Tetbury Woolsack Races
One of the delights of the Cotswolds in the annual Woolsack Races that take place in the picturesque Wiltshire wool-town of Tetbury. Every year teams of men, women and children carry sacks of British wool (60lb for men’s races and 35lb for women’s) up and down the ridiculously steep Gumstool Hill. The revived races have been taking place for the last 38 years. The custom was said to have started in the 17th Century when young drovers vied with each other to impress a local beauty by running up and down the steep hill in the village with woolsacks on their back – probably the result of a drunken boast. The winner was said to win the right to spend a night with this local Helen (‘was this the face that launched a thousand sacks?’) Since then it has become a more balanced affair – with the women having their own heat, as well as the local children – winning medals for their efforts, and raising money for worthy charities.
Despite an unpromising start to the day – watching the rain, once so typical of English Bank Holidays – we decided to go for a spin down to Tetbury anyway and were pleasantly surprised by this charming event. Parking up in the local FC sportsfield-cum-carpark, we walked down to the village. Stalls lined the streets and there was a surprisingly good turn out, despite the drizzle. The atmosphere was pleasant – enhanced by the renditions of popular classics by the Gugge 2000 brass band, striking in their black and yellow livery, like a swarm of bees. There was salsa and African drumming too, street entertainers and a fun fair.
The first attraction we visited was the ATM – where a cross-section of Cotswolders queued up, from old hippies to horsi-culture types in their designer wellies. We then went hunting and gathering for a bite to eat, and were spoiled for choice in the French market along the high street. Next I had to sample a pint of ‘Hill Race’, a local ale brewed especially for the event. This helped ease me into the spirit of the occasion. After some grazing at the local book fair, we made our to Gumstool Hill, squeezing onto the pavement with the crowds congregating there. We waited patiently for the start of the races – launched by Stroud-based author Katie Fforde, who received a round of applause after the MC introduced her (not often does a novelist get such a big clap – perhaps it was out of sympathy!). The various heats commenced – at first we couldn’t get much of a view but the MC conveyed the excitement of the race, making it sound like the Grand National over the tannoy. We moved down the narrow thoroughfare and got to the ‘changeover’ point, where the woolsacks were passed onto the next runner. Each runner got a good round of applause as they puffed up the hill. My partner soon had her ‘fix’ and decamped to a local cafe. I stayed and watched the remaining heats – most memorable being the Mens’ Single, where a pair ran as panto horse. The whole affair had a wonderfully eccentric air, a pleasant way to while away a Bank Holiday Monday. The rain didn’t manage to dampen spirits and it looks like the event is going to ‘run and run’ for many years to come.