The Grasmere Sports are to the dalesmen of Westmoreland and Cumberland what the gathering for the Highland games is to men across the Border. Thanks to the steady persistence of the Committee to keep intoxicants from the Sports’ field, their endeavours to discountenance betting on the events, and to see that “buying and selling” is prevented, the Grasmere wrestling ring has grown steadily in favour, both with wrestlers and with the public. We remember the time when chairs and forms were brought out of the nearest cottages to the field, for the few ladies and gentlemen to sit on and see the sport. Now we have a high-banked gallery of three tiers for the peasants, round a ring an eighth of a mile in circumference; and carriages and coaches in quadruple rank; behind this a grand stand, a band stand, and all the rest of it. (p. 527)
Everybody goes to “Girsmer” on Sports Day, and the fact that everybody has to take some trouble in the going—for Grasmere is eight miles from the nearest railway station—is one of the factors in the success of the games. (p. 527)
The dalesmen, in Sunday best, come bent on sport and not on licence, and very grimly and with obstinate patience does the dark crowd sit through sun and shower from first to last, cracking of nuts and popping of ginger-beer bottles at times alone breaking the silence of expectation. (p. 527)
They have come, some of them twenty miles on foot; they have paid their shilling admission to the field, and they intend to have their shilling’s-worth undisturbed. (p. 527)
The gentlefolk, with their spanking teams and their gay carriages, have come, it is true, more to see their friends than the games; but they are present, and their presence ensures a kind of feeling that all things must be done decently and in order. If it is the “Lillie Bridge” of the North for some of the athleticly-minded males, it is the “Lord’s” of the North for their fair companions. And there is that same delightful chance of meeting old friends from the far corner of the earth that makes the gathering day so enjoyable an expectation, so pleasant a memory. (pp. 527-8)
What a parson’s pleasure-ground that Grasmere Sports’ field has become! Deans, canons, Bishops, and Archbishops are seen in their happiest and most unprofessional of moods. There is one parson at least on the Sports’ Committee, and round the ring they may be counted by scores. One is not sorry that this is so; the more our spiritual shepherds meet and mingle with such simple country shepherds’ sport as Grasmere provides, the healthier and happier the tone of English national amusement, the surer the advent of the day when “joy in widest commonalty spread” shall be the keynote of the Churches in the land. (p. 528)….
The Running High-leap is just over. A Keswick man (Sewell) and a Plumblands man (Nicholl) have tied at the height of 5 feet 8 inches. We are intent on watching the broad leap, which Hogg of Hawick carries off with a leap of 19 feet 2 inches, when we see a little white body rise, as if by magic, in air, and throw himself from a thin pole over a cat-gallows at what seems to us an amazing height. This is the pole leapers’ contest, and very gracefully, one after another, the men run lance in hand, then rise in air, and when they have risen to a point of rest, seem to climb, Jack-in-beanstalk fashion, up their wands hand over hand, and so cast themselves over the bar and throw their poles from their bodies, to fall with a thud upon the green grass hardly heard amid the deafening cheers. Another tie here too. A Keswick man and a Liverpool man share the honours of victory at 10 feet 3 inches. (p. 532)
The Heavy-weight wrestling has begun. Round the ring goes the bell man, shouting the names of the various men who have been drawn together, and ending his shout with a peremptory “Come out!” Out they come into the midst of the great green circle with its black fence of 12,000 eyes, for there are 6000 spectators gathered together to witness the sport. (p. 532)….
And the wrestlers. Here a man in skin tights, there one fresh from the land and farm, his rough breeches rolled about his knees, set to work; and, “Good lad, go it breeches! fell him, Shepherd! Hod on, laal un! Well done, barn!” breaks from the admiring crowd as some new hand grasses some older one, and breeches and tights shake hand and pass back to the Committee room—one saddened and the other wondering. (p. 533)….
Here is the rain. Up go the 6000 umbrellas; still the wrestlers sway and swing and slip hands over head, and “hod,” as the saying is. Still the white legs meet and twinkle and mix and flash, and with a roar of applause the victor sends his man to the ground, or holds him tight as death in his embrace, till the face goes pale, and the wind leaves the body, and the exhausted opponent yields. (p. 533)
But the rain is in earnest; the umpires run in for shelter, and all sit round in patience till the sun shall shine. Out goes the sawdust man. That is a good omen, and out, ere the rain be over and gone, come the wrestlers, and the games go on. Luncheon hour has arrived! it is over too quickly, to judge from the debris. (p. 533)
Two o’clock! and behind the grey walls of the meadow men may be seen with queer lurcher-looking hounds, half-beagle, half-foxhound it would seem, thin as rakes, all of them in wonderful condition; and stealthily you may watch the men take bottles of soup, or syrup, or tea from their pockets, thrust open the hound’s mouth, administer the draught—to prevent thirst, as they tell you, and so get the hounds swiftly and without pause for drinking over the becks and runnels that they will cross in the “trail.” The hounds are baying fiercely—Lofty, Cracker, and all the rest of the nineteen. (p. 533)
They are in line, straining at their collars like greyhounds. The signal is given and “Awa with tha’! is the cry that rises from the expectant crowd. Away they tear, and in ten minutes’ time they have crossed the valley, and are seen like a white thread amongst the ferns of Fairfield side. (p. 534)
Hark! even at this distance you can hear their music; through a strong glass you can watch the swiftness of their onward rush. The white line now falls like a torrent seen afar off, now is hid, now reappears along the breast of Thunnicar, and now right round the lake the hounds are in full cry. They have gained Silver How. The green Wray meadow beyond the wall is flooded with anxious men. (p. 534)
The owners of the dogs, leash in hand, are the centres of groups of interested surmise. In limps the runner of the trail; pah! how strong the rabbit-skin drenched with aniseed which he drags behind him smells as it comes between the wind and our nobility! (p. 534)
“Poor man!” a little girl said at our side; “he’s safe now, I am so glad. The dogs would have eaten him, you know, if they had caught him!” (p. 534)
He was very nearly caught up too, for hark the chiming of the pack above the larches! They are coming, Lofty, Cracker, Signal; then a gap, then Bowler, the rest nowhere. Straight as an arrow, Lofty shoots down the steep, over the wall, over the beck, then races home across the green flat, and in another moment is in his master’s arms, with twenty pairs of hands to pet and caress him, and his name a household name for a year. Cracker seems to know he is hard-pressed, quickens up as Signal draws closer, and flashes by a good second. (p. 534)
Scarce have the hounds all got home from their four-mile race, when a movement is seen among the spectators at the western side of the ring. The bank of onlookers breaks up, and through the gap and through the carriages and over the wall the twenty-nine competitors for the Guides’ Race dash across the Wray, scramble over the beck, and begin their arduous climb. Yonder at the sky-line waves the halfway flag; friends of the runners stand as signal-men or guides at different points on the steep breast. Away they go, lost in the larches; out they come, and choosing each the way he best knows, with hands hanging straightly down and straining every muscle, they are seen to walk, rather than run, with giant strides up the rocky slope. (p. 534)
Lancaster is leading, and keeps the lead; as he nears the cairn and the flag there is a flash of light. Some friend has thrown a bucket of water over him to give him a refresher, then quick as lightning he slips round the flag, and the descent begins. Watch him through the field-glass; the way in which he throws himself rather than leaps down, his hands often above his head as he steadies himself in the downward plunge, fairly startles one. Now the whole of the living line of white-clothed men has become a torrent, and down, down, down; there is a momentary hiding from sight, and then a cry, “Lancaster! Brave boy! Hod till it!” “Lancaster hes it!” “Lancaster’s t’ lad!” and over the beck and across the field the winner of last year’s Guides’ Race rushes towards the crowd. He has run it in fifteen minutes. It is record time, and lustily he is cheered. (pp. 534-5)
It is not the same race as of old; but the pace is killing. One cannot scramble up a height of 1000 feet and leap down it, and run a mile race into the bargain, without great pluck. And as we saw the gallant twenty-nine stream home, battered and worn, and sometimes absolutely shoeless, we knew a little of the labour and the distress entailed. Meanwhile the wrestling goes cheerily on. Notwithstanding another soaking rain-shower, the Mile Race, eight laps round the ring, causes a momentary excitement. (p. 535)….
The sun, that had sulked through the darkish day, shone out in double radiance. Never had evening light more beautifully “steeped in its last splendour valley, lake, and hill,” than on this eventful eventide in the Grasmere Vale. The old church stood out as if it were washed in fire, and as the sunset beyond the Dunmail Raise grew pale, high over Fairfield hung a cloud so luminous that one could have believed a second dawn had broken from underground, and the Grasmere Sports’ Day was to begin anew. (p. 537)
(Murray’s Magazine, 2 (October 1887), 527-37)