In Cumberland the ability to roll a marble an exact distance is highly prized. The climax of the marble rolling season is the Carlisle Round on the last weekend of August.
The roads around the centre of the city are closed for a week before the marble rolling so that they can be swept and the distances measured. There are 10 events held on different roads ranging from the 10 yard nudge to the half-a-mile chuck. These distances are drawn between two lines on the road.
A yellow and green line is the starting line for all the events. No part of the competitor may cross this line otherwise the starter, known as The Reiver, will call “Foul Marble” and the competitor will lose their turn and be fined five grains of barley.
The aim of the event is to roll your marble so accurately that it stops on the line at the end of the course. This line is normally eight feet long and three inches wide or ‘ye depth of a Scottish woman’s bearde” as described in the original rules of 1517.
The idea is that the competitor with a marble closest to the line at the end of the event will win the prize of a haystack. Players can knock each other’s marbles out of the way, but anyone who has a marble knocked off the line is entitled to another roll. This decision is made by the line judge or “Hadrian’s spirit level” as he’s known.
People come from all over the UK to play the Carlisle Round. Each person has their own method of making their marble perfectly round and free of imperfections. Some immerse their marbles in olive oil, others bake them in bread, and other rollers place them in an ice maker.
Joe Wharton has won more marble rolls than anyone else in the history of the Carlisle Round. His specialities were the 200-, 400-, and 800-yard rolls, which he won every year from 1953 to 1972 due to an uncommon knack of slowing down his metabolism at the moment of delivery of the marble. Joe practiced so assiduously that he was run over twice by a delivery van when trying to practice in the early hours of a June morning. His competitors claimed he was gaining an unfair advantage by ‘playing the course early’ but there’s nothing in the rules to stop this practice.
There have been some violent scenes in the past, when the Protestants accused the Catholics of celebrating too wildly whenever a green marble knocked an orange marble away from the line. Shouts of “That’s for the Battle of the Boyne” were only the start of it.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker