In this year of Olympic-mania in Britain, it’s worth remembering that in the Cotswolds, the Olimpicks (sic) have a long history – and contain some games that are, quite frankly, far more fun than those that will be on display in London this summer.
For 2012 is the 400th anniversary of Robert Dover’s Games, also known as the Cotswold Olimpicks. Last Friday evening, hundreds of spectators turned up at Dover’s Hill, in Chipping Campden, to witness the annual games, which culminate in the notorious shin-kicking contest.
The games were introduced by Robert Dover (1575-1582 to 1652), a Norfolk-born lawyer who had moved to the Chipping Campden area around 1611. Although they have since had breaks due to Civil War and Victorian sensibilities, they are now going strong, and are a vital part of the Cotswold calendar.
I have to be honest – I love the Olimpicks. It’s a good night out, and the competitions – which include obstacle and sack races, the tug of war (highly entertaining this year, when the rope snapped in half as soon as the teams started pulling), and of course, the shin-kicking.
Meanwhile, at the top of the hill, you can watch men and women backswording – a form of fencing involving wooden lances, that can give competitors some nasty weals, as one man showed me – as well as going on the less old-fashioned funfair rides.
The games start with a procession – people in pseudo-Jacobean garb, on horseback, parading across the grass valley to the games arena – and end with the lighting of a large beacon at the top of the hill, followed by a procession of all spectators down the steep road back into Chipping Campden, carrying old-fashioned torches. There is none of your health and safety here!
This year, there were a few changes; charging spectators to enter the hill (£6 per adult; £3 per child), and celebrated folk singer Eliza Carthy performing on stage. I’d rather the games didn’t change too much though; their history risks being diluted if they become too much of a sideshow to more modern events.
And perhaps the worst of the games this year was a result of their sheer popularity. BBC presenter Ben Fogle was competing in the shin-kicking contest – presumably for a future piece on Countryfile. This was perhaps partly the reason why there were so many TV cameras in the arena; but their sheer number meant that many at the bottom of the spectators’ areas couldn’t see any of the action. What a shame that we can’t get back to Jacobean times, when television didn’t exist… but as that would mean me not being able to take photos of the evening, I’ll let the matter rest.
Here is a slideshow of this year’s anniversary edition of the Olimpicks; with apologies for the picture quality (blame a new camera with a myriad of settings that I’ve not quite got to grips with yet).