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MAD  AS  MARCH  HARES

By Eric Shackle

On April Fools Day, April 1, villagers of Hallaton, Leicestershire, England will enjoy "hare pie" (made from beef) which has been blessed at St. Michael's Church, march to Hare-Pie Bank, and then take part in a vigorous game of bottle-kicking. And that's NOT an April Fool joke.

Generations of Hallatonians have followed a similar ritual every Easter Monday for some 230 years, apart from last year, when the fun and game had to be called off because of foot-and-mouth disease restrictions.

According to legend, on Easter Monday 1770, the Lady of the Manor, in danger of being gored by a raging bull, was saved by a hare running across the bull's path. As a token of  gratitude, she bequeathed a piece of land to the rector, on condition that on future Easter Mondays he should give two  hare pies, two dozen penny loaves, and a generous supply of ale to needy parishoners. (Making hare pies seems a strange way of thanking the hare that came to her rescue).

"The pies are now made of beefsteak, hares being out of season, but otherwise the custom still follows its traditional course," says a story on a Cornish webpage. "The rector of Hallaton divides the large pies, which have been baked in his kitchen and tosses the slices to the crowds of people who assemble to scramble for them on his lawn...

"In practice, these days, the two hare pies are invariably replaced by a single large pie made of beef or other meat. The pie is cut up by the Rector, put into a sack and carried to Hare-Pie Bank in a formal procession which winds round the village."

Villager Carol Nokes says some of the Internet stories aren't strictly accurate."The pie is always cooked in Hallaton," she says. "These days it's cooked at the Bewicke Arms [a 400-year-old pub with a thatched roof].  For many years a Mrs Payne of Hallaton cooked the pie in her home, and in recent times Mrs Julie Allen has done the same."

What happens once the hare (oops, beef) pie has been digested? "Then the bottle kicking starts," says Carol. "It's a sporting contest between Hallaton and our neighbouring village of Medbourne. Three casks of ale are the 'bottles.'

"These are  small barrels, about 14 inches high by 9 inches in diameter and weighing about 20 pounds. Two are brown,  each being filled with a gallon of ale. The third cask is painted red and white, and is empty

"There are very few rules. Anyone can join in, and the winners are the ones who can get two of the three barrels over the river which forms the border between the villages. This can take most of the day."

Another website  gives this graphic account of the bottle battle: "The competitors arrange themselves in a circle at the top of the bank. The chairman of the Bottle Kicking match throws the first full 'bottle' into the air and allows it to fall on the ground. This is repeated twice more. When the 'bottle'  lands on the ground the third time, it is 'in play.'

"What follows is a chaotic battle between the two teams to move the 'bottle' toward their respective villages over their respective touchlines, which are between two separate streams at each end of Hare Pie bank, approximately three-quarters of a mile apart. There are numerous hedges, lanes, ditches and even barbed wire between the two touchlines."

What happens when the contest ends? Carol says: "The winners drink the ale from the casks and the celebrations continue at the village's two pubs, the Bewicke Arms and the Fox, until late at night."

The event attracts many visitors, and achieves Press and TV coverage. Police and ambulance workers are kept busy. "Broken bones are fairly common," says Carol.

Another English village, Coleshill, Warwickshire. also has a quaint Easter Monday hare tradition.  The Vicar of Coleshill is said to hold the glebe lands on condition that if any young men of the parish catch a hare and take it to the vicarage before 10 o'clock on Easter Monday morning, the vicar must reward them with a gift of a calf's head, 100 eggs and a groat (fourpenny coin).

Gail Whitmore, of Coleshill Library's local history and information team, says "There is no record of why this should take place. It's possibly an old time custom which may have been observed until it became illegal under the Game Laws. There is no local record of this transaction, nor is it known ever to have been carried out."

FOOTNOTES.

  • The Straight Dope Science Advisory Board says "The expression mad as a March hare refers to the frenzied capers of the male hare during March, its mating season. Evan Morris of The Word Detective says, 'Of course, the hare's behavior probably only appears strange to us--we can only guess how our human courtship rituals might appear to a rabbit. In any case, March Hares can't be entirely bonkers because, after all, every summer brings a new crop of baby hares.'"
  • If you'd like to see pictures of English hares and read details of their March madness, click on this BBC webpage.
Copyright 2002   Eric Shackle   Story first posted March 2002

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