Although Milton Keynes may be very pleased to be celebrating 50 years of existence this year, the history of the area can be traced back considerably further than 1967. In terms of the history of food and drink, it would be hard to beat the impressive antiquity of the Olney Pancake Day Race. The origins of this race can be traced back to 1445 and has continued ever since, with only the occasional absences, most notably during World War II.
Folklore has it that the race came about when a housewife cooking pancakes heard the bell calling the villagers to church for the Shriving Service. Desperate not to be late, she rushed out into the street, frying pan in hand, tossing the pancake as she went. Since then women from the village have run down the High Street to church tossing pancakes every Shrove Tuesday.
Shrove Tuesday is a Christian day of celebration that marks the end of the liturgical season (public worship) before the beginning of the penitential season of Lent. In Latin countries it is known as Mardi Gras and is celebrated with parties and carnivals. The name “Mardi Gras” means “fat Tuesday” and is marked by the eating of rich foods. In England it is celebrated by the cooking and eating of pancakes. This may have come from an older Pagan festival that celebrated the transition from winter into spring by the eating of pancakes, where the circular shapes of the pancakes represented the sun. Eating the hot, round pancakes was supposed to represent eating the sun and taking on the power, light and warmth of the sun. More pragmatically, the making and eating of pancakes could have come about from the need to eat up dairy products before the fasting season of Lent. Shriving is a time of reflection when sins will be forgiven and people are expected to decide what they need to repent for. This was an important service and the housewives of Olney would not have wanted to miss it.
It was Reverend Canon Ronald Collins who revived the race in 1948 after its lapse during World War II. Upon finding old photos of the race from the 1920s and 30s he was filled with enthusiasm to revive the tradition. That year, 13 runners ran the race. Then in 1950, the town of Liberal in Kansas, USA, having heard about the Olney pancake day race, challenged Olney to compete against them in an international pancake race. The challenge was accepted and has continued to this day. Olney is the oldest and original pancake day race that many other places have since copied.
With such a lengthy history, it is deemed necessary to retain as much tradition as possible. As such, the race is only open to women over the age of 18 who have lived in Olney for at least three months. The women wear head scarfs and aprons and run down the street holding a frying pan complete with pancake. The pancakes are tossed twice during the race – once outside the Bull Inn – and once at the finish line at the church door. The race starts at 11.55am but the winner can take less than a minute to run it, as demonstrated in 2016 with a record breaking time of 55 seconds by Lianne Fisher. After the morning pancake-related celebrations, there is a service in the church and prizes are awarded. With Olney’s other claim to fame being the birthplace of the hymn Amazing Grace it is only fitting that this and other hymns by John Newton are sung during the service.
It is certainly a day of celebration for Olney and their community make the most of it. Ahead of the women’s race, the market square is taken over by a marquee and for the last few years celebrity chef Lesley Waters has been in attendance, cooking up a special pancake breakfast. Outside the marquee there are plenty of other places to buy freshly cooked pancakes, including a stall in the market square as well as in the surrounding tearooms such as The Olney Pancake Palour, The Olney Deli and Tearoom, J&B Sweet Cafe, and Teapots as well as in the church hall further down the High Street. With school children in attendance early on for the children’s race and an impressive prize raffle, there is plenty to keep the crowd amused until the High Street is closed off and the main race held. After the race, with the competitors in the church for the service, the spectators disperse, some lingering a while to enjoy the tea rooms, the little shops and the Cowper & Newton Museum. The local businesses are grateful for the day that brings in a good crowd and the crowd is pleased to have been a small part of a impressively longstanding historical event.