For the short race, those competing must be women of 18 or over and have lived in the town of Olney for at least three months immediately prior to the event. For the race they must wear the traditional costume of the housewife, including a skirt and apron and head covering, though they need not be married. The Starter orders competitors, 'Toss your pancakes, Are you ready?' and gives the start signal. At the finish the winner is required to toss her pancake before being declared winner and being greeted with the kiss of Peace with the words, 'The Peace of the Lord be always with you' spoken by the Vicar, and the traditional prize of a kiss from the Verger.
The service was led by the Rector, the Rev'd Claire Wood, (whom I'm told didn't do any kissing at the end of the race) and included seven 'Olney Hymns', those written by William Cowper and John Newton - both had long ministries in the town where they wrote their hymns. As part of the service, Jane Hughes, this year's winner was presented with her prize, an Olney Hymn Book.
She told me over lunch that at the Pancake Race Party this evening there are other not insignificant prizes to be presented. There is also a live web link to Liberal in Kansas, USA, who have their own race, inspired by Olney's.
It's not an exaggeration to say that it is a world-famous race with an international connection. It's been happening since 1445, although it's lapsed several times and was revived again in 1948. There were about 450-500 at the service and apart from local dignitaries, and guests from Liberal, people had travelled from far and wide. One person has been to every service for over 30 years.
'Shrove' is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to forgive, so the options on preaching were limited. It was either a sermon on pancakes or a sermon on sin. I thought that the former might be a bit flat or syrupy, so chose the latter, and spoke about grace, knowing that we would be singing 'Amazing Grace'.
In preparing for the occasion, most of the pancake jokes were unsuitable, but I did discover that the biggest pancake was set in Rochdale, Yorkshire, in 1994, and measured 15 metres in diameter and weighted three tons. And that Ralf Laue from Leipzig, broke the world record in 1997 by tossing a pancake 416 times in two minutes.
An excellent meal was provided afterwards, and you can guess what we had for desert!