The festival of seven-legged racing takes place around the cathedral in Exeter on the third Thursday after the second full moon after Ash Wednesday.
The seven-legged race comprises teams of six people who race around the cathedral close in an anti-clockwise direction. The prize is won by the first team to cross the finishing line having completed 66 laps. The race was started in 1541 by boys who had been unsuccessful in their attempts to join the cathedral choir and who wanted to put a curse on the building by invoking the spirit of the Antichrist with their 6 X 66 idea.
Initially, the teams were tied together with a rope that went around people’s waists so that everyone had the use of both legs, but in 1652 the rules were changed by Cromwell, who wanted to make the race less fun and more puritanical by tying people’s legs together. Thus the tradition was born which is maintained to this day.
At 8:30 a.m. the starting judge shouts to the teams “Bare Ye Legs.” All shaving, lubricating, and massaging of the calves must cease and the Tying Men bind the runners legs together using jute stripped from old sacks. The knots are very strong and won’t come apart during the race. The teams line up at the start and wait for the starting signal. This is traditionally provided by a caw from the cathedral raven, Bertram, who sits on the shoulder of the Choirmaster character, who is symbolic of the original grievance of the boys in 1541. Some ravens are quieter than others so occasionally the race doesn’t start until around 10 a.m. but traditionally the raven caws quite quickly and the teams are off.
Teams practice for months to find the necessary co-ordination between the team members as this is an exhausting race if everyone isn’t working together. There are some narrow sections between the gravestones in the cemetery, which require the teams to go along in single file but apart from this area the teams can run abreast. This is apart from the area outside the main entrance to the cathedral where the teams have to progress on their knees, observed closely by the kneeling judges, who penalize teams five minutes of time if all team members don’t remain on their knees for long enough.
This kneeling section is another legacy of the Puritan era. It was introduced by Cromwell because he felt that the teams should be more deferential to the religious purpose of the cathedral. The kneeling judges in those times used whips to keep people on their knees for the requisite distance. Persistent offenders could be burnt at the stake as it was felt that people who couldn’t stay on their knees for long enough must be having difficulty resisting the urge to fly and would therefore be witches in disguise.
The most successful team in the history of the race have been “Goldilocks and the Five Bears” who won fifteen times between 1976 and 1995. The team trained for six months ahead of the race and practiced the kneeling part of the race assiduously, sometimes being mistaken for devout pilgrims by tourists. Other tourists would throw them money as they assumed the team were energetic beggars from a Trappist order who needed money.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker