forest. The locals didn’t need pigs to find truffles as they have always been possessed of fine long fingernails, which can quickly scrabble in the earth to find a truffle. Of course the truffles in the New Forest became extinct after overzealous hunting by the locals and the Norman invaders.
Although the truffles have gone the fine fingernails remain and are celebrated in the Fingernail contest in September held in Brockenhurst.