It was late afternoon, and rain spouted down through the trees. For more than four hours, Arthur Coward and Stephen Gill had been pacing the greensward on the grounds of Chatsworth House, near Bakewell, hands tied behind their backs, each with a 21-pound bundle of bricks dangling from his mouth by a strand of twine. The twine cutting into Coward's lower lip was red with blood, but on he walked, a village stalwart, doing an occasional jig to demoralize his opponent. Gill retaliated with a Churchillian stiff upper lip, and walked even faster.
These odd goings-on had nothing to do with Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, but rather were last month's inaugural Village Sports Challenge in the English Midlands, not far from Queen Mary's Bower, in which Lord Shrewsbury interned Mary Queen of Scots, and the parterres that William Cavendish, the First Duke of Devonshire, had planted while lying low to escape a �30,000 fine for tweaking the nose of a certain Colonel Culpepper. A couple of British television journalists named Peter Fairley and Tony McCarthy founded the English Village Sports Society this year to revive old pastimes engaged in by Englishmen, among them knur and spell, duddlums, and Nine Men's Morris, a board game that was all the rage in the 14th century. The official press kit explained Nine Men's Morris as "a mobile form of noughts and crosses"—if that's any help.
A work crew busily removed the last vestiges of the earlier games: horseshoes and hay bales, rabbits and burlap sacks. Darkness crept across the turf at Chatsworth, near the banks of the River Derwent. The boisterous, boozy crowd of 1,500 had dwindled to 100.
Coward and Gill were finalists in the brick-carrying competition, an event that requires a certain taste for suffering. Contestants aren't allowed food, rest stops or breaks for tea. The bloke who carries the bricks longest wins.
The favorite appeared to be Gill, dubbed the Hare, who was still chipper after four hours and nearly 15 miles of walking in an ellipse. Coward, the Tortoise, hung on by the skin of his teeth: He staggered along looking ready to drop his load at any step.
Representatives of the sponsors, Gilbeys Gin, had predicted the event would be over "relatively quickly." But after the fourth hour they themselves were pacing the sward, looking anxious. In voices grave and firm they repeatedly begged the two to quit. But Coward and Gill vetoed their objections.
Coward, a 42-year-old video-shop proprietor, represented Cross Keys pub of Stairfoot. Gill, a 26-year-old painter, competed in the name of Cock and Castle of Harrogate. Both towns are in Yorkshire, home of fiery miners' union leader Arthur Scargill and Splendid Splendid Sam Smith nut-brown ale. The 13-member teams of Cross Keys and Cock and Castle included at least two striking miners apiece. Cross Keys had another four or five competitors who were on the dole.
The sports they played were those of Olde England, but the sportsmen were new Englishmen. "The coal strike has really flattened everything in Stairfoot," said Cross Keys' Ray Evans, a scrap-metal merchant. The grand prize of about $6,500 looked awfully attractive.
Two rounds of semifinals were held in August, one at Castle Howard in the north, the other at Knebworth House in the south. Eight English pubs sent teams to the Chatsworth finals, and they competed in such arcane events as turnip skittles, tossing the hay, milk-churn racing, smock racing and egg tossing (not to be confused with egg jousting, the Afghan game that begins with the challenger saying, "With my head I will break your head").
There were more mundane sports, including horseshoe pitching, rabbit racing and "drop" skipping (skipping rope until you drop). But the organizers ignored such oldtime favorites as pack gnat, jellyfish, plunkers, hot rice and Are You There, Jenkins? Still, there was room for Devil among the Tailors, Toad in the Hole and, of course, dwyle flunking, a bizarre ritual in which a circle of dancers are flogged with wet mopheads.