Bonsoir Mesdames, Mademoisdelles...
Ce soir - c'est moi, Mark. And why have I taken over the blog site on this of all days, you may be asking yourselves? Well...today of course is Pancake Day - or to use its proper title Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday marking the first day of Lent.
The story regarding a 'race' taking place on Shrove Tuesday goes back to the folklore that, about 500 years ago in the small market town of Olney in north Buckinghamshire a housewife, whilst in the middle of making pancakes, heard the church bells ringing out for the start of the church service at 12 noon and, desperate not to be late, came out of her house in the High Street still holding her frying pan and bedecked in her apron and ran to the church.
And from that point on began a tradition, upheld to this day in numerous towns up and down the country, of having a 'pancake' race.
But - for me, the Olney pancake race is the 'original' article - and I say that because I happened to not only have been born in the very same High Street from where the story originated, but then lived in the town for the next 20 years.
It was in the 1950s I believe that the then vicar of Olney [Canon Collins, who I knew very well not only because he happened to live next door to us in the vicarage but also christened, confirmed and married me!] decided to put the pancake race story, and Olney in particular, on the map. He contacted the local church in Olney, Maryland, USA - and invited the housewives of that town to take part in what was to become an annual race between the housewives of the two Olneys.
I recall as a youngster being let out of school early in order to watch the race; I remember music prior to the race being played by an American USAF band invited over as US guests specially for the day; I of course remember eating pancakes which were made by the townsfolk in the Church Hall - and I of course remember the race itself - one year being particularly memorable when a TV crew knocked at our door asking whether they could set up their cameras in my bedroom, its window providing a superb vantage point above the crowds as the housewives came running around the corner from the market square en route for the church.
There were only a few eligibility rules for the runners. Minimum age 18 and one must have lived in the town for a specified period of time. Regarding the race itself the pancake, as far as I can recall, had to be tossed no less than 3 times during the course of the race. [I do recall one particular year when, at the word go, a young lady immediately tossed her pancake three times whilst standing at the start line - and then took off along the 400 yards or so to the finish line, beating all to become the winner. It subsequently came out that she was still at school and was their 400 yard hurdling champion!] Anyway, pancake day wasn't complete without the traditional 'party' which took place in the
Church Hall that same evening. Mingling with the runners and townsfolk ( all the shopkeepers in the town, as far as can recall, each provided a prize for the raffle), there was a feeling of excitement and anticipation. Canon Collins was waiting for the telephone call from the USA to see whether the runner from Olney, Maryland had beaten the time of the runner from Olney, UK that year. I don't know what the aggregate score between the two countries is now - but I am sure that the traditional race and the festivities surrounding it are as much a part of the town's culture today as they were when I lived there some 50 years ago.
And to celebrate the occasion - I made pancakes for Shirley and myself today!
And you may be wondering about the choice of music. Well......Canon Collins was also immensely proud of Olney's links with William Cowper (the poet) who lived on the Market square ( his house is now a museum) and his friend John Newton ( the former slave trader who, after being ship-wrecked "saw the light", became reformed, spoke out against the slave trade and eventually became a curate). Newton often visited Cowper - the pulpit which he sometimes preached from when visiting Cowper is still in the church - but he is probably best remembered for the words he wrote about the "amazing grace of God" after surviving the shipwreck. Canon Collins would always ensure that 'Amazing Grace' was on the hymn list on special occasions - and the Shrove Tuesday shriving service was no exception. Having been a chorister in the church choir for many years, I think I know the words of the whole hymn off by heart!
...a la prochaine.