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...