Feb 282017


Today is Shrove Tuesday, pretty universally known as Pancake Day in England. Within the Christian world, especially in Catholic countries, the day goes by various names and is associated with numerous customs. Mardi Gras in New Orleans is very well known, for example. I’m going to leave the rest of the world alone and zoom in on Shrove Tuesday in England where pancakes are king and mob football is queen.  This post (and yesterday’s) are part of a series I am going to do on what I call “unpacking Easter” analogous to my series on unpacking Christmas.  The details of Easter are here if you want to look ahead — http://www.passionintellectpersistence.com/unpacking-easter/

My mum made pancakes on Pancake Day every year when I was growing up.  It always came up as a surprise to me because within the Presbyterian church tradition at the time we paid no attention to Ash Wednesday, Lent, and so forth.  Consequently I was always unaware that Shrove Tuesday was on the horizon, and since it’s a movable feast, linked to Easter, I had no date fixed in my head. I was just pleasantly surprised every year when the frying pan, eggs, lemons, and sugar came out and I stuffed my gut with pancakes.

NOT English pancakes

First of all, for the non-Brits amongst you, let’s be clear about pancakes.  English pancakes are nothing like the doughy raised things that people in the U.S. eat for breakfast with butter and syrup. Put that thought completely out of your head.  They are close kin to French crêpes, Italian crespelle, or Argentine/Spanish panqueques. They can be eaten any time of the year with any filling, sweet or savory, but on Pancake Day they should be served with sugar and lemon wedges as dessert after dinner.

The usual nonsense gets spouted yearly about how the custom of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday arose, but the truth is that no one knows. Rubbish such as this comes from Wikipedia:

Pancakes are associated with the day preceding Lent because they were a way to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar, before the fasting season of the 40 days of Lent. In addition, pancakes, in Christianity, symbolize “four pillars of the Christian faith—eggs for creation, flour as the mainstay of the human diet, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity.” The liturgical fasting emphasized eating plainer food and refraining from food that would give pleasure: in many cultures, this means no meat, dairy products, or eggs.

Eggs and milk are not classically forbidden in Lent so there’s no reason to use them up the day before Ash Wednesday, and sugar was not common household fare in Europe until the 18th century. My suspicion is that Pancake Day took off in England in the 19th century as did so many “ancient” traditions.  Much the same can be said of the famous Pancake Day race in Olney and Royal Shrovetide Football in Ashbourne. No matter. They’re fun.

Legend has it that the Olney (Buckinghamshire) Pancake Day race began in 1445 on Shrove Tuesday. Supposedly the “Shriving Bell” rang out to signal the start of the Shriving church service and on hearing the bell a local housewife, who had been busy cooking pancakes in anticipation of the beginning of Lent, ran to the church, frying pan still in hand, tossing the pancake to prevent it from burning, and dressed in her kitchen apron and headscarf.  A nice story which may or may not be true.

Nowadays the race is run at 11 am on Shrove Tuesday from the market place to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, a distance of a little over 400 yards. The record time stands at around 55 seconds which is pretty nippy. Current rules require that the participants wear a headscarf and apron, and that the pancake be tossed once at the start and again at the finish. Men occasionally participate (usually celebrities) but they have to wear apron and headscarf. The race is limited to 25 competitors, although since 1950 there have also been children’s races. The traditional prize for the winner was a kiss from the verger.  This gallery shows the race in the immediate post-war years and more recently. You can see that the competitive element is much more in the foreground these days.

There may be a bit more continuity to the Shrovetide football game in Ashbourne (Derbyshire) although primary sources are scant.  It seems to have started some time in the 17th century although seasonal games of mob football are considerably older.  Shrove Tuesday used to be a half-day holiday in England giving townspeople the leisure time for ball games.

The Ashbourne game is played over two days on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, starting each day at 2.00 pm and lasting until 10.00 pm. If a goal is scored before 5.30 pm a new ball is released and play restarts from the town centre, otherwise play ends for the day. The ball is rarely kicked, though it is legal to kick, carry or throw it. Instead it generally moves through the town in a series of hugs, like a giant scrum in rugby, made up of dozens if not hundreds of people. When the ball is goaled, the scorer is carried on the shoulders of his colleagues into the courtyard of The Green Man Royal Hotel.

The two teams that play the game are known as the Up’Ards and the Down’Ards. The Up’Ards are traditionally those town members born north of Henmore Brook, which runs through the town, and Down’Ards are those born south of the river. Each team attempts to carry the ball back to their own goal from the turn-up, rather than the more traditional method of scoring at/in the opponents goal. There are two goal posts 3 miles apart, one at Sturston Mill (where the Up’Ards attempt to score), the other at Clifton Mill (where the Down’Ards score). Although the mills have long since been demolished, part of their millstones still stand on the bank of the river at each location and once served as the scoring posts. In 1996 the scoring posts were replaced by new smaller millstones mounted on to purpose-built stone structures, which are still in use to this day and require the players to actually be in the river in order to goal a ball.

The actual process of ‘goaling’ a ball requires a player to hit it against the millstone three successive times. This is not a purely random event, however, as the eventual scorer is elected en route to the goal and would typically be someone who lives in Ashbourne or at least whose family is well known to the community. The chances of a ‘tourist’ goaling a ball are very remote.

The game is played through the town with no limit on the number of players or the playing area. Thus shops in the town are boarded up during the game, and people are encouraged to park their cars away from the main streets. The game is started from a special plinth in the town center where the ball is thrown to the players (“turned-up”), often by a visiting dignitary. Before the ball is turned-up, the assembled crowd sing Auld Lang Syne followed by God Save the Queen. The starting point has not changed in many years, although the town has changed around it. As a consequence, the starting podium is currently located in the town’s main car park, which is named Shaw Croft after an ancient field that was once there.

The game has been known as “Royal” since 1923, the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) turned-up the ball in 1928. The Prince is recorded as getting a bloody nose during the game. The game received ‘Royal Assent’ for a second time in 2003, when the game was once again started by the Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles.

The Up’Ards’ traditional goal was Sturston Mill in Sturston village east of Asbourne and the Down’Ards’ goal was Clifton Mill in the village of Clifton west of Ashbourne. Clifton Mill was demolished in 1967. A stone obelisk with commemorative plaque marking the site was unveiled in 1968. This became the Down’Ards goal for the next 28 years. Sturston Mill was demolished in 1981. A timber post salvaged from the mill was erected on the site of the old mill to act as a goal for the Up’Ards. The purpose-built goals erected in 1996 on the banks of Henmore Brook are located 3 miles apart. The Up’Ards goal is upstream from Shawcroft adjacent to the site of the former Sturston Mill and the Down’Ards goal is downstream from Shawcroft adjacent to the site of the former Clifton Mill.

The game is played with a special ball, larger than a standard football, which is filled with Portuguese cork to help the ball float when it inevitably ends up in the river. It is now hand-painted by local craftsmen specially for the occasion, and the design is usually related to the dignitary who will be turning-up the ball. Once a ball is goaled it is repainted with the name and in the design of the scorer and is theirs to keep. If a ball is not goaled it is repainted in the design of the dignitary that turned it up and given back to them to keep. Many of the balls are put on display in the local pubs during the game for the public to view; traditionally these pubs are divided by team (The Wheel Inn being a popular Down’Ard base, and the Old Vaults for the Up’ards, for example).

There are very few rules. The main ones are:

Committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited. Unnecessary violence is frowned upon.

The ball may not be carried in a motorised vehicle.

The ball may not be hidden in a bag, coat or rucksack, etc.

Cemeteries, churchyards and the town memorial gardens are strictly out of bounds.

Playing after 10 pm is forbidden.

To score a goal the ball must be tapped 3 times in the area of the goal.

I gave my recipe for pancake batter in this video.


It’s the same egg batter that I use for Argentine tortillas and Yorkshire pudding. You can use milk in place of water and add butter to the batter if you want. I’ve been making pancakes for over 40 years and I’m content with my recipe, such as it is. For me there are two “secrets” – (1) Mix the flour and water first to avoid lumps. (2) Keep the batter thin so that it will spread easily in the pan and make thin pancakes. After that you’re on your own. I’ve given Mrs Beeton’s recipe at the end, in case you want something more detailed.

Your pancake pan should be small and heavy. Heat the pan over high heat for a minute or so, then turn off the heat and add a knob of butter to the pan.  While it is sizzling drop in a ladleful of batter and swirl the pan around so that the batter coats the bottom evenly. Place over medium-high heat until the bottom is easily released from the pan when you shake it. The bottom should be speckled brown.  Then you can do one of several things. Traditionally you toss the pancake and cook the other side so that it is also a little brown. In the past I was never very good at tossing the pancake without it breaking or falling back crumpled up, so I used to slip it under the broiler to cook the top. Third choice is to follow Mrs Beeton and not cook the top at all.

I cook pancakes to order so that every one is fresh. I slip each one out of the pan and serve it flat on a plate.  Our custom when I was a boy, which I still follow, is to sprinkle the flat pancake with sugar and add a squeeze of fresh lemon, roll it up and repeat.

Generally the first pancake is a failure for one reason or another.  I eat it quickly and move on.  Once the pan is hot enough so that the butter melts easily each time you add a knob to the pan the procedure is much smoother – in my experience.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—Eggs, flour, milk; to every egg allow 1 oz. of flour, about 1 gill of milk, 1/8 saltspoonful of salt.

Mode.—Ascertain that the eggs are fresh; break each one separately in a cup; whisk them well, put them into a basin, with the flour, salt, and a few drops of milk, and beat the whole to a perfectly smooth batter; then add by degrees the remainder of the milk. The proportion of this latter ingredient must be regulated by the size of the eggs, &c. &c.; but the batter, when ready for frying, should be of the consistency of thick cream. Place a small frying-pan on the fire to get hot; let it be delicately clean, or the pancakes will stick, and, when quite hot, put into it a small piece of butter, allowing about 1/2 oz. to each pancake. When it is melted, pour in the batter, about 1/2 teacupful to a pan 5 inches in diameter, and fry it for about 4 minutes, or until it is nicely brown on one side. By only pouring in a small quantity of batter, and so making the pancakes thin, the necessity of turning them (an operation rather difficult to unskilful cooks) is obviated. When the pancake is done, sprinkle over it some pounded sugar, roll it up in the pan, and take it out with a large slice, and place it on a dish before the fire. Proceed in this manner until sufficient are cooked for a dish; then send them quickly to table, and continue to send in a further quantity, as pancakes are never good unless eaten almost immediately they come from the frying-pan. The batter may be flavoured with a little grated lemon-rind, or the pancakes may have preserve rolled in them instead of sugar. Send sifted sugar and a cut lemon to table with them. To render the pancakes very light, the yolks and whites of the eggs should be beaten separately, and the whites added the last thing to the batter before frying.

Time.—from 4 to 6 minutes for a pancake that does not require turning; from 6 to 8 minutes for a thicker one.

Average cost, for 3 persons, 6d.

Sufficient.—Allow 3 eggs, with the other ingredients in proportion, for 3 persons.

Seasonable at any time, but specially served on Shrove Tuesday.



  2 Responses to “Pancake Day”

  1. An Easter pursuit rather than Shrove Tuesday is the similar mayhem which takes place in Workington, Cumberland aka Cumbria – with the “Uppies” and “Downies” (The Downies used to be from the Marsh and Quay area of the town , where there are few habitations these days. ) Swimming across the harbour is a good tactic, drowning , less so. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uppies_and_Downies

    • I’ve never felt the particular urge to chase after a football in the middle of a river surrounded by a crazy mob. But I can understand the urge on some people’s parts once a year. I assume there is beer involved.

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