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Winning ugly at the Egremont Crab Fair

Posted by Jonathan Broom on 31 August 2018
Related property: Braithwaite Court
Winning ugly at the Egremont Crab Fair

As a nation – as a people – the British boast a proud sporting heritage. Indeed a number of sports, though long played throughout the world, originated right here. Football. Cricket. Rugby. Tennis. Squash. And many more.

In most instances we’ve long since ceded superiority in these contests to Johnny-come-latelys who have the temerity to be better than us – to beat us at our own games. Which is probably why the Brits love an underdog because that, all too often, is what we are. But we never tire of taking part.

Nor of inventing new contests which to outsiders must appear perplexing. Bog-snorkelling, gravy-wrestling, pram-racing and coal-carrying are all relatively recent additions to the British competitive canon which have managed to gain a toehold in the nation’s consciousness. And every year brings news of another one. Human table-football, anybody?

It'll never catch on: human table football

Of course many of these dubious competitive formats rightly end in ignominy after a few years, at most. But not all of our nation’s more “recherché” amusements are gimmicky, flash-in-the-pan affairs. The annual Cheese-Rolling on Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire, featured here in an earlier blog, has a history going back to at least 1826, and probably long before that; and the yearly Royal Shrovetide Football Match in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, dates from the 13th Century. Even Black Pudding-Throwing, a highlight(?) on the events calendar in Ramsbottom, Manchester, can trace its roots back to 1850.

Ashbourne's annual Royal Shrovetide Football Match

But one event surely eclipses them all, both in venerability and sheer spectacle, for participant and onlooker alike: the annual World Gurning Championships, held in mid-September every year as part of the Egremont Crab Fair, and dating back to 1267.

On the west Cumbrian coast, just a few miles from the western edge of the Lake District National Park, is the small market town of Egremont. Every year in mid to late September (this year’s takes place on Friday 14th – the free ‘Dancing in the Street’ music event on Egremont High Street – and Saturday 15th) the townspeople hold a celebration after harvest time, known as the Crab Fair – a mix of traditional entertainments and competitive events. It is believed that the fair – first staged in the 13th Century by Royal Decree – has been held every year, barring unavoidable interruptions during the war years.

The Parade of the Apple Cart. Note the airborne fruit!

The Lord of Egremont began the practice of giving away crab apples, whence derives the fair’s name. The tradition continues to this day with the Parade of the Apple Cart, where apples are thrown to the crowds which throng the Main Street – though these days the apples thus launched are of sweeter varieties. Including the Egremont Russet? One can only hope.

The modern-day fair includes with a number of sporting events.

“Climbing the Greasy Pole” kicks things off – as the name implies, the contest involves the ascent of a 30-foot pole, greased with lard. The objective is to climb to the top and retrieve the prize – originally a hat, now a side of mutton. These days ribbons are attached to the pole, which can be grabbed from lower levels and exchanged for gifts around the town.

Surely an easy challenge for a superhero? Spiderman contemplates Egremont's greasy pole

Cumberland wrestling also features, wherein each wrestler locks his hands behind his opponent's back – this is called takin’ hod (taking hold). The object is to lift your opponent up, then throw him to the ground so that he lands face upwards.

Cumberland wrestling

There’s also – unbelievably in this health-and-safety-obsessed day and age – a pipe-smoking contest, wherein each competitor is given a clay pipe filled with black twist tobacco and a lighted candle or taper. The person who smokes his tobacco the fastest is the winner.

Ready, set, smoke: pipe-lovers get down to business

Broadly, the Egremont Crab Fair divides its attractions and activities into two, entitled ‘Crab Field’ and ‘Crab Fest’. The former is an open-air arena-style show, including traditional sporting contests (those detailed above, plus others):

Above: racing fun at Crab field

and headlined by the Kangaroo Kid Quad Bike Stunt Show: jumps and other feats of derring-do performed on quad bikes. Think Evel Knievel, but on four wheels. The latter is a music-based event featuring top local bands on the main stage:

an acoustic tent, and loads of stuff for the kids to do.

But it’s the Gurning Championship, at 6pm on the Saturday, that’s the main event for many.

To gurn means to “snarl like a dog; look savage; distort the countenance” – but these days it’s much more about looking funny than looking threatening. Though “the uglier the better” is the main criterion for winning. The rules are simple: stick your head through a horse collar, known as a ‘braffin’; pull the most grotesque face you can muster; and the most monstrous/funny fizzog is the winner. The event is open to both genders, and all ages. Feast your eyes on these beauties:

Previous victors include Michaela Strachan (yes, that Michaela Strachan) pictured at top with Tommy Mattinson, who in recent years has made the title his own. He must be so proud...

Egremont is 27 miles south-west of Braithwaite, taking the B5292 (which, confusingly, heads north), the A66, the A5086 and the A595. Tickets valid for both Crab Fair venues – Crab Field and Crab Fest – cost £6 per adult, £3 per child aged five to 14; under-fives go free. ‘Dancing in the Street’, the music-and-dance event on Egremont High Street that acts as a curtain-raiser to Saturday’s activities, is free to all. To visit the Egremont Crab Fair website, click here.


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Jonathan Broom

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