22-04-2022

Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scrambling

At the south-eastern border of Leicestershire, the village of Hallaton does battle with neighbouring Medbourne. The ‘preposterous Easter Monday festivities’ attract hundreds of people from the rival villages, as well as those from further afield. Dating back to the 18th century, the Bottle-kicking and Hare Pie Scrambling events form an important part of the local identity.

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"At a time, and by a person, unknown, a piece of land in Hallaton was left to the rector to provide two hare pies, two dozen loaves and a quantity of ale, all of which had to be scrambled for on Easter Monday at a place called Hare Pie Bank, a quarter of a mile south of the village. Hare is out of season at this time of year, so the pies are made of mutton, veal or steak".
From ‘A Year of Festivals: A Guide to British Calendar Customs’ by Geoffrey Palmer & Noel Lloyd.

The hare pie leads the procession from the Fox Inn to Hallaton Church

The hare pie scramble is thought to hark back to ‘Saxon times as part of Easter hare rites’, but bottle kicking could predate this even further. It is speculated that this could be a surviving custom from a pagan spring festival ‘in which there was a symbolic struggle between winter and spring’. Local lore explains that the custom began when two ladies of Hallaton were saved from the attack of a raging bull by a nimble hare, who distracted the bull's gaze and saved the women. In their gratitude to God, the local vicar would provide a Hare pie, twelve penny loaves and two barrels of ale for the poor of the village. This abundance of food and goodwill caused fights between the people of Hallaton and on one occasion, their festivities were interrupted by the residents of Medbourne who joined the fray and stole the beer. The people of Hallaton began their cooperation with one another following this theft.

"Hallaton is best known throughout the shire for certain preposterous Easter Monday festivities which attract the vulgar from near and far. The game goes to the winners of two out of the three bottles, but as Hallaton always wins the first two bottles Medbourne never has a chance. It is a firm tradition of the game that Hallaton must win".
FromHighways and Byways in Leicestershire’ by J.B. Firth.

A parade is led by the hare pie, with the three barrels held aloft by men from Hallaton. The bottles take the form of small wooden casks, of which two are filled with beer and a third is empty. The pie is blessed at a service outside of the parish church, after which the rector cuts it up. It is grasped by the hands of the local men, compressed into balls that are flung skyward, flakes of pastry and chunks of meat fall onto gathered onlookers. Reconvening at the Fox Inn, the afternoon brings about large crowds. A procession of participants and spectators is then led to Hare Pie Bank by a band. A further sack full of hare pie is tossed into the air above the awaiting men. It is here that the bottle-kicking begins. Atop a hill, the villages of Hallaton and Medbourne sit opposite each other, an expanse of farmed fields separating them. 

Hare Pie Bank sits closer to Hallaton, a fact that is queried by some. The starting location for the dropping of the casks has been unchanged for hundreds of years and this has been supported by archaeological evidence suggesting a pagan festival took place on the site. Bottle Kicking also predates the involvement of the Medbourne villagers, with their first participation documented around 180 years ago. To steal the ale from the Hallatonians, they face an arduous battle. 

The first barrel is thrown into the air, a ruck between Hallaton and Medbourn ensues

The Bottle Keeper, the only ‘official’ of this strange sport, throws the first barrel into the air, allowing it to drop three times. The third drop is a signal for the oft-brutal game to commence. Hallaton and Medbourne are not limited by number and their objective is to kick or handle the bottle over their boundary line, represented by two streams nearly a mile apart. Physicality and brute force define the contest, with participants engaging in rucks and mauls, akin to rugby, used to move the barrels over the rural obstacles of hedges and barbed wire. Emergency services linger on the sidelines, awaiting inevitable injury. Broken bones are not uncommon. After the first and second casks have been fought for, the third, empty barrel, is only used if the villages have each claimed a cask. For the leader of the winning village, the first drink of beer represents victory over their neighbour, before being shared amongst their collective number.

Their battle is supported by families that have lived in this nook of Leicestershire for hundreds of years. Newspaper cuttings from the 1940s speak of Marlows from Hallaton and Burrows from Medbourne. Along with Drivers, Swain, Smiths and Snows, Medbourne made a formidable team in the middle of the 20th century, dominating the contest after decades of Hallatonian superiority. Their success was in part due to the influence of Scottish reinforcements, drawn upon from the nearby steelworks in Corby. It was the mid-1980s when Hallaton reasserted an authority that has yet to wane in the 21st century.

The first barrel is won by Hallaton

Due to the pandemic, the event was sorely missed after 2019. Reinstated this year, it was a member of the Marlow family that claimed the winning score for the Hallaton villagers. To the soundtrack of the Nene Valley Band bagpipes, the first game was started by David Marlow of Hallaton. The impending ruck, a crunch of bone and muscle, swayed as the rivals jostled for the barrel. Contested fiercely by both sides, Medbourne clambered through bramble hedges into an adjacent field, closer to their boundary line. Men wrestled for possession of the cask in a ditch, emerging with torn shirts, cuts and nettle stings. Bent with hands on knees, the contest was already claiming victims. Slowly Medbourne’s progress was halted. Observers frantically evaded the rush of burly figures. Disoriented players would ask for the direction of their boundary, before charging off with the cask in hand. Hallaton found themselves on the cusp of victory, a barbed wire fence was toppled and bodies rolled down a steep, slippery bank. Too late for a rousing comeback, a mass of bodies forced the barrel onto Hallatonian soil. An eruption of emotion ensued.

It is because of passionate local people, such as David Marlow, that this ancient rite is maintained so vehemently. Fitting then that victory was claimed by a member of the Marlow clan.

Contribution

A Year of Festivals: Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scrambling video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vB08b5aOx6o

Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scrambling is held on Easter Monday. For more information, please visit their Facebook page here.

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