No Pie, No Priest: A Journey through the Folk Sports of Britain by Harry Pearson: a treasure trove of Britain’s hidden sporting legacy – book review -
If those ‘sporting’ sounds don’t seem at all familiar, you’re not alone! But as Harry Pearson points out in No Pie, No Priest, his entertaining trawl through the folk sports of Britain, from the Middle Ages through to the 19th century, these were the sounds of sports in Britain.
As tennis, golf, snooker and all the rest of our now familiar sports rose, other games that were once just as popular have been forgotten, seemingly left to languish in the nation’s backwaters.
And yet... as Pearson set out on his warm and witty journey around Britain in pursuit of the lost folk sports that somehow still linger on in the glitzy era of the Premier League and Sky Sports, he discovered how and why many have survived and met the characters who keep them going.
When Victorian public schoolmasters and Oxbridge-educated gentlemen were taming football, codifying cricket, bringing the values of muscular Christianity to the boxing ring and the athletics field, games that dated back to the pagan era clung on in isolated pockets of rural Britain, unmodified by contemporary tastes, shunned by the media and sport’s ruling elites.
In Tudor times, governments tried to ban sports like quoits and skittles, fearing their effect on the nation’s ‘martial spirit.’ The Roundheads proved no more approving of the sports, attempting to stamp out their ‘joyful, drunken barbarism,’ and the Victorians regarded the sports as untamed mob-ruled exhibitions of violence, gambling and ‘encouragers of grievous immorality.’
But, happily, many of them remain... small, secret worlds, free from media scrutiny and VAR controversies, wreathed in an arcane language of face-gaters, whack-ups, potties, gates-of-hell and the Dorset flop, as much a part of the British countryside as the natterjack toad and almost as endangered.
No Pie, No Priest unearths some real sporting gems with Pearson’s tireless labours leading him to the championship of Knur and Spell (a Viking forefather of golf) on the West Yorkshire moors, watching Irish Road Bowling in County Armagh (once a surprising interest of England cricket captain Mike Brearley), Popinjay at Kilwinning Abbey in Ayrshire, the Aunt Sally competitions of Oxfordshire, Toad-in-the-Hole in West Sussex and taking in world championship Stoolball (often considered the dairymaid’s form of cricket).
An enticing and enlightening blend of sports reporting, travelogue and history, and featuring a cast of bucolic eccentrics and many deeply impenetrable regional accents, this is both a joy to read and a treasure trove of Britain’s hidden sporting legacy.
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £16.99)