It’s a little known fact that every turtle that swims up the River Thames past Tower Bridge into the Pool of London becomes the property and responsibility of the monarch. This rule is part of the Common Law of England and dates back to the time of Queen Matilda in the 12th Century.
The Royal Turtle Surveyor has to be notified if a turtle reaches the Pool of London so that the ceremony of Turtle Rinsing can occur. This old procedure involves the Royal Turtle Surveyor, The Royal Turtle Deputy-Surveyor, the Royal Net Bearer, The Royal Water Bagpiper, and the Master of the Hose. From the Tower of London, these five officials proceed towards the turtle in a launch bearing The Royal Standard.
Once the turtle is observed by The Royal Turtle Deputy-Surveyor using a spyglass, the Royal Net Bearer apprehends the creature in a special Turtle net that’s over two hundred years old. Once clear of the water, the turtle in the net is raised to shoulder height. Using a 500-year old hose made from Staffordshire Boar hide, the Master of the Hose sprays the creature for “one round of ye reel,” which is danced by the Royal Turtle Surveyor and The Royal Turtle Deputy-Surveyor. The Royal Water Bagpiper accompanies the dance.
Once the reel is complete, the rinsed turtle is returned to the water. In the past, the turtle was observed swimming vigorously for the open sea; however in recent years they have mainly hung around HMS Belfast waiting for tourists to drop food to them.
Historians believe that the Turtle Rinsing was created because of Matilda’s desire to keep her supporters happy by giving them jobs in the Royal Household that were purely ceremonial in nature. Other such jobs include The Royal Wasp Counter in the Hunting Forests, The Royal Cloud Shape Describer, and the Royal Maker of Cubes from Honey.
The concept of the Village Idiot is a long-held tradition that was refined to its highest degree in rural Somerset in the 1300s. At that time the position of Village Idiot was an official job title and had a salary, though it was paid in acorns. Both men and women could apply for the role in the annual Dancing Around the Windmill contest, which took place in November – the windiest time of the year. The selection process involved drinking copious amounts of cider and then dancing in between the blades of the windmill.
Nowadays, there is no job of Village Idiot but the contest continues in purely ceremonial form, though the rules are almost the same. The only change from 700 years ago is that the dancers don’t have to wear oak clogs. Starting at 8 o’clock in the morning the contestants are presented to the watching crowds in their fool’s costumes. Each contestant is given a gallon vat of apple cider, which they must drink by nine o’clock or be disqualified from the dance. They are not allowed to eat any food during this time.
At ten past eight, the potential idiots start dancing through the sails carrying their vats with them. The contest is judged by three umpires who perform various tasks. The contestants are supposed to avoid the sails by either slowing down or speeding up their dance, but they must never stop or they will be penalized a point by an umpire. Dancers must not move more than 10 feet from the windmill or they will be deducted a point. Contestants who are hit by a sail are either deducted a point if they remain conscious or disqualified if they have to be sent to the hospital by the umpire. If the umpires deduct three points from a contestant then their contest is over. The contest continues until there is only one person left who hasn’t been disqualified.
According to the Lindisfarne Chronicles, “Walking the Ways All” was an annual tradition in all Anglo-Saxon towns. The third Thursday in July was set aside for the townsfolk to walk along the common pathways and re-establish their right to frequent these paths. According to the English Common Law, if this annual reclamation wasn’t performed these pathways would become the property of the local landowner, who could then collect tithes from the townsfolk for using the paths.
In 1471 a drunken clerk, Oliver de Turnhouse, misheard the Cleckheaton town crier’s proclamation and so the new tradition began. The town mayor for that year, William de Gradlove, had to walk around the paths dragging a small mammal with sharp teeth behind him. Animal rights not being of top priority, it’s believed that a different weasel was used every year.
One particularly cruel mayor, Edgar Stride, decided to ride around the paths on a horse as he didn’t want to be bitten in the ankle by the weasel. However, his fear caused his death. The weasel’s leash wasn’t quite long enough for it to walk on the ground. Not wishing to be strangled, the weasel fought and writhed against the leash until it managed to sink its teeth into the horse’s haunch. This powerful nip caused the horse to bolt – Stride was knocked from the horse’s back when it ran under a low branch. Stride hit the ground hard and died from his injuries. His quick-thinking deputy, Mortimer Sanderson, jumped over Stride’s body and managed to pick up the weasel’s leash before it could effect an escape. He walked around the rest of the paths without further mishap. This act of quick-wittedness is now enshrined in the ceremony. Since that day, when the mayors approach the area known as Mortimer’s Leap, they have to sprint for approximately one hundred yards, ensuring that the weasel is keeping up.
Only when the role of ‘The Walking Weasel’ became an officially recognized position in 1661, to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy, did the same weasel perform the ceremony more than once. Indeed, it’s understood that the walk began to appeal to the weasel, as it came across the warrens of the local rabbits, which it could visit at other times of the year. The record for the number of walks undertaken by one weasel is 18 between 1872 and 1889 by Walter the weasel, whose son Barney succeeded him for a further 14 years. The ceremony has been performed nearly 540 times in a continuous line that hasn’t been broken by World Wars, Civil War, or the election of Margaret Thatcher.
The first contest in 1263 was held amongst the citizens of Kazan. In turn, each contestant had to ride up to the table on their own horse and slice ten beetroot and ten potatoes in half making sure that their steed was always moving in a forwards direction. The results of the first few contests have been lost but the winner in 1273 was Alexis Yashin who not only sliced all the vegetables in half but did so the most accurately according to the Slicing Judges.
The contest was made more difficult in 1309 when a second table of vegetables was introduced meaning that 20 beetroots and 20 potatoes had to be sliced. In 1458 carrots and courgettes were added in a second contest where the winner was the person who cut the carrot and courgettes into the most separate pieces. In 1684 cucumbers and tomatoes were added in a third contest where not only did the vegetables have to be cut from top to bottom but also lengthwise too. These extra contests still required the cutter to be riding a horse.
In 1923 the judges decided that a precision element should be introduced into the contest so peas and red beans were added. Again riding a horse the contestants had to split the ten peas and ten red beans into two separate pieces with their swords.
By now the Kazan contest was known throughout the world and was popular with chefs who were keen to gain extra publicity for their food preparation exploits. One particular 3-star Michelin restaurant chef holds the record for cutting a courgette into 45 separate pieces while riding a horse. Unfortunately he was disqualified because he used his own brand of kitchen knife and not the Mongol sword as stipulated in the rules.
In 1987 fruit were added into the festival beginning with apples, pears, and bananas. 50 Apples and 50 pears had to be sliced into four separate pieces and thirty bananas into at least six. For the fruit contests a timing element was introduced as the fruit were laid out on a table fifty yards long and the contestants were allowed to stop their horse if necessary, but not to dismount.
Playing cards have played an important role in people’s lives for centuries. The Playing Card Festival has been held annually since 1682 to celebrate all the non-gambling uses that playing cards can be used for.
It all began when the wife of local gambler Ralph Meadows decided that she would remove all gambling temptation from his life. She picked up his pack of cards and threw them individually out of the window. Ralph noticed that some of the cards travelled more than 100 yards and bragged one day in the pub that his wife could throw cards further than anyone else. The challenge was inevitably taken up by his drinking friends and the contest was established, taking place on St George’s Day in a farmer’s field.
Fifty contestants each took a playing card from the Presiding Judge’s pack. The order of throwing was decided by the number of the card (aces high) – in order of importance the suits were hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades. The first thrower was the two of hearts and the final thrower was the ace of spades. Ralph’s wife, Jenny, had the eight of diamonds and hurled it 112 yards seven inches.
She used a flicking motion of her wrist that made the most of her powerful forearms strengthened by years of throwing hay bales into the upper floor of the barn. Since that time the eight of diamonds has been known as the Jenny Strongarm card. Jenny Meadows won the first six throwing contests before an accident when moving an entire haystack left her with a damaged elbow.
Wensleydale is a crumbly white cheese from North Yorkshire. This cheese is difficult to cut without pieces falling onto the ground, which might explain why the cheese cutters of this part of the world are regarded as the finest around. The carvers in the valley held competitions amongst themselves for hundreds of years before allowing anyone else to take part. Characters such as Elias Cattermole, Fred Heathcote, Bert Boycott and Roger Vaughan are the stuff of legend – each able to carve the most intricate animals and birds from the crumbliest cheese in the 60-minute time limit.
In 1831, the big decision was made to extend the contest to people from outside the dale, even from Lancashire, just so long as they carved Wensleydale cheese and didn’t bring their own cheese with them. In the 1832 contest Bert Boycott won first prize for carving a falcon plunging upon its prey and local carvers continued to dominate until 1862 when Elsie Jerrard from Arkengarthdale became the first ‘outsider’ to win for her rendition of a cat curled up in some grass. Elsie’s comment upon being announced the winner was “It were abaht time someone else wun’t carving – this’ll giv them Wensley people a shock.”
In the UK there are many contests involving the humble biscuit, ranging from building competitions to throwing events. However, in Barnsley the biscuits are just rolled for fun, so that in the words of the original organizer Rufus Moxon, “the biscuit is conserved in its entirety and can still be consumed – what’s the point of breaking a perfectly good biscuit just for fun – what a waste of money that would be.”
The contest was started in 1934 and has been going strong since then, even during the time of Margaret Thatcher. The contest takes place on the day of the first full moon after the sixth Sunday after Len Hutton’s birthday on June 23rd.