English Eccentrics Explained. – Well Almost.

May 26, 2014


One of the greatest pleasures of my life, well among those I can mention in a Blog that is, is living where I do on the edge of the Cotswold Hills in South Gloucestershire. By modern standards the Town of Tetbury is a sleepy rural town more or less half way between Oxford and Bristol. But like most towns in England you don’t have to dig too deep to discover a wealth of history just below the surface.

The Cotswolds is sheep country and wool was an important part of Tetbury’s past, in fact it was already an established wool town in the Middle Ages, (1066 – 1485) and became one of the best known wool and yarn markets by the 16th century.

Forgive me for this little history lesson but it is an important introduction to the next part of the story and helps to explain at least one part of the eccentricity of the English.

Old traditions die hard in these parts, so for those who stumble onto one of our more insane days of “fun” it helps to understand, if not the WHY at least the Where it came from.

I suppose if I were to mention Gumstool Hill in Tetbury it wouldn’t mean a hell of a lot to most of you and for 364 days of a year it is just another street in the town.

The old cattle market used to be first at the top of the hill and then when the railway came to town they moved the market to the bottom of the hill to be closer to the railway line that linked Tetbury to the main line to London and the world.

The name Gumstool comes from a form of Olde English punishment, the dunking stool and was used to punish nagging wives and fraudulent traders by binding them to a seat on a long pole and plunging them into the local pond. Now given that the pond was at the foot of a steep hill, close to the cattle market and was the watering hole for said live stock… I’ll leave the rest to the imagination.

But I digress, what about the 365th day ? Well, that’s Wool Sack Race Day and if you wish to take part the requirements are; you be extremely fit, fearless and Oh Yes… completely Nuts !

The race course has recently been shortened from its original 280 yards to 240 yards not that I can see it makes that great a difference to the overall challenge which is twofold:
One, Gumstool Hill has an incline of 1 in 4

Woolsack Race 002
Not so bad looking down. That cream hut with the red roof in the distance is the start line.

Two, you will be carrying a large sack full of wool weighing 60 pounds on your shoulders. Male (the ladies carry a smaller one of 35 pounds).
As a small aside this is a hessian sack so if it’s raining it gets heavier as the day wears on.

Oh Yes I nearly forgot, there is also a 4 man team relay race, where you start at the top of the hill and run down it with 60 pounds of wool helping gravity and then your team mate carries it back up again.

So how did all this silliness start you might ask ? Sheer Male bravado is the simple answer.

Naturally, being a market town there was, and still is a fair number of pubs and it just so happens there is a pub at each end of Gumstool Hill. At the bottom of the hill we have the Royal Oak, and the Crown at the top and for those slow on the uptake the distance between them is 280 yards.

After many day’s droving sheep and cattle to the town the drovers had to wait for the market to be over before they got paid…. Then it was party time!
As a way to show off to the local maidens of Tetbury the drovers used to challenge one another to a race between the two pubs. Of course I’m sure the two pub landlords were not above encouraging such thirsty endeavours and I’m also sure a few wagers were place as well.

Now at what point some idiot thought it a good idea to include a 60 pound sack of wool is not clear but as they say a tradition was born.
The modern day event has been running now for 30 years and has its place in the Guinness Book of records:
World Record times. Men’s Individual 45.94 seconds. (Pete Roberts 2007).
Women’s Individual 1 min 05.seconds ( Zoe Dixon 2009).
The local Rugby Football Club hold the 4 man team record since 2003 with a time of 2 mins 53 secs.

There is no admission charge, it’s a great family day out and the whole town centre is given over to a street market and fun fair.
Proceeds of this year’s event is the “Help for Heroes” in support of Our troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Me ? I’ll be driving the ‘Park and Ride’ Bus from the Car Park to the town centre and back.

He He ! I only look daft! Take a look at the pictures it was bad enough walking down it taking pictures ….



8 Responses to “English Eccentrics Explained. – Well Almost.”

  1. Oh, my stars! What a riot! I think I’d enjoy sitting in one of the pubs and watching all the hubbub.

    And for the record–I’m not much of a nagger, but I’m still thrilled to discover wife-dunking is no longer in practice. Shudder.

    • merlinfraser Says:

      Hi Linda, it is a riot, and it is by no means the strangest thing we get up to in this part of the World, I shall dig out some of the others which includes chasing a rolling cheese down an impossibly steep hill, Sting Nettle eating or how about Shin Kicking as a sport ?

      • Yes. Post all of them. Do you use the British quirkiness in your novels?

      • merlinfraser Says:

        Hi Linda, They are on their way Linda, I’ll start with yesterday’s Cheese Rolling Race in my native Gloucestershire. Sounds fairly innocuous but wait until you see the pictures !
        As for British quirkiness in my novels, I suppose I do, I certainly hope my humour shines through my characters however if you want the true Britishness may I suggest you trawl through my Blogs, try some of the characters from my past.

  2. Merlin this is priceless and the proceeds go to a wonderful cause. It look to me like great folly. :o)

    • merlinfraser Says:

      Hi Patricia, there are a lot of things I will do in the name of good causes and I don’t mind doing my share of driving the Park and Ride Bus to the car park but running up and or down that hill with or without the sack is not on my list. I don’t even like driving the bus up the hill !a

  3. Johnc658 Says:

    Aw, this was a very nice post. In thought I want to put in writing like this moreover taking time and actual effort to make an excellent article but what can I say I procrastinate alot and not at all seem to get something done. gfekkdcfgbgd

    • merlinfraser Says:

      Thanks John, as a writer across many different genres I encourage everybody to write. OK most of us will never be prolific novel writers but that doesn’t mean we cannot have a health stock of Blogs covering almost any subject. Depends what interests you, humour, history or something else. As far as history is concerned, especially living history, again depending how old you are and how far your memories go back, including parents and possibly grand parents as well, look how much has changed in the the last 50 years. I am in the process of writing a short history of an American Battalion stationed here in England just before D Day and the job they did interpreting aerial photographs of the Normandy coast and turning them into maps. When explaining to a group of young students one question was ” Why didn’t they just Google it ?”

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