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Tetbury Sack Race, Gloucestershire

Does a custom have to be static? Or is the test that it is properly rooted, and has a sense of place? In the Cotswold town of Tetbury they have taken an ancient tradition, Woolsack Day, and without doubt improved it. Woolsack Day celebrates the former glory of the place as a major market for wool, and a centre for processing the stuff made from it until the industrial revolution found more suitable spots elsewhere.
Legend has it that local lads in the days when wool was king in Tetbury liked to show off to their sweethearts, or any other girl to whom they had taken a shine, by heaving a great sack of wool onto their backs and carrying it up Gumstool Hill in the centre of the town. As this has a gradient of 1 in 4 in places the feat was not an easy one.
So much for the distant past. In more recent times, the early Seventies in fact, someone had the bright idea of adding interest to the town’s fair by organising timed races along similar lines. Men would carry a 60lb sack; women and youths a 35lb version. The course was between two of the several excellent hostelries in Tetbury, The Royal Oak and The Crown ; this was at first 280 yards in total, but the distance has been shortened to 240 yards. Beer is obviously a vital part of many British traditions, though for the athletic types undertaking this task it is definitely more intelligent to celebrate after the event rather than before.
Various charities benefit from funds raised by the race and the accompanying festivities, and the whole day is significant to the town’s sense of itself; a real community event. And a fine and improved tradition to boot.

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