Flipping heck: Timing glitch mars Olney-Liberal pancake race

Mar 1, 2017

Credit Pedro Figueiredo

For more than 400 years, the only halt to England's annual Pancake Race was World War II.

Tradition runs deep in Olney, anchored by St. Peter and St. Paul − the church with the tall spire along the bank of the River Great Ouse in the heart of England.

It's here the bell has been tolling every Shrove Tuesday, calling the community to the Shriving service, the day before the 40 days of Lent. Even through the War of the Roses, legend has it the annual Pancake Race was run in Olney.

"Traditionally, it's the day all household stocks of fat and sweet ingredients were exhausted in the making of pancakes, in readiness, for the period of fasting, giving things up for the season of Lent," said the Rev. Claire Wood, Rector of St. Peter and St. Paul Church, in her welcome to the race.

Today, gray clouds are expected in this town of about 6,477 people. Temperatures should hover about 46 degrees, according Haydn Langley, race chairman. Activities will begin around this town's Market Place, where there will be a variety of stalls, pancakes and entertainment, along with the children's races.

Women carrying frying pans − donning aprons and head scarves − will begin gathering by 11:30 a.m. for the race. They will be dressed as they imagine the storied woman once was: preoccupied by the chore of using up her cooking fat, making pancakes before the Shriving service.

Suddenly, the church bells pealed, and off she dashed with the pan in hand still flipping a pancake. 

Meanwhile, at 11:55 a.m., the church Warden will ring the hand-held bell and call out "Toss your pancakes. Are you ready?" Then, the women will take off for the 415-yard dash.

Here in Kansas, it will be 5:55 a.m. Some will be starting to stir. In Liberal the grills will be fired-up for breakfast, which begins at 6 a.m at the Seward County Civic Center - served until 10 a.m. Liberal won't race against Olney in the International Pancake Day Race until 11:55 a.m. CST.

A history

Following the lapse during WWII, the Olney race was picked up again in 1948. According to race history, the Vicar of Olney - the Rev. Cannon Ronald Collins - was cleaning out a cupboard when he came across old photographs taken in the 1920s and 1930s of women running with frying pans.

Collins recruited 13 runners for that Shrove Tuesday. It caught on and turned into a day of festivities that have continued since.

Two years later, Collins received a letter from R.J. Leete, then the president of the Liberal Jaycees. Leete challenged the Olney women to race the Liberal women. Following several letters, cables and then a trans-Atlantic telephone call, the first race was set for Shrove Tuesday, Feb. 21, 1950.

One-day event

Olney's race course, on narrow streets, is over quickly. At the finish line, dressed in her clerical robes, the Rev. Wood greets all the runners. The verger places a "kiss of peace" on the cheek of the winner.

Meanwhile, at 12:15 p.m. the Shriving service begins inside St. Peter and St. Paul. It's the church where the Rev. John Newton wrote "Amazing Grace," while serving as a curate. The reformed ex-slave trader served as the local curate from 1764 to 1780. His pulpit is preserved in the church, and his tomb in the churchyard.

Olney, is also the home of the poet William Cowper. Together with Newton they collaborated on the Olney Hymns, including another popular tune "How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds."

The English way

In Liberal, Steve Leete was raised on pancakes. He was 3 years old in 1950 when his parent's, R.J. and Virginia Leete, sealed the deal with the Vicar of Olney.

"Dad got off the phone discussing setting up the international race with the vicar and the words between the two of them were, 'Let the race begin.' Dad and the vicar made the agreement, but the Jaycees and so many volunteers made it happen."

They scrambled to get the first race off to a start in only two weeks. Even His Majesty 's Consul H. Cotton Minchin, arrived to bestow the traditional "Kiss of Peace," on Liberal's first winner, Billie Marie Warden. Her time was 1 minute, 18 seconds. She, however, was not as swift as Olney's Florence Callow who closely beat her at 1:10.4.

The competition continued. The next year, Collins sent a recording of the church bells pealing before the start of the race in Olney. They played it over the loud speaker from Liberal's Methodist Church.

In 1968, the Olney church spire was repaired from damage during WWII bombings. Canon Collins sent one of the ornamental crosses to Liberal. Today it is framed at the entrance to Liberal's city hall.

The bonds between the two cities continue to grow through the friendly competition. While R.J. and Virginia made many trips to watch the race in Olney, as did other Liberal residents, Steve, and his wife, Dee, finally watched the race from England in 2013.

"We took the key to the city," Leete said. "And in the church we reaffirmed Liberal's commitment to the race and the tradition and our friendship and our hope to continue for years to come."

Leete said it was very different to observe the celebration from the other shore, where it originated hundreds of years ago.

"In Olney it is so precisely done. So much of their Pancake Day Race is for charity," Leete said. "Liberal is more commercial. Just being in Olney and seeing the S-shaped course on the narrow streets, it's such a different feeling. Here it's a big, big deal. And there they have the race and go back to work but return in the evening for the video call with Liberal."

Leete recalled a British visitor once saying after visiting Liberal during the pancake race, "leave it to the Americans to take a 15-minute race and turn it into a four-day holiday, beauty contest and talent show."

The experience left a wonderful memory for Leete, including hearing "Amazing Grace" being sung where it had been created.

"Amazing Grace! How Sweet the sound

That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found;

Was blind, but now I see."

The fact that they were where the idea of the pancake race began hundreds of years ago left him with very strong emotions.

"I would go back again in a second," Leete said.

He described an endearing town, filled with wonderful pubs, a unique market square and genuine people.

"You couldn’t find nicer people," he said.

He's also grateful to Liberal for working so hard to keep the competition going 68 years.