Lewes

“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

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This week sees Lewes’s annual demonstration of the triumph of hope over experience as more than hundred local teams attempt to prove that their modest showing in last year’s Rotary Club skittles competition in Grange Gardens was simply down to ill luck.

My own team has picked up a trick or two over the years. Not so much sledging our opponents, or ball tampering or reverse swing, as the covert appropriation of heavy balls (no, I’m not going there) from neighbouring lanes in order to boost the prospects of tumbling skittles. But, at the end of the day, skill tends to emerge victorious. So, despite the best efforts of “Two Puddings”, “Scan my Chip” and the rest of the team, we were stuffed as usual.

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I still haven’t worked out the etiquette here, after more than two decades of uninterrupted participation. Is it best, in the event of an occasional quality score (say, seven or more), to walk modestly forward, sensing – rather than actually hearing – the rapturous applause of one’s teammates, or should one give full vent to one’s inner Rooney and go into a knee slide along the bowling lane towards the fallen victims to one’s prowess. At my age, and with my orthopaedic history, I guess this is what they call a no-brainer.

But at least I’ve worked out that you have to go down the other end of your lane to pick up the skittles after your turn. Mrs. Blog still expects that to be carried out by some kind of mechanical device when she’s done and invariably goes in search of the Pimm’s she’d momentarily creched.

For Mrs. Blog and me, and for many in our social network, this is one of those fixed points in the Lewes calendar which makes the town what it is. A beer tent run by one of our bonfire societies, a burger stand run by the Inner Wheel (which supplied my birthday dinner of a “pulled pork” roll on the night), the whole thing well supported by press, businesses and the local community.

I still didn’t manage a “strike”.

But the town doesn’t content itself with just one major annual sporting spectacle. Each spring sees Lewes Lions Club organising its International Toad in the Hole competition. Toad is a pub game which involves throwing brass coins at a lead topped table with a hole in the middle. East Sussex is apparently home to the country’s only Toad league, with three divisions and a score of teams based in pubs around the county. So, “International” in the sense of “around Lewes”.

“But, what of stoolball?”, I hear you cry. Another Lewesian activity which I was dragooned into playing as soon as I arrived in town.

The game appears to have originated in Sussex, played by milkmaids around the 15th century, using milking stools as wickets, and been a forerunner, not only of cricket, but also of rounders, and even baseball.

Historians have theorised that the game was a Christian adaptation of pagan ball games strongly associated with fertility rites – in the comedy, The Two Noble Kinsmen, the phrase “playing at stool ball” seems to be used as a euphemism for hanky panky, if you’ll pardon the expression.

The game is played on grass with two wickets, a little like the arrangement for cricket, with one team fielding and the other batting. Bowling is underarm, with the ball reaching the batsman on the full as in rounders or baseball rather than bouncing from the pitch as in cricket. The wicket itself is a square piece of wood at head or shoulder height fastened to a post and the bat is shaped like a frying pan. The batsman scores runs as in cricket and can be out caught or run out.

The game appears to have been rediscovered and codified in Victorian times by a local vicar who felt it would make a suitable pursuit for young ladies in their crinolines. This does not explain why, a century later, bearded, overweight blokes are bashing balls with their stools. Or is it the other way round?

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Stoolball seems to have run into something of an evolutionary cul-de-sac compared, say, with cricket or baseball and didn’t manage to hitch a lift on the backs of the Empire builders to reach the far flung corners of the globe (inasmuch as globes actually have corners). There is, sadly, little prospect of Lewes hosting test matches against visiting teams from the West Indies or the Antipodes any time soon. What’s the matter with these people?

“Where Lewes leads”, as the saying goes, “nobody else bothers”. But we’re happy doing what we do. The Lewes Arms, for example, hosts the annual World Pea Throwing Championships, having successfully beaten off a challenge to that title from the nearby village of Wealden over Fracking. Each competitor lobs three of the popular legumes down Castle Ditch Lane next to the pub and the winner is the one whose pea travels furthest. Well, obviously that’s the winner, we’re not that weird. If your pea goes down a grate, you get another go, even if you’re from out of town, which seems very fair.

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Not content with this claim to global pre-eminence – and setting aside for now the delights of its unique “adult” spring panto – the Lewes Arms also plays host to the pastime of dwile flonking (see also dwyle flunking). This surprisingly under-appreciated activity involves two teams, each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team. Ok so far?

As the rules make perfectly obscure, a “dull witted person” is chosen as the referee or “jobanowl”, and the two teams decide who flonks first by tossing a sugar beet. The game begins when the jobanowl shouts, “Here y’go t’gither!”

The non-flonking team joins hands and dances in a circle around a member of the flonking team, a practice known as “girting”. The flonker dips his dwile-tipped “driveller”, made from hazel or yew, into a bucket of beer, then spins around in the opposite direction to the girters and flonks his dwile at them.

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If the dwile misses completely it is known as a “swadger” or a “swage”. When this happens, the flonker must drink the contents of an ale-filled “gazunder” (chamber pot) before the wet dwile has passed from hand to hand along the line of the now non-girting girters chanting the ceremonial mantra of “pot pot pot”.

Now, I’d like to see Gary Neville commentating on that if it were to go to a penalty shootout.

I wouldn’t want to sign off on a blog about excellent local games without a mention of another healthy outdoor sport which East Sussex gave to the world. I talk of course of Poohsticks, devised and codified in this very county by none other than local resident Pooh Bear, in the far off days when we still had ursines at large in Ashdown Forest and the Hundred Acre Wood and before they had been hunted to extinction by supporters of the Countryside Alliance.
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While we are content for non-Lewesians to enjoy their own imitations of our creation on their own “patch”, the game in its truest form belongs here. But, if you do wish to pay homage and play the game at its birthplace, could you please bring your own supply of sticks, as the river banks around Poohsticks Bridge are now somewhat denuded of competition standard timber?

Now, off to the World Marbles Championship just down the road…

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4 thoughts on ““Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

  1. Sherry Russell says:

    Very topical blog for this week of skittles Steve – and makes you realise what a fascinatingly colourful community we live in with these quirky sports. Great pic of Maggie. Sherry

  2. Pete White says:

    On an evening when England reverted to their traditional ways in the latest World Cup match (“Too many Merseysiders in the team” I hear you mutter) it was a great pleasure to be reminded that there are so many other alternative – and entertaining – sports.

    Even this neck of the woods has its share of traditional sports – plus a few confected additions. Such is the paucity of local entertainment that this years World Championship Dorset Knob Throwing at Cattistock drew a crowd of over 5,000. In similar vein, one of the series of Sheep Races that now seem to be in vogue (at least, in Sherborne, Hermitage and near Wimborne) prompted the Western Gazette headline “Sheep racing proves big draw”.

    All power to your excellent blog

    One query, though. You say that you have yet to get a “strike” at skittles. Surely that is a term from tenpin bowling? In Dorset, the term used in skittles is a “stick up”

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