Despite the organizers' best efforts to keep the games authentic, the modern world kept intruding. A high-jump bar replaced the customary privet hedge in hay tossing. The milk-churn race was diluted when water was used instead of milk. And the sponsors sanitized the ancient sport of cow-chip tossing into a weighted Frisbee contest. In the old days, a competitor in the brick-carry was more likely to be a quarryman dangling stones, a miner mouthing a load of coal, or a dairyman lugging a wheel of cheese.
International trade adulterated the tournament, too. The turnip-skittles contest turned into cabbage skittles because of the Common Market. The exigencies of membership in the European Economic Community has created in England a shortage of turnips for knocking down skittles, or bowling pins. So, the village games had to make do with cabbages, which added a nice touch to the proceedings, bounding, as they did, across the vast and tidy lawns and shedding their leaves on the spectators. ( Skittles has always been a dangerous sport for onlookers. During the English Civil War, cannonballs were used in roadside matches until too many cows wound up with broken legs.)
But these games haven't gotten tamer over' the years. One unlucky fellow slipped on a cabbage and broke an ankle. That wasn't the only mishap. Coward got too pumped up during a brick-carrying practice session and swung his test load through a closed window, smashing the glass. In the semis, he split his lips and gums. One of Coward's competitors truly lost his grip: When the bricks crashed to the floor, so did his dental plate.
Some contestants were born to their sports, e.g., Nottinghamshire farmer Rodney Pitchfork, who was a co-winner in the hay-bale tossing. Others had to train. The team from the Morning Star pub in Peckham practiced once a week for two months for the rabbit race. Their entry had been secretly stabled in the cellar for three weeks. The Chequers pub in Barkingside held once-a-week workouts for its bunny. "This pub is sports mad," said Brenda Hunter, the landlady. "We can't have a lazy rabbit letting us down." It did, nonetheless. Speedy, a black rabbit from the Good Intent pub in Sawbridgeworth, won the 20-yard dash.
Cross Keys landlord Jeff Benson had his team work out an hour and a half every Sunday morning. Its members had plenty of time to practice—nearly half of them were out of work. Benson figures Coward's gritty brickwork galvanized the group. "We knew he'd be perfect," said Benson. "He'd go through agony to win."
When it came to churning it out, no one could top Carol Cory, a 20-year-old receptionist, who masterly ladled 36� inches of water in just three minutes. She did it without using her hands, which by rule had to balance the yoke on her shoulders. The object is to fill the two buckets hanging from opposite sides of the yoke, hobble across the field and empty the buckets into the narrow mouth of the churn.
"Cory stuffed her foot inside each bucket so she could dunk it into the water barrel," reports SI London correspondent Margaret Wright. "Resting one bucket on the ground, she nipped the other one with her teeth, wedged it between her elbows and poured. Not a drop was wasted!"
The British villagers enlivened the sack race by bagging their heads instead of their legs. The event supposedly had its heyday during the Victorian era, when railroads gave farmers free sacks to encourage them to ship grain by train. Cock and Castle divided its winnings 21 ways among its 13 outdoor competitors and eight others who won separate indoor events in darts and shove-ha'penny, or shove-groat, as it was called in Elizabethan times. It's an old bar game that Falstaff alludes to in the Boar's-Head Tavern in Henry IV, Part II. You score by pushing ha'pennies across a wooden board into one of nine narrow furrows.
Dave Ferguson, a 42-year-old roofer from Sleaford, became the All-England nurdling champ by flipping seven of 13 old British coins into a tiny hole in a wooden bench nine feet away. Dave Thompson and Lynn Cornhill from Barkingside scrambled their opponents in the egg toss: Cornhill chucked an egg 98 feet to Thompson without cracking it.
Alas, the Guinness Book of World Records lists an egg toss of 317'10" by a couple of hard-boiled Finns named Risto Antikainen and Jyrki Korhonen. And the world record for drop skipping was set by Frank Oliveri, a Yank—120,744 turns in 12 hours and eight minutes. Games champ Margaret Sharman, the wife of a Caunton mushroom farmer, skipped for a mere 35 minutes. Even in some of her native games, England has become a second-rate power.