Although there are still several stringent rules in place for travelers, after many weeks, England is beginning to come out of lockdown. Pubs and restaurants can now open for outdoor service, with indoor service allowed from May 17. Sports facilities, gyms and leisure sites such as libraries and parks are now open and people can gather in small groups.
Some gatherings are still restricted though, while others have voluntarily abandoned this year’s events. One of these latter is an odd race that takes place each year in the small market town of Tetbury, Gloucestershire — which is pronounced “Gloster-sheer”. The race is called the Woolsack Race because, as the name conveys, it involves carrying a sack full of wool.
Way back in the 16th century, Tetbury sat in the middle of sheep country and was a famous center for the wool industry. In the middle of the town is a street called Gumstool Hill. It is a very steep hill, with a rise of 1 in 4, and it has a pub at the bottom called the Royal Oak while another named The Crown sits at the top. The race involves men carrying a 60-pound woolsack running 240 yards up the hill. Ladies get a 30-pound sack to carry, as do teenagers, and there is also a team event which involves four people taking it in turns to run up and down, like in a relay race.
The race originated back in the 17th century and it is said to have started because young male sheep drovers used to run up the hill in an effort to impress the young ladies of the town with their strength and endurance. Unfortunately, as I said earlier, this year’s event has been canceled due to the pandemic.
One event that did take place this year is called the Tichborne Dole, which is held each year in the village of that name in Hampshire, England. This is one of the oldest festivals held annually in Britain and is said to date back nearly 900 years to around the year 1150. The story goes that at that time, the Lord of the Manor was one Sir Roger Tichborne, whose wife was Lady Marbella Tichborne.
Lady Tichborne was sick with what was described as a “wasting sickness,” and she knew she did not have long to live. She’d always been charitable and, as a dying wish, she said she wanted some of the produce from the manor estate to be donated to the local poor people each year. Her husband didn’t like this, but couldn’t bring himself to deny his wife her last request. Instead, he agreed to do it but he stipulated that the donation could only come from land that his sick wife was able to go around under her own power while carrying a burning torch.
It seems the lady was stubborn and determined not to be thwarted. She got out of her sick bed and began to crawl, managing to encircle a 23-acre field before the torch, and her strength, gave out. That field is still known as “The Crawls” to this day. The story doesn’t end there, however. Lady Marbella was not happy with her mean husband and suspected he might not carry out her wish so, before she passed on, she placed a curse on the family.
According to the curse, if the Lord of the Manor ever stopped the annual donation, then the Tichborne family would have seven sons who, in their turn, would have seven daughters, thus ensuring the family name died out and the house would fall into ruins.
Whether from fear of the curse or a sense of generosity, bread was handed out to the poor each year for more than 600 years until, in 1796, there was a minor riot caused by vagrants and vagabonds trying to get among those receiving the food. Because of this the local magistrates ordered that there would be no more donations.
Soon after this a part of the manor house collapsed and the next to succeed to the title was Sir Henry Tichborne, who became the 8th Baronet. He was the eldest of seven brothers and he had seven daughters but no son. All of this seems to be awfully convenient as far as the curse is concerned and the more cynical among us might suspect the details of what Lady Marbella said might have been tweaked to fit the circumstances. Anyway, only a male could succeed to the title and Sir Henry’s brother did have a son, but he died at 6 years old. Another brother had two sons, Roger, born in 1829 and Alfred, born 10 years later in 1839. Between these two events, perhaps due to fear that the curse was actually working, the family re-introduced the annual donation in 1836.
It seems the re-introduction was too late for Roger Tichborne, however, because he was shipwrecked and presumably drowned off the coast of South America in 1854, although a man did come forward claiming to be him later. Some of the family said it was him, others did not, and that gave rise to a famous Victorian legal case. The claimant lost, the case was dismissed and the man served 10 years in prison before dying in poverty several years later.
Alfred Tichborne succeeded to the title and, although he nearly bankrupted the family, he did ensure the name, and the annual donation, which is held on Lady Day, March 25th, each year, continues.
Today, instead of bread, families in three local villages receive one gallon of flour for each adult and half a gallon for each child. They have to provide their own receptacle to carry it in and, since the area is one of the most prosperous in the country and the ceremony attracts tourists, a collection is taken up and the proceeds are given to charity.
Great Britain seems to be full of these strange little festivals stemming from half-forgotten events that occurred long ago. The pandemic has meant the cancelation of many of them, such as the woolsack race, whilst others, like the Tichborne Dole, have continued despite the restrictions. I wonder, perhaps, if that means that the virus does not concern people as much as an ancient curse does?