LivingTravelThe Olney Pancake Race: A 550-Year Tradition Is Even...

The Olney Pancake Race: A 550-Year Tradition Is Even Better

Olney’s ladies have been running their pancake race for more than 550 years, but lately the glare of advertising has made it a draw for crowds and endorsements.

The tradition of making pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, dates back hundreds of years. In the Buckinghamshire town of Olney, also home to the Amazing Grace anthem, pan-shaking women and girls have probably been running around flipping pancakes for almost as long. Even the Wars of the Roses (1445-1487) did not prevent this mad rush from taking place.

These days there are pancake races, where participants must run a set distance while flipping a pancake in a pan, throughout Britain (and several in the US). The Olney breed, however, may be the Grandaddy (or should we say grandmother) of them all. It’s also unique in that men and boys (who have been seen flipping pancakes elsewhere) are not allowed in.

«Traditional housewives»

Unlike other races, where sports figures, celebrities and even parliamentarians participate, the Olney Pancake Race is limited to » housewives and young ladies of the city «. They must have lived in Olney for at least three months and be at least 18 years old. Several children’s races take place before the main event, limited to little girls.

Twenty-five participants run a distance of 415 yards from Olney Market Place to the Parish Church, while dressing like “traditional housewives.” That includes wearing a skirt, an apron, and a bandana (although today this outfit is more of a costume and is worn over the typical runner kit: leggings, T-shirts, and sneakers). They must carry a pan with a pancake inside and must flip the pancake when crossing the finish line.

american cousins

In 1950, after Olney’s ladies had been racing and flipping pancakes for centuries, they were challenged by their counterparts in Liberal, Kansas. Now the race takes place on both sides of the Atlantic. But while Olney’s run remains true to their traditions, Americans have turned their Pancake Day into a four-day festival with food, flipping and cooking contests and a parade, as well as the run. Currently they also lead the number of races won.

Innovations

With internet fame, it was only a matter of time before national sponsors called. Alongside local restaurants and shops, a famous manufacturer of the non-stick coating used in pots and pans has sponsored a marquee since 2016. There, a celebrity chef from BBC television (Lesley Waters in 2018), along with two local chefs, cook a pancake for breakfast and then judge a filled pancake recipe contest. There are cash prizes for all race participants. And a raffle to benefit the repair fund for the local church adds an additional element of fun for spectators: there is a long list of prizes.

And an amazing grace

While in Olney, stop by the museum dedicated to Cowper and Newton, John Newton. While Newton was a priest in town, he and the poet William Cowper wrote the hymn Amazing Grace. The museum, home of the “pancake race bell,” reopens for the season on pancake race day, adding a Georgian flavor to the day’s events.

Essentials

  • What: A traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake race that has been going on for over 550 years in a small town in Buckinghamshire.
  • Where: Olney, Buckinghamshire, Market Place to Parish Church
  • When: the Tuesday before Lent (March 5, 2019) from 8:30 am to 12:15 pm
    • Celebrity Chef Breakfast 8:30 am-10am (limited number of tickets, £ 5 via email)
    • The main race starts at 11:55 and ends in seconds, so be on time.
  • Contact: Email: [email protected] or contact through social networks: 
    • twitter
    • Facebook
  • Visit their website

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