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This year I visited the 403rd edition of the or the Costwold Olimpicks. Yes, you read that right – the four-hundred-and-third year of the annual Cotswold Olimpicks, or the Dover Games as many know it. I was visiting my cousins on a long weekend from living in London, and was in for more than I bargained for with this long standing tradition!
The Dover Games began, well, four hundred and three years ago around 1612 when a Mr.Robert Dover chose a certain hill in the Cotswolds (a beautifully picturesque part of the south west English countryside) and instituted an athletic competition there which has lasted on the very same hill to this day.
These games are a ‘proper local’ (as a local called it) event and include many extremely traditional (read: strange) English games and activities, as well as some modernized versions of games as well. Visiting these games would be a perfect addition to a Cotswolds road trip if you want to experience something super traditional!
Most of the history of the Dover games is conjectured from poems from old authors and different historical records – many things are not really known for sure, but are inferred. They believe the original games to have events such as horse racing, coursing (the hunting of hares and rabbits by dogs), running, jumping, “spurning the bar” (a throwing event), wrestling, fencing, dancing, “handling the pike” (basically javelin throwing), shin kicking (Kicking each other in the shins until one falls down. Not even kidding), “dwile flonking” (with two teams, one dances around the other while trying to avoid a beer-soaked cloth thrown by the non-dancing team. Sounds like my kind of sport). During these times there was a lot of opposition to organized sport, but good ole Robert kept the Dover games going just the same.
In these days a lot has changed of course, but they still carry out the Dover games in a very traditional way. Families, young people, and old people alike show up from the surrounding villages year after year to enjoy the entertainment of the games and take part in the incredible torch procession at the end.
It is said historically that the games dwindled in importance over the years, beginning to be attended by more disorderly drunkards than supportive citizens, and today’s residents, beers in hand, half-jokingly laugh that not much has changed since then!
The Dover Games in the 21st Century
With this audience of hundreds of people all sitting on the top part of the hill, the games begin. They have a bagpipe procession come in, with boys and girls all dressed traditionally like they would have in the 1600’s, and erect a small castle just like they are rumored to have done hundreds of years ago. One is dressed as Robert Dover himself, as he opens the year’s games. In this century, the games are definitely just as entertaining and hilarious as it seems that they would have been in the 1600’s, and possibly not quite as serious. Teams compete in a four-legged ski race, a strange wheelbarrow race in which they must complete a puzzle, race each other by hopping across the field in bags, and last (and most entertainingly) must run a relay race across a wet tarp with obstacles which is fully doused in dish soap.
More games commence as soon as the team games are over, like an enormous tug-of-war, and, everyone’s personal favorite, SHIN KICKING. Yes, it’s true, they actually still have a competition each year in shin kicking at the Dover Games. They carry it out pretty traditionally as well, as each contestant stuffs their socks with as much hay as they can before attempting to knock down their opponent by kicking them only below the knee. They compete in brackets, as they narrow the competition down from about ten to two in a series of incredibly painful-looking rounds. I don’t think I have ever seen anything like it- grown men literally holding onto each other’s shoulders and having it out by kicking each other in the shins. I could almost feel their painful, bruised lower legs as I grimaced after each new kick, mostly entertained but half nauseated at how much it must hurt. I mean come on, a kick in the shins has got to be one of the most painful things there is! But hey, they signed up for it… so all I could do was sit back, laugh, and be thankful that it wasn’t me! I attached a pretty bad quality slash upside down video at the bottom of this post (tried for an hour to upload a rotated one but gave up) so you can get a real idea of this crazy Cotswold Olimpick competition.
Facing due west, the sunset is spectacular from the viewer’s perch on top of the hill. As the shin-kicking finals ended, people returned to the top of the hill to the carnival rides, food stands, and drink stands, preparing for the rest of the night.
Even more old-style acts were going on up top, with people dressed in 1600’s garb playing medieval instruments, people fencing, “Morris Dancers” doing a traditional (and pretty hilarious) English dance by dressing in all white and waving handkerchiefs around, and the “Traditional English Martial Arts Club” performing acts that I really could’t even name but was extremely intrigued by.
The Dover Games Torch Procession
The best part about the Dover Games and what everyone really comes for is after the sun goes down. By this point it was freezing from the wind blowing up the hill, so everyone was really excited and relieved when they finally lit an enormous bonfire at the top of the hill. Everyone warmed up by the fire and watched a spectacular firework show behind a waving English flag, and got ready for the traditional torch procession.
The torch procession has got to be one of the coolest things I have experienced. During all of the games, big, two-foot long wax torches were on sale, and by the end everyone had gotten theirs. As the bonfire died down and the band started up, people began lighting their torches and lining up by the entrance gate to proceed down the hill into town. Picture thousands of people holding torches and walking down a hill in the still of night. It was an incredible sight to see!
At some points on the hill, you could look down to see people half a mile ahead of you, all tiny beautiful lights in the distance. This would no doubt be against all the fire safety standards in my country, but was still carried out totally safely as everyone used their common sense to stay safe (how it should be, if you ask me). It felt almost like we were on a witch hunt or some kind of strange cult meeting carrying fire in a mass procession, but in reality it was an amazing local tradition in which everyone was enjoying themselves and having fun. It seemed like everyone in the Cotswolds came out to see it! (Sorry for the awful iPhone photo quality, but I think it gets the point across!)
The procession carried on down the hill until reaching the town where the games are based – Chipping Campden. Chipping Campden is a gorgeous little medieval town with all its buildings made out of yellowy Cotswold stone. Some buildings in the town center have been there since the 1100’s, impressively still standing tall. The games are ended with a big celebration in the town center, with all the pubs open and a band playing catchy tunes in the center for people to dance along. As people got to the town and put out their torches in a big fire bin, they began to crowd these newly bustling pubs and dance in the town center – a really fun event for all ages celebrating until the early hours. It was amazing to learn so much about English history here and to see this tiny little village come to life with the great energy of surrounding citizens coming to take part in an old tradition with a modern twist.
See when this year’s edition of the Cotswold Olimpicks/Dover Games are! Visit their website.