Barton-in-the-Beans is a village in the county of Leicestershire in the heart of England. In the Middle Ages it was believed that there were more cats in the village than in any other village or town in the country. This could only mean one thing in those times: witches.  Lots of them.

There was no lake near the village. The local chalk soil drained easily so even after heavy rain no large puddles formed. Thus deprived of his best known method of determining who was a witch, the local Witchfinder-General Roger Boydell hit upon a novel method for searching out the local witches.

He determined that witches are very attached to their cats; at the equinoxes and the solstices he told his henchmen to round up all the village cats and place them into a large pen. At his signal, a man would allow three of the creatures to escape from the pen. These cats would be chased by the Witchfinder-General’s fitter cronies around the village. If any woman chased after the man chasing her cat, especially on a broomstick, she was determined to be a witch and sent off to Leicester for burning on the High Cross.

This tradition lasted for four hundred years comfortably outlasting the role of Witchfinder-General by over three hundred years. In the mid-20th Century, as people became aware of diets and exercise, it was noticed that the cats of Barton-in-the-Beans were the leanest, fittest, and most athletic cats in the whole county.

Gradually from all over the country owners of fat, unfit, and lazy cats brought their animals to the quarterly cat-chasing extravaganza. However, some of these owners refused to chase their cat through the village and both owner and cat were sent packing.

Other owners forgot their witch costumes and were disqualified. Distracted by the local mice population in the surrounding fields some cats were lost forever. Sadly, some owners were as unfit as their animals and finished up at Leicester’s High Cross hospital.

The Barton-in-the-Beans Cat chasing is Leicestershire’s largest group event and is held four times a year with around 500 cats participating over a long weekend. The sponsors of the event include Which? Magazine, Coca Cola, and the Egyptian Embassy.

This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker