Kites have been popular in Suffolk since their introduction into England in the 19th Century.

In 1873, Oliver Holmes was flying his kite near Aldeburgh when the wind started to blow really hard – Oliver had difficulty holding on to his kite and thought that running with his kite would make it easier to control. This proved to be true. Oliver was seen by his friends and they tried running with their kites too. Soon a race was on, which was only brought to an end by a set of trees near Rendlesham Forest.

Thus the Aldeburgh Kite Racing Festival was born. It’s held in October and lasts for a week during which racers have to be ready to race at all times. When the judges decide that the wind is strong enough for the longer races to be run to their conclusion, including the 10-mile Kite Marathon, then racers have 10 minutes to prepare.

The courses are over sand dunes, across dykes, and through the Forest of Rendlesham. There are four races over 1 mile, 3 miles, 5 miles, and 10 miles. The winner is the person who crosses the finish line with his kite still intact and having not touched his kite during the race. This latter rule was introduced in 1897 after Jerry Payne hauled his kite out of the sky and carried it with him to the finish.

The competitors are limited to 100 feet of line, which is enough to clear the tops of the tallest trees in the forest. Most people believe that the best method for winning a race is to keep the kite on a short line through open country and then let the line out completely when approaching the forest. The runner’s greatest skill is to pick a track through the trees that will keep the line clear of branches. Many a kite has been snared in the forest. Most of the fatalities in the race, apart from the drowning of Arnold Godber in 1932, have come from people falling out of trees when trying to rescue their kites.

John Vine has won the most races at the Kite Racing Festival, with 14 victories between 1922 and 1939. He was most adept at keeping his kite on a short line through the forest – defying conventional wisdom – thus reducing branch snaring to a minimum; for this he needed a strong wind and plenty of straight line speed in his running. In 1933, Vine won all four races and became the only person to complete the Grand Slam of Kite Racing. In 1967 Sally Smith won the first three races and was set to emulate Vine’s achievement, but she ran into a tree on the 10-mile course and had to be taken to hospital still clutching her kite.

Contestants are not allowed to cover their line with anything sharp that could be used to cut the lines of other kites, as is done in fighting kite contests. This rule was introduced after the 1937 1-mile race when Mike Jones was the only person to finish the race; everyone else’s kites had mysteriously been lost on their way because the lines had been cut. Jones claimed he’d seen an eagle attacking the other kites, but the judges were skeptical about this explanation, especially after Jones wouldn’t let them see his line after the race.

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