The Great Bottle Kicking Festival

Bottle kicking game in picturesA large beefy man stands in a field and throws a 5.4kg (12-lb.) keg the size of a watermelon into the air three times. When it hits the muddy ground for the third time a 300-man mob jumps on it. They kick, they scuffle, they maul their way down the field with the “bottle” at the center of a wild and violent scrum. Punches are thrown, elbows hit faces, and fists dig into ribs in what is a rough and tumble effort to get the small receptacle of beer to one of two streams a mile apart. Tempers fray and scuffles break out as the multi-backed monster moves to and fro over ditches, hedges, and barbed wire. Clothes rip and the contestants become unrecognizable as they get covered in mud and cow manure. Men are crushed beneath the brawl, some unable to breathe until the mob moves on and rolls over some fresh contestants. Concussion is common and bones are invariably broken. A fleet of ambulances sits on standby to ferry away the wounded warriors.

The Great Bottle Kicking Festival of Hallaton and Medbourne is more like a war, with these two small Leicestershire villages battling it out to keep the keg. There are three bouts with three different bottles, with the winners the first to get to their stream two times. Just as there are no rules, there is no time limit and the riot can continue late into the evening as the fighters battle each other to near exhaustion. It is also a free-for-all where anybody can join in and the effort to get the keg is by fair means or foul. It is not for those of a delicate disposition.

The event gets going with a parade and fair in these two middle England villages 64km (40 miles) west of Peterborough. A giant hare pie is cooked and cut up and then thrown to the crowd, who scramble after the food with just as much brutal savagery as the field battle. Thirty-five hundred spectators gather for this event that has pre-Christian origins. One popular story is two old ladies in Medbourne were saved from a bull when the beast was distracted by a hare. They showed their gratitude by dishing out food and beer to the poor on Easter Monday. A more likely explanation of its origins is that it was a pagan fertility ritual. An 18th-century vicar unhappy with the festival’s heretical over-tones tried to ban it. He relented when an unhappy villager daubed “no pie, no parson” on the rectory wall. The muddy melee is thought to have started when one year nearby Hallaton rushed the crowd and stole the beer. Thus this annual settling of scores is thought to be an early precursor of football and rugby. One thing it proves is that an Englishman will do almost anything for a beer.