Also known as the 'World Championship Woolsack Races', this event takes place every year on the Spring Bank Holiday1 in the town of Tetbury, Gloucestershire, UK. A unique event in the annals of sporting prowess, it has its origins in medieval tradition, though the modern event has been running for just over 30 years.
In the middle ages, Tetbury's wealth, like much of the Cotswolds area it is located in, was based on the wool industry, and it is from this that the tradition is thought to stem. The story runs that the young men of the town used to try and impress the local lasses with their athletic prowess by hefting sacks of wool onto their shoulders and racing each other up Gumstool Hill.
The hill is thought to have got its name from the ducking stool or 'gumstool' used in medieval times to punish 'gummy' or mouthy people. Near the foot of the hill runs a tributary of the Bristol Avon, and a marshy pond was thought to exist. Later it was the site of the town's cattle and sheep market, complete with pens; now the Millennium Green.
The wool industry peaked in the 17th Century; afterwards (by the 19th Century) the lack of a large reliable water supply meant the industrial revolution passed Tetbury by in terms of manufacturing, and the wool industry too became less important due to competition from elsewhere.
These days the town is better known for its excellent cheese shop, butchers, many antique shops, market house (on pillars) and Georgian Gothic-style parish church (home of the Tetbury Music Festival).
Today's event is run up (and down) Gumstool Hill, between two pubs, the Royal Oak (at the bottom), and the Crown Inn (near the top), on a course covering roughly 280 yards (256m). The catch is, as well as carrying an unwieldy 60lb (27.2kg) woolsack across the shoulders, the hill features a 1-in-4 gradient, adding a certain 'spice' to the event.
Individual and team (relay-style) events are held for both men and women, and youth categories, the women and youths having a lighter 35lb (15.8kg) sack to carry, though over exactly the same course. Local teams from the sports clubs or secondary school often compete, though anyone is welcome to register and enter. One year even a team from the The Royal Gurkha Rifles competed (and won).
Best places to watch the event are from the Millennium Green at the bottom, or from Cirencester Road, running parallel to, but above the course. A running commentary over loudspeakers means you can keep up with the event wherever you watch on the course.
The Big Day
The Woolsack Races don't happen in isolation. The town centre is closed off all day for a street fair and entertainment, from morris dances to the 'Norfolk Mountain Rescue', jugglers to marching bands. The town's fire engine is on display for children to explore, and there are loads of stalls selling food, sweets, craft items etc. The focus of the day is raising money for local charities, such as the Tetbury Hospital2, and an auction is held, often featuring amongst the lots items donated by HRH Prince Charles, whose Highgrove House3 residence is located just outside of town.
How to Get There?
The races are held annually, and the town is on the A433, roughly 10 miles from Cirencester, 20 miles from Gloucester, and 12 miles from J17 M4 Chippenham.
Bus services connect Tetbury with Stroud, Bath, Cirencester, Malmsbury and Didmarton; the nearest train station is Kemble, which is also served by the Cirencester bus route.