Part 15: The Inspiration for the Modern Olympics

In fact, just as England's first Olimpicks and other festivals were being shut down, a replacement of sorts was beginning barely 60 miles away, in the Shropshire village of Much Wenlock.

These new games, started in 1850, were similar in spirit to Dover's early competition and went on to inspire the Frenchman who founded the modern Olympics.

The Wenlock Olympian Games included ancient contests like racing and modern events such as football.

Their founder, Dr. William Penny Brookes, had read about Dover's Olimpicks in one of his favourite books, which he gave as a prize at the Wenlock event.

Dr. William Penny Brookes

Just as Dover had defended his "harmelesse honest sports" against the Puritans 200 years earlier, Penny Brookes hailed the "harmless recreation" of "Merrie England" and talked of the need to train "a noble, manly race" to build the Empire and prevent the "physical degeneracy" seen in France and America.

However, Penny Brookes had his own puritanical leanings.

As an archetypal Victorian reformer, he believed in temperance.

What's more, it wasn't enough that the games were fun; they had to serve a Higher Moral Purpose.

"As Christians we should, on moral grounds, endeavour to direct the amusement of the working classes—as patriots we should recognise and promote them."

Despite some powerful opponents, the doctor's crusade quickly grew from its village roots to become the National Olympian Association.

Penny Brookes was working on the most ambitious phase—an international event in Athens—when he came across a young Frenchman who had the same goal, as well as the connections to make it happen.

Baron Pierre de Coubertin was that rarest of things: a Frenchman who admired Britain.

The future founder of the Olympics had read Tom Brown's Schooldays and come to believe in its ethos of "muscular Christianity".

"Since ancient Greece has passed away, the Anglo-Saxon race is the only one that fully appreciates the moral influence of physical culture," he wrote.

The 27-year-old made a pilgrimage to Much Wenlock in 1890.

Unfortunately, Penny Brookes died four months before De Coubertin staged the first modern Olympics in 1896.

However, he is still regarded as "the father of the English Olympics", and Wenlock continues to host its games every July.

Meanwhile, Robert Dover's contribution was all but forgotten. Britain's oldest Olimpicks were killed off in 1852 after Rev. Bourne succeeded in enclosing Dover's Hill.

The organisers stayed defiant to the end.

As the vicar won his legal victory in Parliament, they looked to the future: "The celebrated and renowned Olimpic (sic) Games… are esteemed by all brave, true and free-spirited Britons," their posters declared. "The good old times will be revived."

* * *
©J.R. Daeschner

Like what you've read?


Part 14: No Longer Healthy?

For opponents like Rev. Bourne, the best way to stop Dover's Games was to kick them off their turf.

Back in their founder's day, the hilltop had covered 500 acres of open land.

But even then, enclosure had been a threat.

Vast tracts of common land were parcelled up and sold, ostensibly to farm them more efficiently and produce more food for the country's growing population.

The Campden part of Dover's Hill had been enclosed in 1799, so the Olimpicks had moved to the other side, in the parish of Weston Subedge, where Bourne was vicar-for-life.

The young crusader soon launched a campaign to enclose the rest of the hill.

At the same time, officials across the country were trying to shut down other local festivities.

As in the Cotswolds, participants saw their traditions as high-spirited, old-fashioned fun, whereas opponents—often outsiders like Bourne—saw them as lawless, bacchanalian orgies of vice.

West Country native Thomas Hughes, a fair-minded man of the law, wrote nostalgically about shin kicking and backswording in his bestseller, Tom Brown's Schooldays, in 1857.

"Wrestling, as practised in the western counties, was, next to backswording, the way to fame for the youth of the Vale; and all the boys knew the rules of it, and were more or less expert," he recalled.

However, he also acknowledged that rural feasts had deteriorated since his day because of longer working hours and a lack of support by the gentry.

In the end, he reckoned the change was good "if it be that the time for the old 'veast' (feast) has gone by; that it is no longer the healthy, sound expression of English country holidaymaking; that, in fact, we as a nation, have got beyond it, and are in a transition state, feeling for and soon likely to find some better substitute".
©J.R. Daeschner

Like what you've read?


Part 13: An Orgy of Booze, Sex and Crime

In real life, though, the reformers eventually won the tug-o'-war over Dover's Games.

After a clean-up, they briefly became fashionable once again in the early 1800s, portrayed as the training ground for the kind of "muscular Christianity" that had built a global superpower.

From Wikipedia: In this illustration for the novel Hepsey Burke, an Episcopal rector gets little pay because of interference from the rich man at the right, so he shovels stone to support himself and his wife. Here the rector confronts the rich man. 
Within two decades, though, they had degenerated into a marathon orgy of booze, sex and crime.

The Victorian gentry quickly deserted the games (preferring to indulge in those sins privately), giving the lower orders run of the hill for an entire week around the Olimpicks.

Men from the mean streets of Birmingham preyed on country hospitality, ale booths sold alcohol round-the-clock, railroad workers started punch-ups, and "cardsharpers", pickpockets and thieves prowled the hill.

At least, that's the way critics portrayed it.

In 1846, a 25-year-old vicar fresh out of Oxford took over the parish.

George Drinkwater Bourne—surely a teetotaller—was shocked by the pandemonium. He estimated that 30,000 people descended on the area during Dover's Games, or roughly 83 outsiders per local.

A historian who interviewed Bourne wrote that "the games, instead of being as they originally were intended to be decorously conducted, became the trysting place of all the lowest scum of the population which lived in the districts lying between Birmingham and Oxford".

It's tempting to depict the Olimpicks as one of those quaint old festivals that fell victim to puritanical Victorians.

But based on descriptions of the games—from Hobbinol's slapstick brawls and "warm spouting gore" in the 1700s to the rampant crime and "trysting scum" of the mid-1800s—it's clear that they didn't conform to modern ideas of fun days out for the whole family.

In fact, there's nothing like them in Britain today: imagine Xtreme Fighting matches headlining Notting Hill Carnival with a contingent of Hell's Angels thrown in, and you might get some idea of the roughneck Olimpicks.

Oh—and instead of hundreds of police, picture a handful of bobbies trying to control the crowd.

Amid this mayhem, shin kicking and backswording were probably some of the tamer displays of violence on Dover's Hill; at least they had rules and referees.

The most balanced portrayal of the event comes from a man whose mother profited from the chaos—all the while fearing for her life.

Mrs. Stratton was the landlady of a pub in Evesham who sold alcohol and food at Dover's Games every year. She never left her serving tent and always kept a couple of loaded revolvers under the table. Her son explained why:

"No one was safe from the lawlessness… During the daytime the turmoil was terrible, but all night long it was a perfect pandemonium. Cries of murder were often heard, and disorder and rapine held full sway. If the shadow of a person showed through the sheeting of the tent at night, he would almost sure to be struck with a heavy bludgeon from without, and the miscreant would crawl underneath and rob his victim."


Part 12: Ye Olde Wet T-Shirt Contest

A best-selling satire on Methodism in 1773 used the Cotswold Olimpicks as the setting for a confrontation between a would-be firebrand and a bemused mob.

In The Spiritual Quixote, written by local Anglican vicar Richard Graves, a Methodist squire named Geoffry Wildgoose sets out to change the world (on a wild goose chase—geddit?), accompanied by a Sancho Panza sidekick.

Dover's Hill is the site of "Mr. Wildgoose's first Harangue". He views the Olimpicks as "a heathenish assembly… where so many souls are devoted to destruction, by drinking, swearing, and all kinds of debauchery".

As priggish as he is quixotic, he's shocked to see young women shucking their outer garments ahead of a race and "exhibit(ing) themselves before the whole assembly in a dress hardly reconcilable to the rules of decency".

And there's no doubt the races were racy, the closest the 18th century got to a wet T-shirt contest.

In Hobbinol, Somerville worked himself into a lather describing one woman's "amiable figure": "Her heaving breast, through the thin cov'ring view'd,/Fix'd each beholder's eye..."

And the prize—a virtually see-through linen shift—didn't leave much to the imagination, either.

"They may make a poor SHIFT, like the fig-leaves of Eve, to cover the nakedness of your bodies," Wildgoose splutters, jumping up on a basket. "If you have any regard to the health of your souls, shun, as you would the plague, these anti-Christian recreations..."

At first, the crowd mistakes the Methodist for a quack doctor; all they can hear are words like "health" and "plague".

But then they catch what he's really saying: "Instead of bruising the head of that old serpent, the Devil; you are breaking one another's heads with cudgels and quarter-staffs; instead of wrestling against flesh and blood, you are wrestling with one another."

Realising all this God talk might be bad for business, a pub owner starts heckling the Methodist, inciting the crowd to pelt him with dirt, dung and orange peels until they drive him Dover's Hill.

"Thus unsuccessfully ended Wildgoose's first effort towards reforming the world."


Part 11: Warm Spouting Gore

As promised, Somerville delivered all of the above, courtesy of his antihero, Hobbinol, a farmer from the Vale who fights a burly shin-kicking champ from the Wold called Pastorel on Dover's Hill.

The rivals trade vicious blows until:

"The sweat distils, and from their batter'd shins
The clotted gore distains the beaten ground."

At the end, Pastorel nails his challenger's ankle with "a furious stroke", bringing Hobbinol to his knees.

As the champ prepares to celebrate, though, Hobbinol clambers to his feet and throws him out of the ring. The losers from the Wold start a brawl, and:

"Like bombs the bottles fly
Hissing in the air, their sharp-edged fragments drench'd
In the warm spouting gore."

A justice of the peace (not unlike Somerville) stops the carnage—just in time for more "warm spouting gore" to begin.

No one wants to fight the reigning backswords champ—a slaughterman with a smashed nose and missing eye—so Hobbinol takes up the challenge.

Although he's smaller than Gorgonius, he's quicker on his feet… and he fights dirtier.

Instead of aiming for the giant's head, he attacks his shins with his cudgel.

The low blows infuriate the Cotswold Cyclops so much that he drops his guard.

Hobbinol then cracks him over the skull, sending him crashing out of the ring.

Somerville was a fan of Hogarth's; this is a spoof of the latter's "Gin Lane"

Although the Puritans had long since fallen from power, Somerville's moralising shows that their reforming zeal was still a force.

Around the same time, a minister at nearby Stow-on-the-Wold singled out "Dover's Meetings" as examples of "profanations of the Lord's Day by the bodily exercise of wrestling and cudgel-playing".

Other reformers shared his views, particularly the spiritual heirs of the Puritans mocked as "Methodists".


Part 10: First Blood and the Infirmities of Our People

Straddling both the Wold and the Vale, Dover's Hill provided neutral territory for bloody prizefights, and for over two centuries, the main attractions at Britain's homegrown Olimpicks were also the bloodiest.

In theory, backswording, or cudgel "play", was less brutal than shin kicking (which was known simply as wrestling throughout much of the West Country).

Opponents whacked each other with sticks until one wound up with a "broken head," verified by a trickle of blood at least an inch long on the scalp (an extension of the "first blood" rule in duelling).

A deft gamester could graze a scalp with surgical precision. But in practice, both backswording and shin kicking frequently degenerated into bloody spectacles, with participants often maiming—and occasionally even killing—each other.

Incredibly, some hard nuts competed in both sports on the same day.

Not surprisingly, many women disapproved of the sports. Accounts from the 1700s and 1800s (written by men, naturally) depict wives and girlfriends trying to stop their lovers from joining the fun.

Apart from the possibility that women are indeed smarter than men, shrieking Blood! Blood! with the crowd wasn't very ladylike.

What's more, women had to cope with the consequences of such wilful stupidity, nursing the broken heads and bloodied shins.

For their part, the men fought for love rather than money. Not the love of their womenfolk, you understand; simply because they loved to fight.

Of course, there were prizes to be won—a gold ring, laced hat or half a dozen belts or gloves—but neither shin kicking nor backswording would make you rich.

A typical country backsword contest in 1778 promised "Half a Guinea… to each Man breaking a Head, and Half a Crown to each Man having his Head broken."

In modern money, that's barely £80 for bashers and £20 for bashees.

The first graphic account of shin kicking and backswording on Dover's Hill comes from William Somerville, a local justice of the peace who emulated Hogarth.

While the famous painter satirised the excesses of Gin Lane London, the country squire targeted "the luxury, the pride, the wantonness, and quarrelsome temper of the middling sort of people" responsible for the poverty and "bare-faced knavery" in the world (though tragically, he didn't end up much better than his subjects, dying a penniless alcoholic).

For Somerville, Dover's Games were proof that England was going to pot.

"A country-wake is too sad an image of the infirmities of our own people," he wrote in the introduction to his satiric poem, Hobbinol, in 1740. "We see nothing but broken heads, bottles flying about, tables overturned, outrageous drunkenness, and eternal squabble."


Part 9: The Trysting Place of the Lowest Scum

As it stands, Annalia Dubrensia is the ultimate in vanity publishing, compiled at a time when every self-styled Renaissance man imagined himself a poet.

One typically overblown effort compares "Cotswold Hill" to Mount Olympus and Dover to Hercules; whereas the latter took five years to organise the ancient games, though, the English showman had pulled off his Herculean feat in just one year.

When Dover's admirers weren't praising him, they were scoring points off the Puritans.

Jonson's 10-line epigram—some of the last verse he wrote—ends with a veiled swipe at religious "hipocrites, who are the worst… Let such envie, till they burst."

Ironically, the same year that was published, a puritanical vicar took over at Campden. And eight years later, the Civil War stopped Dover's Games.

Puritans and Royalists began fighting with weapons rather than words, and bloody skirmishes replaced ritualised combat on Dover's Hill.

The "Cotswold Genius" passed away in 1652, aged 70, his beloved games seemingly consigned to history.

In the battle over sports, it appeared the Puritans had finally won.

After the restoration of the monarchy, though, Dover's Games quickly bounced back.

Instead of his high-minded Olimpicks, though, they reverted to their hard-knock origins. Out went Dover's classical pretensions; in came knockdown, drag-out fights—between combatants and spectators.

Local alehouses began sponsoring the event (just as beer companies sponsor boxing today), and Dover's Olimpick spirit quickly drowned in Olympian amounts of spirits.

Once hailed as England's very own Mount Olympus, Dover's Hill was eventually condemned as "the trysting place of the lowest scum".

Young bucks from the Wold—the hills around Campden—would spar against their rivals from the Vale of Evesham, reflecting a medieval rivalry that continues to this day.

Market towns like Campden have long looked down on farmers in the valley.

"The Wold got their origins as sheep and market towns for the wool industry in the Middle Ages. The Vale people are agriculturists, they grow—well, their prized growth is asparagus," laughs Olimpick historian Francis Burns.

"You talk to the locals in Chipping Campden about Broadway, and they talk about them as if they were a different race down there. And it's what—five miles? And they talk about those funny folk down there."


Part 8: Shakespeare and the English Olimpicks

To win royal backing for his May games, Dover could count on two powerful allies who just happened to have country homes in the area.

The new lord of Campden, Sir Baptist Hicks, was one of the richest Britons ever—a multibillionaire by today's standards—who made his fortune selling fine cloth to James I and then lending him the money to buy it (plus interest).

Dover's other courtly connection was Endymion Porter, a kinsman and native of the area who was a trusted adviser to both the king and his son.

After James died in 1625, Porter persuaded Charles I to donate some of his father's cast-offs—a plumed hat and ruff—to Dover.

Despite James' notoriously questionable hygiene, the showman wore them with pride at the games.

In fact, the only known portrait of Dover shows him as Master of Ceremonies, kitted out in the dead king's hand-me-downs (possibly cut from cloth supplied by Sir Baptist).

Mounted on a white steed, he would ride through the crowd bestowing yellow silk ribbons on men and women; some gallants supposedly wore the yellow favours all year-round.

Dover broadened the games' appeal by combining newly fashionable sports like horseracing with plebeian pastimes: throwing the hammer, spurning the bar and, of course, shin kicking.

Food and drink abounded alongside scandalous pleasures like mixed-sex dancing, while the centrepiece of the celebrations was a wooden castle, complete with a flag and real cannons (supposedly donated by King Charles) that were fired at the start of each event, echoing a similar tradition in London's theatres.

With their royal cachet, the games quickly became the biggest spectacle of their kind at the time.
Jaded trendsetters from London travelled to see them as an alternative to Bath and the Spring Gardens in Hyde Park.

Suddenly, England's country games were no longer rusticke; Dover had made them Olimpick, in keeping with the Renaissance vogue for antiquity.

And just in case anyone missed the connection, he had a musician dress up like Homer and walk around plucking a harp (the Iliad contains the earliest reference to the Olympian Games).

The first poet to dub England's Games "Olimpick" was Michael Drayton, a contemporary of Shakespeare's who helped compile a flowery tribute to Dover called Annalia Dubrensia.

Published in 1636, the book's frontispiece shows Dover as a stout middle-aged gent and also provides one of the earliest illustrations of shin kicking: two men in breeches grip each other's arms and hack at each other's tibias.

Although most of the 33 contributors were Dover's friends and relatives, the project did attract some well-known writers, including Ben Jonson.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare died long before he could be pressed into singing Dover's praises. But that hasn't stopped Campden's boosters from searching for the Holy Grail of the heritage industry: any link between the Bard and their town.

Some point to a remark in The Merry Wives of Windsor as a reference to the Cotswold Olimpicks ("How does your fallow greyhound, sir? I heard he was outrun on Cotsall").

But that's probably much ado about nothing: greyhound racing was common in the Cotswolds.

Still, Shakespeare probably would have known about the games simply because they were too big to be missed; what's more, Stratford is only 10 miles from Campden, and the Bard retired to his hometown the same year that Dover started his Olimpicks.

The two men had friends and relatives in common—and compatible personalities—but whether Bill ever met Bob is anybody's guess.


Part 7: Peeving the Puritans

Scoff if you will, but Campden's homespun Olimpicks provide a truer reflection of the ancient Olympian spirit than their more famous international counterparts.

Some events may not have the glamour and suspense of say, competitive walking or synchronised swimming, but what they lack in grandeur, they more than make up for in pedigree.

Founded in 1612, the Cotswold Olimpicks represented the first successful attempt to revive the spirit of the Greek Olympian Games, predating their modern pretenders by nearly 300 years: for better or worse, the English were the main guardians of the Olympic flame between antiquity and the modern age—a fact cited by the British Olympic Association in its winning pitch to host the London 2012 Olympics.

Campden owes its Olimpick link to an outsider who transformed the area's rural pastimes into a fashionable spectacle sanctioned by the Crown.

A country boy from Norfolk, Robert Dover studied law in London during the years when Shakespeare was writing King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest—with high-calibre competition from the likes of Ben Jonson.

So when Dover returned to the country, settling in the Cotswolds as a newly qualified barrister, his head was full of Renaissance ideals. And, like any good Royalist (and closet Catholic), he hated Puritans.

Decades before they actually started killing each other, the Royalists and the Puritans fought a war of words over a seemingly unlikely subject—sports.

The Puritans, gaining ground around Campden, believed the English were sports mad (even back then) and condemned the drunkenness and violence at country festivals.

However, Royalists argued that games were "harmlesse mirth and jollitie," as Dover put it. So when the opportunity came to organise a sports extravaganza near his new home, he quickly took up the challenge.

Not only would it be fun, it would peeve the Puritans.

Part 6: Saucy Chaucer: The Canterbury Tails

Once they've left, though, Campden reverts to its carefully preserved beauty.

In the late afternoon, the high street seems to glow in the setting sun, and if you try hard enough, you can just about imagine what the medieval market town must have looked like centuries ago.

Failing that, you can always rent an X-rated video.

The tourist office doesn't like to brag about it (I can't imagine why), but Campden served as a film location for an adult version of The Canterbury Tales, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1971.

The choice of Campden was a neat coincidence. The oldest house on the high street was built by William Grevel, a wool merchant roughly the same age as Geoffrey Chaucer. Indeed, the two men probably knew each other from their dealings in London.

Both were important players in the wool trade (albeit on opposite sides of the law), with Chaucer the customs official in charge of Wools, Skins and Hides, while Grevel was a wheeler-dealer and moneylender to Richard II, a factor that no doubt helped him win a pardon "for all unjust and excessive weighings and purchases of wool".

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer satirised Grevel's type as the archetypal Merchant, a spiv who brags about profits even though he's secretly in debt.

How times change…

Nearly six centuries later, Pasolini axed all of Chaucer's religious stories to focus on the bawdy ones in what is best described as Saucy Chaucer: The Canterbury Tails, a tacky spaghetti-sex flick featuring a mostly English cast dubbed in Italian.

In other words, you can read the actors' lips (along with the subtitles), but what you hear is Italian.

"Pasolini wasn't too bothered about the acting," a bit player recalled. "When one actor forgot his lines, he was told to just count to ten and it would be dubbed into Italian later."

The X-rated film's "stars", such as they were, included Oscar-winner Hugh Griffith (best supporting actor in Ben-Hur) and Charlie Chaplin's daughter, Josephine, in "The Merchant's Tale" episode; sex farce stalwart Robin Askwith as a hooligan who urinates on a crowd before being killed (something that never happened in the Confessions series, unfortunately); Tom Baker and his, um, sonic screwdriver three years before he took over as Dr. Who; and finally, Pasolini as Chaucer, four years before his murder at the hands of a rent-boy.

At the risk of making it sound more interesting than it actually is, the movie features bare bottoms and bodily functions galore; full male and female nudity; assorted straight, gay and three-in-a-bed sex; adultery and prostitution; fellatio, sodomy, masturbation, voyeurism, flagellation and torture; as well as surreal shots of a friar in bed with a watermelon and some chickens, horned demons buggering humans in Hell, and close-up shots of Satan's anus as he defecates sinful monks in a bout of friar-rhoea.

The whole shebang ends with a fart and a hymn.

For the scenes in Campden, the crew transformed it into a medieval market town, complete with dirt and straw covering the high street, serfs and geese gambolling around, and an apothecary selling his potions in the market hall.

Hay bales acted as fig leaves for the indecencies of 20th century development.

Even so, eagle-eyed viewers claim you can spot rogue TV antennas in Campden's high street.

What with all the naked flesh on display during the rest of the film, though, these nitpickers were clearly missing the bigger picture.

* * *
©J.R. Daeschner

Like what you've read?


Part 5: Trollopes and Knickers

In any event, Cobbett has had plenty of company, past and present, in critiquing the Cotswolds.

A cleric visiting in 1836 declared Campden "a dull, clean, disused market town".

More recently, Joanna Trollope, the grande dame of cottage-in-the-country fiction, dissed her native Gloucestershire in terms that made the Cotswolds sound like the Third World.

"Children in these honey-coloured villages go to school with no underclothes," she claimed. "Teachers in the beautiful Cotswolds find pupils scavenging through rubbish bins."

Fellow Cotswold resident Jilly Cooper gamely agreed: "The county has got jolly rough areas… Where I live is ravishingly pretty. There's a gorgeous village school. I have no idea if the children in it are wearing knickers or not. But there are problems in some areas with poverty."

A famous Trollope's remarks about knickers were bound to have outsiders in stitches—"Rural Idyll Caught With Its Pants Down," sniggered The Guardian.

But the residents of Britain's biggest "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" were not amused. After all, talk like that can drive down property prices.

"We just hope people do not take her comments too seriously," a tourist official said. "I have never seen anyone knickerless in the Cotswolds."

Well, that's a relief.

Knickers firmly intact, Campden manages to attract plenty of well-to-do outsiders, including retirees, weekenders and "merchant bankers (who) buy mansions with their bonuses," to quote Trollope.

For moneyed newcomers, Campden represents the best of both worlds: a typically English setting, complemented by the finer (foreign) things in life.

It's the kind of place where you could easily hear a transplanted Londoner say: "Dinner at the taverna sounds fine, dear. I'm going to nip to the shop for some marmalade and Le Monde."

In short, the town is the epitome of England's "in Europe, but not of Europe" stance—the equivalent of having your cake… and eating it.

Inevitably, Campden is also a magnet for whistle-stop tourists looking to "do" the Cotswolds in as little as 24 hours.

In 1931, a travel writer walked 20 miles around the area without seeing a single car; nowadays, you'd be doing well to walk a mile without seeing 20 cars.

"Too… many… visitors," complains Ben Hopkins when I ask him about the changes he's seen in the newly styled "Capital of the North Cotswolds".

"Tisn't the traffic so much—it's the coaches, stop in the middle of town, spew out about 50,000 foreigners a year. I don't think they do the town any good. They walk up and down, and then they get in and go. Half an hour, hour, and gone."
©J.R. Daeschner

Like what you've read?

Part 4: The Most Beautiful Village Street in the Island

Strolling through Campden today, it's hard to imagine that this affluent, honey-gold town in the Cotswold Hills was once a virtual Mount Olympus of shin kicking.

With its artists' studios, antiques shops, and upmarket hotels and restaurants, Chipping Campden seems too well-heeled to have ever hosted a blood sport like shin kicking (the "chipping" prefix is a reference to its former status as a market town, rather than the damage inflicted by footfighting).

For many visitors—Brits and foreigners alike—the Cotswolds in general and Campden in particular represent their dream of the English countryside made reality.

Green fields and hedges surround the town, and its gently curved high street seems to have been hewn from a single block of grey-gold Cotswold stone.

G.M. Trevelyan, a popular historian of the 1940s, called it "the most beautiful village street now left in the island", which naturally made it "the most beautiful in Europe".

Chipping Campden Market Hall by John Davis

Much of this beauty dates from the era of the Golden Fleece, when England's wealth came off the back of Cotswold sheep.

Campden's oldest mansion, built by a wool merchant in the 14th century, features a sundial, gargoyles, and a novel form of ventilation for the time (chimneys rather than holes punched in the roof).

Further down stands a timber market hall, the Jacobean focal point amid the rows of Georgian and Regency-era houses, wood-beamed tearooms and pubs and coaching inns with arched carriageways leading off into courtyards.

At the end of the mile-long high street, the large church towers over what little is left of Campden's 17th-century manor house, the exotic fantasy of Sir Baptist Hicks, one of the richest Britons of all time.

Still, not everyone has been bowled over by Campden and the Cotswolds.

William Cobbett slated the area in his Rural Rides in 1826. In the first place, he wrote, the name was all wrong: "Cotswold Hills" was a tautology, since wold means hill. Worse, he thought the region was "an ugly country" with "less to please the eye than any other I have ever seen".

Maybe that was because back then, the buildings were whitewashed, covering up their golden stone.
©J.R. Daeschner

Like what you've read?

Part 3: The Beginning of All That

However, their biggest stunt was yet to come.

"We dug our own graves on Dover's Hill," Ben says.

While a marching band distracted the crowd, Ben and Joe, wearing neckerchiefs and old-fashioned shepherd's smocks, slipped into their shallow graves covered by coffin boards and turf.

After the band finished, two men disguised as poachers came walking up the hill carrying a jug of cider.

"I got a rabbit down 'ere!" one of them shouted and started digging frantically.

To the crowd's surprise, the poachers soon discovered the graves and lifted the shin kickers onto the ground.

"They lay us down, give us a drink of cider, and we started shin kickin'."

The BBC was on hand to record the event in a black-and-white newsreel that opens with pastoral music and scenic shots of Campden and its Olimpicks.

"Among the villages of the Cotswolds was found renewed proof last week that the Festival is Britain's," intones a tea-and-crumpets voice. "At Chipping Campden, it was marked by seven days of celebrations, including a revival of the Cotswold Games."

Cut to Ben and Joe locked in combat, swiping at each other's legs. When one of them swings, the other jumps back.

"A favourite item then was always a shin-kicking contest, brought to life again this day by two local young men. They have volunteered to resurrect this duel and show how shins were broken years ago."

Ben and Joe kicked and feinted until they got tired, having decided beforehand who would lose.

"I lost the toss," Ben says. "It was really good, I thought. And that was the beginning of all that."

* * *
©J.R. Daeschner

Like what you've read?

Part 2: Best Done Among Friends

In the spirit of revival, the organisers decided to resurrect the sadistic sport, if only for show.

Ben was roped in when his best friend, Joe Chamberlain, volunteered. "I didn't mind, I thought it was a bit of fun," he chuckles. "We were young and silly."

Both married and in their thirties, Ben and Joe could have been siblings, what with their hooded eyes and jutting jaws.

In a photo from the time, they're standing side by side laughing, brothers in arms, one in a pinstriped jacket and paisley tie, the other in a flat cap and overalls.

Although Joe worked in town at the chemist's and Ben was a farmer, they lived next door to each other in Campden; the couples would nip into each other's houses for tea and conversation—"very sociable, like".

And shin kicking—even the pretend kind—was best done among friends.

One over-enthusiastic swing would be enough to infuriate anyone and turn a good-natured display into a grudge match. Ben and Joe tried to check their blows, kicking hard enough to make it look realistic but pulling back just before impact. They also had padding sewn inside their trousers.

"Not real padding," Ben says. "It was just a double thickness on our trousers."

"They Call It Sport, But We Say It's Plain Crazy!" a newspaper exclaimed, with a photo of Ben kicking wildly at Joe's bare shins (but missing by a country mile).

Shin kickers of yore supposedly prepared by deadening their legs with hammers. So Ben pretended to do the same for reporters:

"Tom Barnes, a 79-year-old local blacksmith, skilfully swung his seven-pound hammer to fall with a thump on the shinbone of 34-year-old farmer Ben Hopkins. And Ben, he winced a little, then—'A little harder if you please, Tom,'—he said.

Tom obliged."

©J.R. Daeschner

Like what you've read?

Part 1: Ye Olde Bloode Sport: Shin Kicking at Chipping Campden

Not many men live to dig their own grave, let alone climb out of it. But Ben Hopkins was planning to do just that in the summer of 1951.

The Festival of Britain had revitalised the nation, boosting morale at a time when there were still shortages of food and housing six years after World War Two.

In London, the organisers of the five-month extravaganza strained to look to the future, commissioning fantastical attractions called Skylon, the Dome of Discovery and the Outer Space Pavilion.

However, in the old Cotswold town of Chipping Campden, the locals planned to celebrate their Britishness by doing what came naturally: reliving the past.

The festival's timing happened to mark nearly a century since the abolition of a little-known event that linked England with the ancient Olympian Games and the modern Olympics.

England's very own "Cotswold Olimpicks" had been held since at least 1612 on Dover's Hill outside Campden and survived until 1852, when rowdiness gave the authorities an excuse to shut it down.

Ninety-nine years later, the people of Chipping Campden decided to revive their old-fashioned Olimpicks as their contribution to Britain's Festival.

Instead of standard track-and-field events, these Olimpicks would feature tug-o'-war, sack races, morris dancing, greasy-pole climbing and "throwing the sheaf"—hurling a hay bale with a pitchfork.

But it fell to Ben and a friend to re-enact the most infamous sport of them all: shin kicking, a brutal form of wrestling once common in England, Wales, and parts of America.

Contestants would square off, lock arms and hack at each other's shins until one of them was thrown to the ground.
Photo by Emma Wood
In the old days, shin kickers wore metal toecaps on their boots, leaving losers—and winners—with permanently dented shinbones.

Some were crippled for life, and a few even died from their injuries. As a result, the pastime itself died out by the early 1900s.
©J.R. Daeschner

Like what you've read?
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...