Egg Rolling in Preston on Easter Monday

At Avenham Park in Preston, there is an annual egg rolling competition on Easter Monday that attracts huge crowds.  Known as pace egging, there is a long tradition of egg rolling in Preston and people have been doing it for hundreds of years.  Originally decorated Pace Eggs were used, but now the eggs are more likely to be chocolate which may be a good thing because there is an old legend that says the broken eggshells should be carefully crushed afterwards or they will be stolen and used as boats by witches.

There is also pace-egging on Holcombe Hill near Ramsbottom on Good Friday when it is traditional to climb the hill as it is said to resemble Calvary where Jesus was crucified.  Historically the gathering was for an act of Christian worship but after the service people would climb the steep slopes to roll their eggs, and at one time there were even special trains from Bury to bring the crowds.

In Rochdale the tradition was known as Bowl-egg Sunday with a line marked out at a set distance.  At Blackpool people would roll their eggs down the sandhills near the promenade and in other parts of the county it’s recorded that ‘boys would throw the eggs in the air like throwing a ball’.

When I went to watch the egg rolling in Avenham Park last year there was a lot more throwing than rolling going on there. But everyone seemed to be having a good time.

The Pace Egg Play

This is an old tradition that may have its roots in the Crusades as it involves St George’s victory over a Turkish Knight as well as a resurrection.  The word ‘pace’ comes from the Latin ‘pacha’ and means Easter and the Pace Egg Play has been performed at Easter for hundreds of years.

It has always been traditional to eat boiled eggs for breakfast on Easter morning as eggs would have been one of the forbidden foods during Lent.  These eggs were usually decorated, but before paints were available the eggs would have been carefully wrapped in onion skins before they were boiled and this resulted in the shells taking on the appearance of mottled gold. If these weren’t eaten they may have been given as gifts, along with money and beer, to the ‘Jolly Boys’ who came to perform the Pace Egg Play.

The gifts were collected in a basket by the character of Owd Tosspot who traditionally wore a long straw pigtail, at one time full of sharp pins to prevent anyone grabbing it. This may have been before the performance or when it had finished.

The play is performed in verse and begins with the chorus:

Here’s one two three jolly lads all in one mind
We have come a pace egging and we hope you’ll prove kind
And we hope you’ll prove kind with your eggs and strong beer
And we’ll come no more nigh you until the next year

There are many variations of the Pace Egg Play, but the traditional story is that of Saint George and his victories over a variety of other characters.  In some versions he fights Bold Slasher first.  These two knights fight to demonstrate their knightly skills and Slasher is killed.  But then the doctor, who has travelled to the East and discovered some miraculous medicine, is called and he brings Bold Slasher back to life to fight another day. Sometimes the doctor and Old Tosspot are the same character.  Then there is another fight.  This one is between St George and the Turkish Knight, with a blackened face, and, of course, St George proves victorious.

The next that comes in is a bold Turkish Knight, 
From a far distant country he’s come for to fight.
He’ll meet with St George and will fight with him here,
To show him a hero knows nothing to fear. 

 

There are many versions of the play and in later years Admiral Lord Nelson became a popular character.  Other traditional Lancashire characters include Old Paddy, the King of Egypt, Mally Brownbags and the devil.  The one thing that is common to all the plays is the comedy and the interaction with the audience.  It was something like an early version of a pantomime.

In an early script Lord Nelson is the first character to appear:

The first that comes in is Lord Nelson you see 
With a bunch of blue ribbons tied down to his knee;
He’s a star on his breast which like diamonds doth shine,
And he’s come-a-pace-egging, it’s pace-egging time. 

 

By 1842 the Pace Egg Play was being performed less often, but in recent years there has been a renewal of interest in British traditions and folk customs and some of the old plays have been brought back to life by folk groups such as the Abram Pace Eggers and the Bury Pace Eggers.

First Footers

A first footer is the first person to cross the threshold of a house on New Year’s Day and who that person is will dictate the luck you will have in the following year. In Lancashire, a tall, dark-haired man will bring you the best luck, especially if he also brings a gift. My uncle, who was dark-haired, was often asked by his neighbours to visit their homes just after midnight and ‘bring in’ the New Year for them. He would take with him a lump of coal which symbolises warmth and comfort in the home. The neighbours were then assured of good fortune for the coming year and did not have to fear the bad luck that would be brought in by a fair-haired man or woman being the first to enter their house on New Year’s Day.

Another tradition associated with the New Year is mummers. They would come to the house wearing a scarf and flat cap and with blackened faces to disguise themselves. They would bring with them a dustpan and brush and were not allowed to speak, only to ‘mmm’ (to frighten away any evil spirits) until they had swept away the bad luck from the doorstep.

The New Year was also closely associated with the art of divination. If a girl wanted to know more about her future husband she would pour some melted lead into a glass of water and watch to see what image would be formed as it cooled. If it resembled scissors then she would marry a tailor, if she could see a hammer then she would marry a carpenter and so on.

The New Year was also a time to watch the weather carefully. If New Year’s Day dawns with dusky red clouds there will be much strife and debate during the coming year as well as many robberies.