On Easter Monday, a Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking event takes place in Hallaton, Leicestershire.
The settlement of Hallaton has existed for 2500 years, evidence of which can be seen in the ancient mound which is now known as Castle Hill in Hallaton. Iron age and Druid activity has been recorded there.
Hare Pie Scrambling is reputed to have started several hundred years and has its origins as a Pagan ceremony of fertility. Back then, offerings were made to the fertility Goddess Estra / Eostre (from which the name Easter is derived) in the early days of spring. The participants would then hope that this observation would bring fertility to both man and crops, and enourage the right conditions for all to prosper.
Indeed, at the head of the festivities is a warden which carries a staff topped by a bronze sculpted Hare. This represents a freshly sacrificed Hare which used to be carried on top of the staff as recently as a 150 years ago. The Hare was sacrificed to Estra as a mark of fertility, in par with the breeding season of Hares.
More recently, another explanation for the role of the Hare in the festivities has been proposed. It follows that there were once two ladies walking across a field. They attracted the attention of a Bull which happened to be in the same field, and which went chasing after the ladies. Along came a Hare and distracted the Bull, in effect saving the lives of the two ladies. As a mark of respect to the Hare, the ladies left a legacy which proposed that Hare Pie and ale would be distributed among the villagers as a mark of respect to the Hare. – Although some would doubt it is a mark of respect to an animal by adding it to a tasty pie???
It is at this point in which the bottle kicking was reported to have started. Curious villagers from the neighbouring settlement of Medbourne were reported to have stolen the ale which was an essential part of the festivities in Hallaton.
Residents of Hallaton attempted to retrieve their ale, but the residents of Medbourne would not return it. As a result, a battle broke out between the two villages and a battle started in the form of a tug-of-war / rugby match in order to drag the ale back to either Hallaton or Medbourne.
Many Pagan ceremonies have been reported to have been adopted by Roman Christians, and the items that are used in the festivities are blessed in a church service on Easter Monday.
After the blessing, there then follows a Hare Pie parade from the Fox Inn to St. Michael & All Angels Church in Hallaton. The Hare Pie used to be distributed from the Rectory, but the vicar complained about the mess that it would make. In defence of the vicar, the pie would not be distributed by passing it out to the villagers, but instead by throwing it into the air and the villagers would attempt to catch it (It is a very tasty pie, and I did spend a while picking it out of the joints of my camera after the event!). It is now distributed from the Church gates. This actually provides a great stage and spectators can watch the event from the top of Eastgates in Hallaton.
Next, the bottles (which are actually small kegs of beer) are decorated at the Buttercross (a monument at which tradesmen would once gather to sell produce) by the vicar of Hallaton. This is then followed by a parade to Hare Pie Bank just outside the village at which the actual bottle kicking event takes place.
The bottles are thrown three times into the air, and it is on the third time that the competition begins. There are two streams in which either Hallaton or Medbourne have to pass the bottles over in order to be declared winners of that round. The winner is decided as a best of three rounds.
The geography of of the area naturally favours Hallaton, and it is indeed Hallaton which wins more often than Medbourne. In 2010, Hallaton won 2-0, but Medbourne did indeed make a magnificent effort.
The competition involves passing the bottles through and over fences and hedges. Medbourne may have indeed won in 2010 if they had only ensured that there were enough Medbourne players on the other side of the fences and hedges to receive the bottles.
The teams mostly consist of men. There are a few women which stray into the frenzy – some of which are more than capable of playing the game. But I often heard shouts of ‘Get The Woman Out!! (of the scrum), after which a bemused tiny lady would emerge – battered, but looking rather pleased with their efforts.
Indeed from 1914 – 1918 the bottle kicking event teams consisted entirely of women while the menfolk were away playing in the first world war.
There is no segregation between participants and spectators, there are no rules and there are no referrees. Indeed if you get too close to the scrum and you are pushed, then you automatically become part of the game.
The game depends entirely on the goodwill of the participants. Although I did see a number of injured participants (including one man who was knocked out as a result of being in the scrum), the people involved are aware of the risk involved in the game. The moment that someone is injured, many hands are raised into the air with the call of ‘Back Off! Back Off!’ The injured are then dragged from the scrum so that the circulating Paramedics can attend to the victim.
After the game is completed, the winners (those individuals in possession of the bottles as they passed over the village boundary lines), are invited to climb on top of the Buttecross in order to savour their sweet victory. They drink the beer from the opened kegs. Can you imagine what the beer might taste like after been thrown around in the fields for a few hours? It’s been rolling around and it’s warm, but if you’ve been fighting for three hours its like nectar!
I’d recommend the event to everybody! The event is free, and it’s only £2 for parking – or if you prefer you can walk from the nearest railway station which is Market Harborough (8 miles away). You can take part in the scrum or take a picnic and watch the scrum from a safe distance. A good day out for all!
– Many thanks to those involved in the production of the short films and photos, and also to Peter Daisley, who gave a very informative talk about the traditions of bottle kicking at St. Michael & All Angels Church on Easter Monday.