Sunday, 17 March 2013

Not just the March hares who are completely mad!

Look out Doris - orange coming your way!

A FEW years ago, the month of March always marked the beginning of the road-racing season. Nowadays - in my neck of the woods anyway - it feels more like the start of the trail-running season.

Never mind chocolate eggs this Easter, trail-lovers will be feasting on a quartet of trail runs being staged between Good Friday and Easter Monday in mid-Essex. Chigborough, Little Baddow, Purleigh and A.N.Other are the sleepy villages selected for invasion by scores of runners over the holiday period. Most of us will choose to have a crack at one or maybe two events – but a fair number of gluttons will run all four!

Is it slightly odd to spend four consecutive days meandering the Essex countryside on foot with a sheet of instructions in your hand? Quite possibly, but compared to some Easter traditions of yesteryear, that’s not weird behaviour at all.

Indeed, if you thought runners were eccentric, consider the old Good Friday tradition of ‘Orange Rolling’ for example.

I was born and spent much of my childhood in the splendid and vastly-underrated county of Bedfordshire. During this time thousands of locals devoted every Good Friday to the strange and unique Orange Rolling ritual high up on Dunstable Downs. 

Over the years folks turned up in droves in every type of weather to fling oranges about, or simply watch others do it. In its early days everyone called it ‘Orange Pelting’ and participants could choose to be a pelter or be pelted. No Health and Safety worries back then.

This was the one day of the year in the Luton area when rowdy behaviour was positively encouraged. The Old Bill knew better than to try and interfere. But Lutonians are very gentlemanly types, and women and children were never deliberately targeted by the pelters (in theory). At first it had been called ‘Orange Pelting’ but when they changed it to ‘Orange Trundling’ and later to  ‘Orange Rolling’ it was clear someone was trying to calm things down a little.

As well as oranges flying up and down the steep hills, the day’s entertainment included brass bands, a Punch & Judy Show and stalls selling Bedfordshire Clangers (a sort of dumpling with savoury stuff at one end and sweet at the other). But it was the fruit flinging that always grabbed most of the attention.

The good folk of Luton and Dunstable would buy oranges by the bagful, which they promptly hurled gleefully at the characters lower down the hill. Some of the ‘victims’ deliberately made themselves targets by wearing inside-out coats and huge hats, so that they could grab the fruit, rush back up the hill and re-sell it to the happy pelters at the top. Some would deftly bag the oranges, hand them to a young assistant and later on hawk them round the neighbourhood.

As well as oranges, there was also a time when you could buy ‘Lady Teasers’ to use in the general mayhem.  According to Rita Swift (local historical society person), these were rubber items, filled with water, which were employed as a sort of water pistol. Presumably the blokes squirted it at any girls they fancied, to get their attention. Whether the ‘ladies’ liked being ‘teased’ in this way is not clear.

One year the local paper highlighted an incident in which a tiny girl was struck by an orange with such force she was knocked clean over and the orange sped away down the hill. A young boy, not much older himself, raced to retrieve it and presented it to the sobbing child.  The paper called him a hero and reported that he was rewarded for his actions with pocketfuls of oranges to take home for himself.

In the swinging sixties, a warm Easter would encourage the girls to come out in skimpy outfits. But before that, a mere glimpse of a petticoat would be a big deal up there on the Downs. One report stated: “Many of the crowd belonged to the fair sex, and, as the wearing of bloomers has by no means yet become general, the wind played havoc with their skirts . . . the wind played mad pranks with these ladies . . .  a wonderfully pretty display of multi-coloured petticoats was seen.”

As the years went by, inevitably things slowly got rowdier and on one occasion The Dunstable Excelsior Band had to beat a hasty retreat when they came under fire from the oranges. Eventually the annual fun was stopped altogether in 1968, partly because local businesses were losing interest in supporting the event.

I was still young back then and – like the other local kids – probably thought that hurling oranges down a hill to celebrate Easter was perfectly normal behaviour. Before long my visits to Dunstable Downs ended anyway as my family moved house to Essex.

We settled in the village of Tiptree, where it was clear the locals treated fruit with much more respect – making world-famous jam out of it instead of flinging it around a windy hillside! 

Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running (plus 11 others on football) are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:

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