RUNNING THE HOOD.
Notwithstanding the many disquisitions on our popular pastimes, I believe it remains to your humble servant to chronicle to the world the doughty game of Running the Hood at Haxey. And it is that I may depict this, that I venture to invite you to accompany me for a day’s sport to Haxey, in the isle of Axholme, Lincolnshire.
It was a fine sunny morning that I landed from the boat, somewhat benumbed, at Ferry-on-Trent, on the 6th of January in the present 1859. After refreshing the inward man at mine host’s of the White Hart, I started on my way to walk to Haxey, for this part of the country is, as yet, unsophisticated by that great innovator, the rail.
Proceeding through Ferry, you enter the parish of Owston, both so closely together that the one may be said to merge into the other; and now, after passing the church, you are fairly out into the open country. What a contrast do the quiet fields and green lanes present to the noise and rattle of a thickly peopled town.
During the earlier part of the morning the air had been thick and misty, and intensely cold: but now the sun broke out in his splendour. The air, before sharp and biting, was now mellowed to a more genial temperature, sending the warm blood tingling through one’s veins.
The birds twittered on the leafless branches, and in the distance, borne on the wind, came the song of the ploughboy as he followed his team. Here and there are substantial farmsteads of the real old English style, whose thickly-thatched roofs, well covered with patches of moss, bespeak their green old age. The cattle in the fold-yard gaze dreamily on you, while comely matrons and sturdy children open their doors to see and look after you as you pass along.
This is a trait peculiar to the country, and has this advantage, that whereas it is the prerogative of the great to be the “cynosure of every eye” in populous cities, here the humblest, if he be a stranger, may indeed be The observed of all observers. Leaving these behind, you see, at a turn of the lane, the fine old church of Haxey, high-seated on the hill, looking, as it were, like a patriarch of old watching the flock entrusted to his care.
Anon you meet a carter and his horse, dragging their “slow length along.” Horse and driver seem perfectly to understand each other, and it might be a point for sophists to discuss, which were the more intelligent of the two. They are both seemingly engaged in the exhilarating occupation of doing as little distance in as long a time as possible.
You now enter the picturesque and well-populated village of Haxey, nearly every house newly white-washed, looking so clean and trim — suggestive of the idea that they must have been under the hands of the laundress, to be well starched and bleached, so neat do they appear in their snowy purity.
Buxom, laughing-eyed damsels trip lightly along in their Sunday best, for it is holiday to-day, and all work is suspended for at least another. And now, having received a hearty welcome from the friends who were expecting me, and partaken freely of the huge sirloin and savoury ham, for the brisk walk had somewhat sharpened one’s appetite, let me take a turn to see what may be seen.
A few steps soon take us again to the fields; and here let me mention an interesting feature peculiar to this locality. Before you, lay immense tracts of lands, parcelled out into lots of one acre, more or less. All fields are divided into what are technically termed “lands,” with a deep furrow between each, for drainage.
And it is one of these strips of land which constitute a lot, so that a ten-acred field may be the property of nearly as many owners. The advantages to the middle and poorer classes are clearly apparent: for while the former may safely invest a spare fifty or hundred pounds, and the latter be induced to save a like sum, neither would attempt the purchase of broad-acred fields, and those who, poorer still, cannot afford to purchase, may hire, at an easy rental, a strip or two to fill their unemployed time; by these means a man may grow his own corn, all his garden stuff, and have some to spare for market at a very trifling cost, and have a good pig in stye at Christmas to boot. And it may be attributed to this, that this district is so important among the electors of Lindsey.
It is to be deplored that this system is not more widely extended in our agricultural districts. Let your broad-acred philanthropists, and those who prate in after-dinner speeches on the condition of the working classes, take this lesson to their hearts; here is a system, easy and practicable, and which is, like mercy, twice blest, enriching him that receives and him that gives.
And but to see, as I have, those various strips of land in summer time, clothed in all the rich luxuriance of their varied crops, is a sight not easily to be forgotten from their beauty and their novelty; the many shades of green, from dark to light, from light to yellow, interspersed with stripes of ripening corn, and at intervals a line of the black-eyed bean-flower or sweet scented pea, with here and there a strip of land laid fallow, forming, as it were, a groundwork and relief to the whole.
And now let us ascend the brow of the hill. What a fine panoramic view extends before us! There, in the horizon, nods an old church on the hill, standing out clearly against the sky; before us, in the distance, are the spires of Doncaster; to the right lies Epworth, the birthplace of John Wesley, and to the left the ancient town of Gainsboro’, and all the adjacent country round is dotted with small villages or hamlets.
Down yonder are the turf cars, and here, sheltered by the hill, lies Westwoodside, the surrounding country once covered with huge primeval forests; the trunks of which are yet turned up by the plough, and I have seen some measuring several yards in circumference, the wood quite fresh and very valuable for “kindling.”
And now, lest you grow weary of this, let us sojourn with my friend, and after dinner I promise you a run for the Hood. I am afraid that I have fallen into a very common error, for after drawing you through this long preamble, I, like a lady’s postscript, am but going to tell you that at last which I promised to tell you at first.
While we are discussing the “divine weed” and a glass of home-brewed, let me explain to you the legend and the supposed origin of this famous Hood of Haxey. The legend says, then, that once upon a time, an old lady was passing over the hill we have just left (where the sports are still held), one blustering 6th of January, when rude Boreas, being rather more rude than usual, blew off the old lady’s hood; some boys, ruder still, instead of politely handing it to her, began throwing it from one to the other.
Now most people, and especially old ladies, would here have waxed exceedingly wrath; but she, being an exception to the rule, well pleased, laughed immoderately; and, to show that she bore no malice, bequeathed from thence and for ever thirteen acres of land for as many men (now called by the euphonious name of “boggans”) that the sport might be renewed every 6th of January in remembrance of her.
And, hark! the bells ring out their merriest peal, and people from all parts are crowding in by swarms — it is time we were off to the ground. On a stone pillar in front of the church stands a man who rejoices in the title of “the fool,” dressed harlequin-like, though not in such gaudy trappings; he is issuing a kind of proclamation, and having recited this, he repairs with a vast concourse to the ground where are already assembled many hundreds of people.
As there are now so many eager to run the Hood, it is the function of the aforesaid boggans to stand at all points round the field that the hood may not be thrown off the grounds before four o’clock. The Hood now resembles more a stout cudgel than the article so called; it is made of leather, stuffed with some hard substance, and is about thirty inches long by about four in diameter.
It is the spirit of emulation which pervades the partisans of the neighbouring villages, which gives to the sport its interest and excitement, for it is held a high point of honour by the party who can succeed in taking the hood to their town; and no mounted squire ever followed the hounds, or hounds the fox, nor “broth of a boy” e’er rushed to a faction fight with more zeal and ardour than these men when well warmed in this contest of generous rivalry.
Soon the sport is at its highest pitch; the excitement of those in the contest “must be seen to bo believed,” yet in its very height there is obviously a spirit of fair play. Every man who catches the Hood is allowed his throw; garrulous greybeards, smiling on, speak of the days when they were lads, and will yet run eagerly to catch the Hood as it falls — it is something to boast of, they have thrown the Hood this year.
The clock strikes four; the sentinels leave their posts, and, after varying fortunes, the Westwoodsiders have thrown the Hood over the south slope of the hill, while their dauntless compeers rush madly on to retrieve their position, but they, like the rest of the world, find it much easier going down hill than to retrieve a lost position. Away they go, the earth resounding with tramp of a thousand feet, over hedges, ditches, and dikes they fly, Torrents less rapid and less rash.
The following day, should there be any new member to be initiated into the Honourable Company of Boggans, he takes his noviciate by being smoked. This interesting ceremony is performed by setting fire to a quantity of damp straw placed on the road, and he is suspended in a sling from a tree overhanging the same: he is then swung backward and forward through the dense mass of smoke; and to see him blow for air, and his horrible grimaces, is as ludicrous a sight as one can possibly imagine. He is then taken down; and, after his powers are resuscitated, is “cobbed” at the nearest gate — being then duly incorporated into the aforesaid Honourable Company of Boggans, to share in their honours and emoluments.
And now that the sports are over, I turn me homeward, well pleased, for my part at least, with my visit.
Author: W. W. Wilson.