Olney Pancake Race 2016

PUBLISHED: 11:01 27 January 2016 | UPDATED: 11:01 27 January 2016

The pancake race in Olney was revived after The Second World War (Mirrorpix/Alamy)

The pancake race in Olney was revived after The Second World War (Mirrorpix/Alamy)


The speedy pancake flippers of Olney will be competing against the ladies of Liberal in Kansas this month in the world’s only showdown of its kind, 
Jan Raycroft reports

One thing’s for sure, however the annual Olney Pancake Race began, the first runners could never have envisaged that it would eventually become an international event. After all, this is one of those lovely traditions dating back hundreds of years, in this case to at least 1445 as it’s known to have been run during ‘The War of the Roses’ period.

There’s a story that has a harassed housewife hearing the church Shriving Bell on Shrove Tuesday and rushing to get there in time, still clutching a pan with a pancake in. Another version has the pancake being a bribe for the sexton or ringer to sound the bells early so all sins would be ‘shriven’ and people could get on with the holiday fun as soon as possible.

Over the centuries the race was run, sometimes skipped for years, but never quite faded into history. The latest revival began in 1948 when the then vicar came across some 1920s photographs of women running through Olney with frying pans. Volunteers came forward to repeat it and now we really can say… the rest is history.

Within a couple of years the story of the pancake race had spread across the world and intrigued the community of Liberal, Texas, who decided to set up their own timed race, challenging Olney to an annual contest. They’ve competed every year since over the same distance of 415 yards in their own towns, exchanging prizes.

The Liberal lades raced ahead, but from 2012 Olney had the advantage of Milton Keynes-born England heptathlete Devon Byrne who won three years on the trot (she now holds the race record of 55.6 seconds and her triple win means she can no longer run under the rules). Devon was in Liberal as a guest for the 2015 race, won by the Kansans, so bringing the total over the years to 37-28 in Liberal’s favour.

This year’s event

In Olney the race day on 9 February starts with children’s entertainers and charity stalls in Market Place from 10am. Celebrity TV chef Lesley Waters will give cookery demonstrations in the Teflon Marquee from 10.30am, aided by chefs from The Swan Inn and Bistro, Olney, and The Bell and Bear at Emberton. There are children’s pancake races before the main race runners gather for the start outside Olney Deli at 11.50am, followed by The DuPont prize-giving in Church Street. The afternoon includes the Shriving Service at the church and a ‘Ready, Steady, Olney’ cooking competition with Lesley Waters.

At 7pm it’s time to head to the church hall for a weblink to Liberal, where it will be lunchtime, to discover who has won the international title. In Liberal itself the pancake day has expanded into a four-day festival with talent shows, a Miss Liberal Scholarship Pageant and parade but, of course, a traditional shriving service.

For Olney’s event see olneypancakerace.org; for Liberal see pancakeday.net.

Olney’s cousin towns right across the states

It’s possible that Olney has something of a Buckinghamshire record here, with 14 other Olneys spread across the US, from west to east (Maryland and Oregon) and north to south (Illinois and Texas).

Most of the American Olneys are small communities named after local people’s surnames, although the area known as Olney in Philadelphia is the result of a former resident’s love for the works of William Cowper, our Olney’s 18th century poet.

But we return to Olney in Richland County, Illinois, if only because its fame revolves around the population of white squirrels there. Every autumn a count of the white squirrels is held, alongside a check on the number of grey squirrels and their predators, cats. The 2015 count recorded 88 white squirrels, up on the previous year but well below the mid-century figures of around 1,000. Cats – and dogs – are now strictly controlled in Olney and you can face a hefty fine for running over a white squirrel. Find out more at www.ci.olney.il.us.

Olney, Illinois has a population of around 9,000, so is a third larger than our one. A stunning 3,200sq ft detached three bed home with its own outdoor pool on a plot of nearly an acre in a quiet, tree-lined street is priced at just over £200,000.

Olney to Olney: 4,643 miles


Olney Pancake Race 2015 - world’s oldest pancake race - Famous Buckinghamshire event has gone transatlantic and is now sponsored by Teflon

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