Who would fancy stripping off to wrestle on New Years Day

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Cumberland and Westmorland wrestlers are a hardy bunch who compete in all sorts of conditions. In a drought year the rings are like concrete. Whilst in the past two years the action has often been in a morass. All these uncomfortable variations are the result of the vagaries of the weather, but two centuries ago choices of venues and dates seemed perverse, verging on masochism.

With all the bracing weather of the past ten days, who would fancy stripping off to wrestle on New Years Day? Yet that was the date of one of the biggest wrestling events, Langwathby Rounds, which lasted from the 1780s to 1870. Wrestling formed by far the biggest attraction of these primitive gatherings; the yeomen, farmers and the husbandmen from the neighbouring hamlets being the principal competitors. The village girls danced, the lads ran and jumped even amidst the cheerless snow. By the time these pastimes were concluded, daylight had either gone or was fast fading away. Owing to the darkness setting in thus early, lanterns were frequently in great request among the rough-spun frequenters of the wrestling ring.

In 1785 the hardiness of wrestlers and spectators was even further challenged when Windermere Lake froze over. When the ice had attained great thickness a project was started for roasting a large ox on it. A vast concourse from all parts of the surrounding country assembled to enjoy the unusual sight. Creature comforts, in the shape of eatables and lots of beer, were not wanting. A band of music from Kendal, too, gave animation to the scene. The wrestling was in clogs, such as country people at that time generally wore. These primitive coverings for the feet, though well adapted for sliding on the ice, were clumsy to wrestle in; nevertheless the falls were eagerly contested, and delighted the throng of spectators. The final victor received a belt.

The wildest venue of all was the annual shepherds' meet each July on top of High Street, 2700 feet above sea level. Shepherds converged on the wide summit with stray sheep to return to their owners. That business done they turned to food and alcohol, and finally to running, horse-racing and wrestling.

I like to think that Thomas Bewick, the wood engraver, whose tiny tale-pieces gave a key-hole vision of rural life, knew about such as the High Street wrestling, for from his workshop came an engraving of two wrestlers taking hold high in the mountains. In 1776 he walked over from Tyneside to visit his uncle and cousins at Ainstable, discovered from his landlord in Langholm that my cousin who had accompanied me to Carlisle had won nine belts in his wrestling matches.

 

The wrestling engraving may have been done by one of Bewick's apprentices, and is a contender for the oldest image of wrestling that I know of.

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

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