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The Church on the Hill

Out of the Frying Pan…

Headscarf for Pancake Day Race

It was a Shrove Tuesday in the mid 15th Century and an Olney housewife was busy making pancakes.

She knew she had to use up her eggs, butter, and fat, as these foods had to be asbstained from during the fast of Lent, which started the next day. Pancakes were ideal for this.

Absorbed in her work, she didn’t realise how the time had flown, until she heard the bell ring calling the town to the Shriving service.

The housewife had no time to lose. She grabbed her headscarf and ran out the door, with no time to put down her frying pan or whip off her apron.

When she got to the church door the last pancake she’d made was still in the pan.

It’s said that in following years her neighbours started to race her, and it was a matter of who could get to the church first to collect a “Kiss of Peace” from the verger.

So the story goes.

Runners at Olney Pancake Day Race


Making pancakes  Olney

Another story is that pancakes were a gift to the sexton, to encourage him to ring the bell sooner. The bell signalled the start of the day’s holiday, a festival of celebration, pranks and pastimes.

It’s said that from one of these accidental beginnings came the Olney Pancake Race. Tradition says that the Olney Pancake Race was first run in 1445, the first year of The Wars of the Roses (1445 to 1485).

Cowper's hare in basketA woman in costume from the Cowper and Newton Museum. William Cowper kept hares, so there's one in the basket.

Cowper and Newton Museum  Pancake DayPaula of the Cowper and Newton Museum in the museum's garden, in costume. She is standing by the summerhouse where Cowper used to write.

Olney Pancake Day crowd

Ready to race  Olney
Runners must wear an apron and headscarf, and carry a frying pan with a pancake in it. Note the thumb position.

But the race lapsed in World War Two. Then in 1948 the Reverend Canon Ronald Collins, Vicar of Olney, was clearing out a cupboard when he found some old photos from the 1920s or 1930s, of women racing with frying pans.

He called for competitors, and thirteen women lined up on Shrove Tuesday that year. The Olney Pancake Race has been running ever since.

Pancake race line up  Olney

There may have been lapses when the race wasn’t run, but unlike many other local customs, the race didn’t fade away and become forgotten.

A couple of years later, the Liberal, Kansas President of The Jaycees, R.J. Leete, saw a photo of the Olney race in a magazine. He contacted the Reverend Collins and challenged the women of Olney to race against the women of Liberal.

The match was on, and they’ve been competing every year since.

The Olney women run at five to twelve local time, when the main road is closed for the race. The Liberal women also run on closed roads at five to twelve, but Liberal, Kansas is in another time zone.

That means that in Olney it is five to five, almost teatime, when the Americans run. So it’s not until early evening that we find out who achieved the quickest time.

Pancake Race runner  Olney

This year, Amy Butler won at Olney with a time of 70 seconds, but in Liberal Maggie Lapinski won the local race in 62.98 seconds, which meant another win for the Kansas city against Olney.

This means that Liberal leads Olney with 39 wins to 29.

I can’t find names for second and third place for the Olney race, but in Kansas second place was Maria Alba, and third was Morgan Potts.

If you can tell me the names of the women who placed second and third in Olney, please leave a comment.

Glossary of Terms
I didn’t know what many of these were, so I looked them up, and here’s what I found.

Ash Wednesday
The first day of Lent. The day when ashes made from Palm tree branches or leaves, from the previous year’s Palm Sunday celebrations are blessed.

Easter Day
This day is always on the Sunday following the first full moon after the first day of spring. It’s on the 21st of April this year, but on the 12th April next year.

Jaycees (Junior Chamber International)
A USA branch of an organisation for young professionals, with local presidents. From their website:
“JCI is a nonprofit organization of young active citizens age 18 to 40 who are engaged and committed to creating impact in their communities.”

Unicyclist at Olney Pancake Race

The six week period leading up to Easter Day. Traditionally a time for fasting, for giving something up, or for abstinence.
Strictly, meat, fish, eggs and fats are not eating during Lent. It begins on Ash Wednesday.

Moveable Feast
A Christian Holy Day that moves around the secular calendar according to a set of rules. See Easter Day, etc.

Palm Sunday
A moveable feast that falls on the last Sunday before Easter Day. It celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem, the week before his death and resurrection.

Olney Pancake Race runners

A church official who looks after the exterior of the church and the churchyard. Carried out bell ringing, and traditionally, dug graves.
In a cathedral, there may be a team of sextons. See Verger.

Shrove Tuesday
This moveable feast is determined by the date of Easter Day. It was customary on this day to confess one’s sins.
Shrove is from the Anglo-Saxon word scrifan, meaning to confess sins.

Bagpiper at Olney Pancake RaceThis man plays the bagpipes every year at the race.

A church official who acts as a caretaker for the interior of the church and who assists the minister.
In a smaller church the offices of verger and sexton may be combined. See Sexton.

Wars of the Roses
The struggle between the Yorkist and Lancastrian descendants of Edward III between 1445 and 1485 (some say 1487) to gain control of the throne of England and of local government.
The House of York’s badge was a white rose, the House of Lancaster, a red one.

Disappearing runner  OlneyI couldn't resist using the photo again.

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