Where: Chipping Camden, Gloucestershire, Southwest England
When: Annually on the Friday after Spring Bank Holiday
What happens: Sack races, shin kicking, and generally violent and silly sports in the second oldest ‘sports’ festival in the world – mentioned in Shakespeare
Remember to bring: Shin protection and your dancing shoes for the after-event party
It may sound like a scene from the school playground but it is actually a countryside tradition dating back four hundred years. The Cotswold Olimpicks attract hundreds of crazy competitors every year and thousands more people come to experience the madness.
History of the Cotswold Olimpicks
Dover Hill, where the games are held, is named after the man who founded the games back in 1612. Robert Dover, a Cambridge graduate – he may be clever but was obviously quite crazy – was given permission by King James I to hold the games which have been running ever since. Dover was known as a fair and good-natured sportsman, and this outlook continues in the games today.
The original festival was intended for farmhands to let their hair down after a hard spring preparing the fields for the coming harvest. It is an event where the local community went completely mad and it’s still going strong today. Mentioned by Shakespeare in the Merry Wives of Windsor, the Cotswold Olimpicks is the second oldest sports festival in the world.
The most popular event remains the medieval-style violent shin kicking contests. One local group’s motto is: “If it ain’t broke, you’re not kicking hard enough”. The aim is to kick your opponent’s shins as many times as possible until you make them fall to the ground. The players are allowed, in good ol’ country style, to have straw stuffed down their trousers to try and soften the blow. If you think this sounds a bit too painful to be fun then spare a though for past contenders: back in the sixteenth century there are records of steel-toe-capped boots being worn, hardening shins with coal hammers in preparation which resulted in, not surprisingly, many a broken leg. Luckily, health and safety regulations took force and its now just good, clean kicking fun.
Other events in the Olympicks include a tug of war, sack races, sledge hammer throwing, and weaving a football through traffic cones.
The day finishes off with a giant fire and fireworks display followed by a spectacular firelight procession down the hill into the town where the locals top up with alcohol and dance the night away to a band – or for those who can still stand up, at least!
Where to stay – West Banqueting House
A grand banquet is held in Cotswold Banqueting Hall after the festival. This seventeenth century banqueting house was a burnt out wreck until it was fully restored by the Landmark Trust -a charity that takes old, dilapidated buildings and restores them to their former glory. At a reasonable cost you can stay anywhere from a lighthouse to a castle. The West Banqueting House dates to around 1613 when the banqueting house would have been used as a place to retire to after dinner in the main house. (The house was burnt to the ground in the Civil War.) It has a large, barrel vaulted chamber on the ground floor which is now the kitchen and dining room, and on the first floor the double bedroom and bathroom contain fragments of the rich and elegant plasterwork and paneling that would once have adorned all the buildings on this site. The second bedroom and sitting room are contained in a separate building a short distance away. It is available for holidays for up to four people.
How to get to Chipping Camden
Chipping Camden is in Gloucestershire in the South West of England, a two-hour drive from London. If you are travelling by coach you need to get off at Moreton-in-the-Marsh and get a local bus to Chipping Camden. Once you get to the town, buses run from the central square up to Dover Hill where the games are held.
Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olympic Games
Telephone: +44 (0) 1384 274041
Official festival website with extensive history of the games
The Landmark Trust
Telephone: +44 (0) 1628 825925
For detail of West Banqueting House