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The International Writers Magazine: UK Traditions

Some Fools on a Hill
Darren Skelton

Hoose agin hoose, toon agin toon, if thee meet a man, knock 'im down - but don't hurt 'im!"
As the sun came up, we all rose from bed as fresh as a daisy looking forward to a nice cup or two of tea, bacon & lincolnshire sausage butties dripping in that fat and HP sauce combination. Also, for some lounging in front of the SKY box flipping between ‘The world’s deadliest catch’ (awesome documentary that documents life on a crab trawler in the tough North Atlantic Ocean), and Soccer AM (amusing football show (although not as amusing as I had remembered it to be)) whilst waiting for the game to begin (and not the FA cup!).

Well that was the theoretical plan anyway. Alas, as all great plans go, it went wrong for us. ‘We’ being my wife who had accompanied myself back over to England to visit this incredulous event (and spend Christmas with the folks – round our way you see ‘Hood Day’ is bigger and better than Chrsitmas Day itself), my brother who had recently moved back up north and a mate from London (LuoBeTe – a good lad for a southerner). We are here this day to take part in the ancient game of ‘Haxey Hood’ played out in the village of Haxey (my home village) in South Yorkshire.

Woke up with a slightly fuzzy head is what we did do. Reason being that the night before we’d been for a couple of shandies around the village where the local Haxey Hood party were touring around the village pubs, having a pint of bitter (no lager allowed for the boggins apparently), showing off the leather hood itself, collecting money for local charities and a having a good old sing song (such classics as ‘farmer’s boy’ & ‘cannons’), as tradition dictates. The evening before the game you see, the Hood party meet up in one of the four village pubs and then tour around the other three, and they’ve been around the whole Isle of Axholme in the proceeding six evenings (that is no small number of pubs, no small number of pints and hopefully no small amount of money collected).

We’d gone for the walk up to The Loco (partly to stretch our legs after a heavy dinner / tea and partly to show my mate the sights of Haxey (this can be done quite quickly to be fair)). It was quiet in there, so we supped our pints and reminsiced over tales of this and that before heading on down through the now pouring rain to The Kings. In there it was not quiet, it was indeed very busy as The Hood Party were in and were half way through their first song (Farmer’s Boy) as we hastened in through the front door. I sent my brother off to battle with the bar, ordered the missus to get some good shots off with the digital camera and I found a good filming position with the video camera to begin my documentation of events (my mate kind of stood around in that lost kind of way you do sometimes when in strange places watching strange happenings with strange people).

I’ll give you a breakdown on the competing pubs as the time seems appropriate:

l: The Carpenters Arms (Loccated in the neighbouring ‘enemy’ village ofWestwoodside) – 2007 winners of the game. Good name for a pub one would think and all them are amusing when you transalte it into Chinese as my wife did. A little on the small side one would say and a place with not much going on really.

2: The Duke William (Haxey) – the pub located nearest to the field where the game is played and hence is the busiest on hood day (ludicrously small bar does not help either). I used to play football for this pub in my younger days when i lived in the village so i rememeber it (and the post match spare ribs, pint of orange squash followed by a couple of pints and the lazy Sunday afternoon watching the footy on the box) fondly. Now the place seems a little tired (and smelly) as the decoration has not altered since England last had a quality football team worthy of winning a major football tournament (which of course would be the 1996 Terry Venables team – which you may or may not agree with))

3: The Loco (Haxey) – located conveniently next door to the Duke. My current favourite Haxey pub, decorated very comfortably inside (big leather sofas for slouching) and with a train theme (hence the name) tastefully done inside, lots of space but not too spacy, a large back room with pool table and whopping great Haxey Hood mural on the wall and also with a room a attached on doing Indian food (and Sunday roasts too!).

4: The Kings (Haxey) – used to be called the Kings Arms, but it seems the Arms part of the name has been gotten rid of these days for some reason. It is also the closest pub to my (mother’s) house and so happens to be my brother’s favourite as he is one lazy sod and he use to play footy for their team (thus we were sporting rivals in the cut and thrust of Sunday morning pub football leagues, and yet we played for the same village team (Haxey Town) in the Saturday league).

I love pub names, I think they are great, they just trot of the tongue nicely. For example: ‘I’m off to The Duke to watch the footy’ or ‘See you down the Kings for a pint’ and even ‘fancy a game of pool up in The Loco?’. These expressions should fit nicely into ESL teaching text books and Rough Guides to England for your intrepid backpackers from Norway. Over in the village to the other side there is ‘The White Bear’, ‘The Queens Head’ and ‘The Red Lion’, all superbly English sounding pubs. I live overseas you see in a place where there are basically no pubs (only some naff bars (however – the KTV houses are mighty fine fun places), which is a shame really as they are wonderful places.

We are kitted out in our not finest and our not best as we are expecting a muddy day ahead. My wife is wearing a fetching pair of wellington boots though for the occasion (espacially bought they were). We take a stroll on over the trod (not a word i hear often enough if you ask me), pass by a couple walking their rather large dogs, a lady riding an even larger horse (scary things horses – bigger than you imagine) and some unruly kids messing around on bikes (homework nah?). The sun is out, the sky is clear and it is looking liking a good day for some fun and antics.

We get up to the high street area heading towards our first port of call, The Loco public house. It has just gone ten in the morning and there are already perhaps thirty to forty folk in the bar with an alcoholic bevarge of some description in their hand. We’ve come for the full Engligh Hood breakfast, available for one and all upon payment of five english pounds, which to me is an absolute bargain when one remembers it is not my five english pounds that is paying for it. Anyhow, we order from the bar lady four full ones and decline her invitation to order an alocoholic beverage as we just feel the sun is not yet high enough in the sky for such things.

We plonk down in the corner and realise we will be in need of a beverage of some description to quench our thirsts. Play ‘paper, scissors & stones’ (a fair game to solve most issues – one the UN should note) to establish my kid brother must go and obtain some glasses of orange juice from the bar for us all. He comes back with fours cans of coke as they are the only soft drinks on offer for the day. Fair enough. Out come the breakfasts and we all have an enjoyable slow eat, polishing off everything on the plate except for that nasty looking black pudding stuff….urgh. In come the hood party for the pint of bitter, glass of port and full english feed, and I notice some of them are looking worse for wear from last night or have had a few already (or both – who knows?).

Full and happy we decide to move out (apart from my brother who is now heading back down the road to the Kings we he aims to spend the next twelve hours of his life as he does every year), onwards and upwards, past the Duke we go (also offering breakfast we note), past the old church (very aesthetic church it is too – and we my parents got my maarried I do believe) and up towards the water tower on the hill seperating the two villages. We bump into an uncle and some cousins heading in the opposite direction to us, walk some more and bump into another cousin I’ve not seen for over 20 years (plus wife and kid), all in all it will be a day of bumping into many Aunts & Uncles and even more cousins. We pop in to say hello to Nanna number one and make small talk until yet another relative rocks up to take over on the conversation front, so we take leave. We pop in to visit Nanna number two as it is also on our route today and make yet small talk. Eventually we get on down to the Carpentars Arms in Westwoodside.

It is now a more reasonable hour as it has just passed 11am so my friend gets the round in: a pint of smooth (Smiths), a pint of lager (dunno which one and don't care) and a glass of orange juice for the lady. These three drinks my mate informs me cost him three pounds and sixty pence, a price absurdly low that a mistake must have occurred somewhere along the line. It had as I discovered on my trip to the bar for the next round.

It’s busy inside so we retreat outside for a while as the sun is shining warmly on this January day. Pass the time outside until the hood party rock up for the traditional painting of the face for the fool (he is already dressed in rags – colourful rags, he just needs his face done up to finish him off). This part of the day I’ve never seen before so I find it quite intriging myself.

As the hood party duly arrive we sneak back in the back door and try to position ourselves a good view of proceedings. This unfortunately is decidely more difficult than we’d imagined but yet we get a good spot by the back door to the main lounge. The hood party pour in the front door and things get remarkably cramped very quickly. Pints of bitter are pased over heads from the bar over to the hood party.

Dale, aka ‘The fool’, hence forth rushes very promptly and very pale faced out of the bar towards the bathroom vicinity. His pal and a boggin buddy quickly follow to assist him. He is looking worse for wear I have to say, and he has a pivotal role to play in the proceedings today. He seems to find a bit of colour for his cheeks in the bathroom and he strides purposely back towards the main bar, passing us on the way where we get a cracking photo of him and he comments that my wife’s wellington boots are perhaps the best he has seen for a long time – this makes her quite happy indeed.
Inside he gets his face all painted up for the day by the chief boggin I do believe it is, so finishing up his attire for the day. Rather splendid he looks to with his hat, his baton and his rags of coloured clothes. This done, the hood party head straight into their barrage of three songs for the session in this pub. We get some good camera shots and have a half decent view of what is going on.

For those of you who fancy hearing some of the songs that are sung:

This done we get a quick pint in and have a a sit down as most people depart the pub to head on over to Haxey. This we need to do now promptly ourselves as some uni mates are gonna be meeting me in the Duke back over in Haxey. Most of the family clan will also be already parked up in the Duke aswell in what is now ‘our’ corner of the Duke pub as my Uncle Malcom solely declares and to be fair the family is usually out in good numbers in that corner.

The church area and the high street area is much busier than a couple of hours ago, people standing in the streets in small groups of family and friends, all drinking cans and bottles from there bags and rucksacks. No one seems to care about this as is practical after all (being that you cannot physically get all these people into the bar) and the police dotted around turn a blind eye.

I do however wonder to myself how long it will be before the funstoppers (police, local authorites, Mr Brown and probable pedantic new villagers) get the hump and try to put a stop to such a day on the grounds of health and safety and all that melarky.

The Duke is all laid bare, there is plastic sheeting on the floor, pictures have been taken off the wall and there are no chairs or tables to be found at all. It is meant for standing room only.

Get in the pub, meet my mate Mark and his wife (who is somewhat worryingly wearing high heeled shoes) plus Dave and Gaz (good names them eh). Have a quick pint and a bit of banter with them before my mother catches us and hauls us off into the corner in preperation for the hood party. Here in the corner they’ve brought their own bags of booze into the pub also so they do not even have to bother trying to get to the bar in such busy times.

Some guy comes in close to the bar at the end of where we are all situated and orders twenty pints of bitter, much to the displeasure of others waiting. Still ,these beers are for the hood party and they’ll be heading in shortly (following their trip into the Kings and the Loco). And so they do, and so do many others behond them. Now, the place is absolutly packed to the rafters, people are wall to wall and you really cannot go anywhere, we have now even clambered up upon the side chairs of our corner for a better view and to make more space.

My Uncle Malcom and Uncle Terry have manouvered themselves in with the hood party to join in the singing (many moons ago you see my Uncle Malcom was involved in all this officially as the fool… how ironic one would say if you saw the guy and the braces he wears). The place has become unbelieveably hot now and people are sweating buckets.
Once they’ve got their beer, they all have a swig amongst themselves and crack on once more into their set of songs. This is the last pub stop of the day, the last singing of the songs and so they blast a good version of these ones out (fueled now by copious beers). As ever it starts with Farmers Boy (I even know a few words of this one), followed by John Barleycorn (possibly my new favourite after this session) and finishing with a rousing rendition of Cannons.

People filter out a bit after the songs giving some space and we get to chat to some of the hood party a bit. There is Karl and Phil Palmer from next door who are a few years older then me and to whom I played footy quite a bit with when I lived in Haxey. There is Phil Coggon, the Lord of the Hood whom we’ve known for years as he went ot school with my parents, and i with her daughters, plus he was my old Taekwondo instructor. The chief boggin and he lend us their hats to wear for photos, very heavy they are too and very hot. Beautifully decorated they are, it tops of both their red outfits nicely – very photogenic.

Get another pint in for the road and step out back to cool down somewhat. Stand around in the car park for a while, others do the same, some with their pints from the pub but mostly folks with their backpacks and cans of lager.

The street is packed as we wonder on up to the church area for the session entitled ‘smoking the fool’, a part of the day favoured most of all by the toursits who flock here it seems. Anyhow, there is a large throng of people (a few hundred I’d say) located around the stone mound in from of the church and so we clamber onto the garden wall of the local old folks home to get a better view. The view is great if a little distant to be honest, still what can you do?

The hood party stroll up the street chatting away, people make space for them to push on through to get to the church. They reach the church and as per tradition the fool makes a run for it and the boggins set off in hot pursuit, only it is a half hearted run for it from the fool mind you as he has had a few jars now and the boggins too. They catch up with him, hoist him up on their shoulders and carry him back to the church stone. Meanwhile the bale of straw located behind the stone has been lit and smoke is starting to rise.

From the stone, he once more makes as elequant a speech as he can muster up under the circumstances, cracks a couple of jokes, reminds everyone of what the day is about and finishes off with the hood cry ‘ oose agin oose, toon agin toon, if a man meet a man, knock him down, but don’t ot him’ – and proceeds to leap from the stone before the flames from the straw bale set him on fire. All good stuff for the cameras of those American tourists.

From this point on, we can actually get on with the game itself as the hood party leads everyone up on to the hood field to let battle commence. Well not everyone, as a good number of people choose once more to head back to the pub as they are either still feeling thirsty or they are in need of more anebriation before they contemplate joining in the game itself.

First up are the 12 sacks for the kids to chase. Volunteers hurl the sacks from the centre of the field, the kids chase it pick it up and attempt to lef it off the field to where they are safe. Unfortuantely those 12 boggin chaps are trying their best to prevent them from doing this. Cracking fun this was when I was a kid, with the added bonus of receiveing a glass of coke and 50 pence from the local pub landlord when you took it there (nowadays you get a whole english pound as a reward).
My wife gets volunteered to throw one of the sacks up, possibly the first Chinese folk to do so, and with humourous consequesnces. Firstly, she messes up the hood cry by saying all of it except the ‘don’t hurt him’ part, and then she threw the sack at head height in to the crowd resulting in a few folk getting a sack to their head which they were not expecting – that’ll teach them to be more vigilant! No harm done and all good fun, and much laughs around.

Some twenty minutes pass before all 12 sacks are thrown off and the kids manage toget them off the field by hook or by crook. Now it is time for the main gig of the day. The drunken adults all gather up close now in anticipation, so we and other folks not intending to actually join in suitably back off a little in preperation for the main leather hood being thrown up. The Lord of the Hood gives a sharp short speech to gather the crown and remind people to play the game fairly and to listen to the boggins who will control and let the game pass safely (or as safely as one could). The leather hood is passed to some woman as she has the honour of throwing up the hood this year (you can bid to win this honour to throw the hood by donating a large wad of cash to the hood charity I believe is how it works) and throws it she does. Some few people catch it, a large sway of peole converge (possible a houndred or more) and this sway of people (like a rugby scrum – sort of) now try to push it towards their own village.

Not much happens for a minute or two, and then they all fall over, people cry out in pain and people pull them out, they all stand up, converge and repeat. This is how it goes for the next few hours. Lots of pushing and shooving (the term is ‘to sway’ apparantly), collapsing and falling, people hurt and pulled out, standing up and starting again.

I’ve done it before and have no intention of doing it today as I am well aware of the potential pain factor involved (I’ve had a badly bloodied nose in the past (others have had had broken limbs and concussion)) and am perfectly happy spectating for a while. My mate Dave on the other hand is all for it, and so off he goes with all my best wishes, and my cousins Russel and Andrew are already in there.

We stand and watch a while, some people get tired from the pushing and shooving and retreat back the ale house for a pick me up, but that is ok coz others from the ale house turn up to take their place seamlessly – or so it seems.
Just as things settle down a little, I play with the notion of just going and having a quick push, you know stay on the outside safish part of it and have a quick nudge, when there is a big commotion, the sway of people move quite quickly and suddenly and there is a huge collapse of the sway and the thing falls in to a big heap of muddied hurt people. It takes a while to drag everyone out of this particualr fall and the boggins have their work cut out to restore order on this one. We count three people carried off from the sway by others in great agony and discomfort. This brings me back to my senses and I remember the plan is to spectate not participate.

You can spectate for only so long as it does not compare favourably to say football for it's action packed excitement so we (we by know are my wife and I, Robert and Dave) decide upon a change of scenery. The scenery in question is a fast food burger van off by the road some couple of hundred metres away. A dodgy burger with overdone onions for some and cones over undercooked chips with dollops of red sauce for us. A lovely pick me up of fatty fast food.

As this sway will most likely go on for a couple of hours up here on this muddy field, we come to the decision to take a rest from all this fresh air and go in search of my brother who is located down in the Kings Arms. Off down the field we set off trudging, and as we go we see one unlucky chap in some serious discomfort being assisted by a volunteer first aider from St John’s Ambulance brigade in his bright flurescant coat. We all comment it is likely to be a bad outcome of the day for him, and then I realise that the poor chap lying there is my cousin Russel and that we’d best go over and check what is going on.

He is in surprising good spirits when he sees it is me, he seems aware he has hurt himself but probably the copious amounts of beer are offsetting the reality, maybe. The first aider confirms to us he has a definate broken ankle and needs to go to hospital asap, which he arranges by calling for an ambulance and paramedics to get on up here (for some reason though the paramedic staff he was talking too had no idea where Haxey was in the world so I had to speak to them directly and use postcodes so they could get here using a sat nav – strange i thought).

After that I decide it is better I inform some other members of the family of his condition – probably his wife and his father for starters so I head off to look for them on the field and leave the others to have their banter with him. I find my cousin Angela and her boyriend and send them over to Russel and then my mother and Marge and send them over, yet finding Unlce Malcom proves astonishingly difficult – especially considering her is wearing the largest, brightest yellow coat on the field. He gets found eventually though by people more capable than me at spotting the thing easiest to spot.

So here we are – a few of us family surrounding Russel lying on the mud, my uncle Dave has rocked up too and has proceeded to film the events unfolding, uncle Malcom is simply winding his son up lying down there for his foolishness at getting himself hurt. All very stange in that way that maybe it is not that strange.

I send the others (my wife, Dave and Rob) off on down the Kings as there aint much for them to do here. I stay a while longer before myeslf I am ushered away to the Duke to inform what family members are still in there of what has happened to Russel. This I set off for, but bump into my Uncle Terry on the way down – he is on the way up as it seems news has already filtered down to them and so he is off up for a (concerned) look too.

Nowt else for me to do now then other than head down the Kings to see what is happening down there.
What is happening is drinking & banter with some mates and watching (trying to anyway – conversation and questions keep getting in the way) an FA cup third round game on the telly. Come 7pm time – the pub is beginning to swell considerably as it appears the Kings are hot favourites to win the game as the sway is being pushed slowly but surely down this way. My Mum and Dad & Marge have found a way into the pub and we have all packed into our own little corner of the pub as the sway finally arrives the landlord finally gets hold of the leather sway to claim victory. Free pints of beer all around – hoorah (well actually that used to be the case – but not so now unfortunately in this day).

Game over. The winners for 2008 were indeed the hot favourites (can you bet on this game I wonder?) All done and dusted. Nothing else to do other than a have a few more pints before heading home.

There are mild cheers of victory but no real wild celebrations or party or songs or anything much different to what it was before anyway. There are just more and more people trying to push on it. Thus, we (except Mum, Dad and Marge who are heading home for stew and dumplings (but without the dumplings) choose to retreat out this particular pub and mooch on back up the street to one of the other drinking holes.

We choose The Loco as we can see Uncle Dave and Uncle Terry already in there, plus – yes you guessed it more cousins. To be honest everyone has probably had enough beer by now and soon everyone is heading home to their own pot of stew and dumplings – as we do for ours (which we gladfully consume at the kitchen table watching match of the day on the box).
It had been a great day, a long day and a most interesting day all in all.
Roll on Haxey Hood 2009

©   Darren Skelton May 2008

For more background reading on the game and all it’s traditions, you can check out the following:

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