Wrestling in Winter in days gone by

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This year wrestlers have had to contend with some atrocious conditions and many events have been cancelled; but at least you can feel that the organisers have chosen places and dates that would be fine in a normal year. Our ancestors had a much more masochistic streak at times, and held events in midwinter and on the tops of mountains.

In 1785, wrestlers competed in the middle of Lake Windermere, in clogs, on ice. The ice on the lake 'attained a great thickness', a large ox was roasted, Kendal band tootled, 'lots of beer' was swilled, and the wrestlers took hod. 'The wrestling was in clogs, such as country people at that time generally worethe falls were eagerly contested, and delighted the throng of spectators. The final victor received a belt.'

That was a special impromptu event, but 'Wrestlings, Jumpings, Horse Races and other sports' took place at 2,700 feet on the top of High Street 'annually on the 10th July for many years, and long continued to be a flourishing institution'. The excuse for this venue was that it served as a Shepherd's Meet when stray sheep could be mustered and returned to owners.

One of the earliest images of Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling is a woodcut by Thomas Bewick which depicts two wrestlers in holds, high in the hills. Bewick, born in 1753 wrote in his memoirs about walking over to Cumberland from the Tyne in 1774 and finding that his cousin was a famous wrestler who had won nine belts.

At least the High Street event took place in summer. Langwathby at the edge of the Pennines , tempted fate each year by holding its Rounds on New Year's Day. 'Wrestling formed by far the greatest attraction of these primitive gatherings; the yeoman farmers, and husbandmen from the neighbouring hamlets being the principal competitors.'

Not unexpectedly, the weather could be bad. 'In 1820, on New Year's Day, the ground was covered with a coating of snow three or four inches deep.' Nevertheless, the wrestling went on, and in a bout between Mason of Croglin and Westmorland of Ousby, Mason entered the ring wearing an 'old home-spun overcoat so thick and patched that it set at nought Westmorland's attempts to clasp his hands around it'

As his opponent became 'numb and frigid with cold' Mason took his time to be persuaded to strip. Even when the huge overcoat was shed, Westmorland still was unable to get hold. After more lengthy negotiations Mason eventually stripped to 'his sark in the snow, with nothing on but his trousers, where his opponent managed to keep him standing until he, in his turn, was nearly starved to death'

Those were the days !

Written by © Roger Robson. Photographs by © Roger Robson, Julian Richardson or Linda Scott (February 10th 2011)

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