Haxey Hood

05 February, 2023

Haxey Hood

An extract from It's The Beer Talking. Ian Clayton recalls a day out at the Haxey Hood, an ancient form of pub folklore that takes place on the twelth day of Christmas.

Martin decided he wanted to go to see the Haxey Hood game. This is an ancient form of village pub folklore that takes place every January on the twelfth day of Christmas, or as Martin would have it, old Christmas day. Haxey Hood is a kind of rugby match that involves hundreds of villagers from Haxey and nearby Westwoodside struggling across open fields with a leather-coated cylinder, trying to get it back to their favourite pub. Once the landlord or landlady of the pub touches the cylinder the game is over. It can take up to four hours to complete the game and by that time there is mud all over, more than a few cuts and bruises and the odd broken bone. Local folklore says that the game has been taking place since the middle ages. In 1359, so the story goes, Lady de Mowbray, the wife of the John de Mowbray, Baron of Axholme, was out riding when her silk hood blew off as she came over the brow of the hill between the two villages. Some field labourers chased the hood as it blew on the wind, until one lad caught it and returned it to the lady. So charmed was the lady by the kindness of the lads, that she is said to have donated a piece of land on condition that the chasing of the hood was re-enacted every year on the same date. It could be true, except that their are no written records to take the game back much further than Victorian times, but there certainly was a Baron and Lady de Mowbray back in the middle of the 14th century.

The year that Martin, his partner Hazel, our mate Paul and I went, the Hood was held on a Saturday. If the twelfth day of Christmas falls on a Sunday, they hold the game the day before. These days, the Hood is played between four pubs: Kings Arms, The Loco, Duke William and Carpenters Arms at Westwoodside. The idea being that the hood is delivered into the hands of the proprietor of one of those four pubs. Before the game starts there is a great procession like something out of The Wicker Man. A ‘fool’ dressed in brightly coloured strips of cloth is followed by ‘boggins’ dressed in red hunting coats and bowler hats with flowers on them. The fool then stands on a stone in front of the church and makes a speech. At the end of the speech some damp straw is set alight around him in a ritual known as ‘Smoking the Fool’ and then he encourages the crowd in a chant ‘Hoose agen hoose, toon agen toon, if a man meet a man, nok ’im doon, but doant ’ot ’im.’ After that everybody heads up to a field above the village and the game starts when the hood is thrown into the air. Before all of that though, a lot of singing and supping happens in the Duke William.

The singing is loud and raucous. The pub is overflowing. It takes Martin nearly half an hour to come back from the bar with the ale and he prides himself on his ability to catch a barmaid’s eye. We spill more beer than we sup trying to find a place to stand amongst the elbows knees and sweating bodies. The gathered crowd sing ‘John Barleycorn’ and ‘Drink England Dry’ and at least three versions of ‘The Farmer’s Boy’. Martin joins in with glee.

And when the lad becomes a man
The good old farmer died
And left the lad the farm he had
And his daughter for a bride
The lad that was, the farm now has
Oft smiles and thinks with joy
Of the lucky day he came that way
To be a farmer’s boy

On the last line everybody chucks what is remaining in their glasses into the air. I don’t know who gives the signal, but as one, everybody leaves the pub and makes their way up to the field beyond the church. The chief boggin throws the hood into the air and what the locals call ‘the sway’ forms. It’s like a rugby scrum involving robust men, women, boys and girls of all ages. The scrum collapses, they all stop then stand up again and off it goes once more. It’s exhausting work and very muddy. A lot of the players wear sports wear, overalls and boiler suits, but we see teenage girls in jeans and t-shirts getting stuck in as well. Of course there’s no show without punch so Martin joins in with the shoving and decides he’s on the Westwoodside team and tries to help their lads push the sway over the brow of the hill and down to the Carpenters Arms. The sway is like a whale thrashing about in the shallows, but once it gets onto the road between the two villages it gathers momentum.

On the day we were there the sway lasted over four hours, it was dark before the landlady at the Kings Arms at the other end of Haxey managed to get a grip of the hood. We enjoyed taking part in the game, it’s something that is a special part of village and pub folklore. More than that, there’s a lot of dressing up involved, a lot of singing and storytelling and, most of all, a lot of ale drinking. Martin was in his glory that day.

The pubs in Haxey are used to the mess and prepare for it days before. They move anything that might get broken out of the way and line the carpets and walls of their pubs with thick sheets of plastic. On the street outside everybody moves their parked cars. One of the locals told me that a visitor who didn’t know the routine once left his car in the way of the action. He found it the following day in a field, hundreds of yards away from where he’d parked it.

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Ian Clayton

Winner of The British Guild of Beer Writers Award for Best Writer about Pubs Where do we go to meet old friends? What is our first port of call when we want to show new mates something that speaks about our identity? The pub of course, or better still our local. Author Ian Clayton embarked on a lifelong love affair with local pubs in the middle of the ..

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