Maggie and I got to witness this year’s presentation of a 400-year old tradition: the Robert Dover Games, aka the Cotswold Olimpicks. That’s not a misspelling; the town of Chipping Campden is proud of its heritage, and they like to bring it back alive in any way they can. The Olimpicks is a celebration of sports that have been played in the English countryside for a long time. Some are familiar: tug-of-war, sack racing, log throwing, and “champion of the hill”- a foot race up a steep incline. Others are not as well known, like welly wanging – a contest to see who can throw a rubber farmer’s boot (called a welly, short for Wellington) with the most distance and accuracy; there’s also dwile flonking, which is essentially dodge ball played with a wet bar rag, and the dodgers have to keep dancing while they dodge. The Olimpicks doesn’t have all those sports every year, so it’s like a box of chocolates (Except for one event, the shin kicking, that happens every year; more on that later.)
This year, the games began with a few warm up acts: we saw a couple of dance troupes and a demonstration of a sword fight between two medieval knights. Then an actor playing the games’ founder, Robert Dover rides in on a horse with his entourage walking behind. Everybody is decked out in medieval garb, which would have been way out of fashion by the 1600’s, but that’s nit picking.
After the procession, the competitions started. This year there were a lot of relay races: a sack race, a wheel barrow relay over an obstacle course, a race while bouncing on big rubber balls, and a competition between teams trying to fill trash cans with water, using small leaky buckets. The last two were run on plastic sheeting drenched in dishwashing soap, with people throwing buckets of water at the contestants (not traditional, but fun to watch. That ended with a water fight with the filled trash cans, followed by winners and losers alike joining in sliding across the plastic sheeting – on their bellies, backs, or knees.
The most popular sport (with the fans, anyway) is probably the least played: the shin kicking. That’s pretty much what it sounds like: two guys (always guys, no comment needed) grab each other by the shoulders and kick each other in the shins. As the web site says,”the hillsides ring with the sound of boot on bone.” That goes on until one of the kickers falls down. Two falls out of three wins the match. Even in such a savage game, there are rules: no kicking above the knee; no pulling your opponent to the ground; the only protective gear allowed is straw shoved up the pants, and only leather shoes are allowed – no steel toed boots. The rules are enforced by a “stickler” (yes, that is where that word comes from).
This year, there were several preliminary matches, then the final match to determine The Shin Kicking World Champion. Adam Miller defended his title against Zac Warren, a previous world champion. The preliminary matches had been relatively quick; this one went on and on. In the end, Adam Miller was declared the winner on a TKO when Zac Warren couldn’t stand up to go back in the ring. I think we were all a little relieved. There’s a video of the event on YouTube if you’re interested in seeing more.
After dark, there was a fire eaters’ act on top of the hill: a trio of trashy looking women scantily dressed in semi-ripped clothes. I suppose the tricks they were doing were pretty standard for fire eating, but they had my attention.
The fire eaters were followed by one of the better fireworks shows we’ve seen in a while. Where in the U.S., the grande finale is usually the part where they let off a bunch of explosions all at once, here they did that, and kept going. They went back to single fireworks that just kept getting bigger and bigger. It was more amazing because it was so close; they were letting the fireworks off in the valley, and we were on top of the hill, so they were exploding right in front of us. I’m sure it was totally safe, but it felt like they wouldn’t get away with that at home.
Finally, the last event on the hill: the bonfire: a mountain of various wood scraps dumped into a giant receptacle that looked like a trash can. All of that disappeared when the lit the fire, though. Nothing but flames and sparks lighting up the night.
We had bought torches earlier, now we all lit our torches from the bonfire or somebody else’s torch, and we started a procession back to town. Maggie had described a silent procession form previous years, but this time it was pretty raucous. For a little while, we got caught in front of some teenage boys that just wanted to hear the sound of their voices. I think I would have preferred the silence.
Back in town, we extinguished our torches in in the bins provided, and they started up a street party of the young folks. It was bed for Maggie and me – we’d had a long and memorable day already.