It’s amazing how often secular, semi-pagan and Christian traditions can merge together in the English countryside.
Take today’s Trim Valley Picnic. Everybody acts like this has been going on since Noah learnt to swim. But in fact, the Trim Valley Benefice is only seven years old as an entity. So the idea of the five villages getting together in the open space in Woodby Forest is quite a new one. And rather a nice one. Everybody brings along their own food, then begs or steals stuff off their neighbours. So the one that brings much does not eat too much, and the one that brings nothing at all doesn’t do too badly.
But then that whole English countryside ritual stuff got involved in it, and some fool re-introduced the Trim Valley Football game.
It’s one of those games that started in the mists of time, when people could die from broken legs, and frequently did. But the ever-present threat of the Black Death must have made people less worried about dying horribly from gangrene. Goodness knows why it survived, but it did. And now, thanks to the enthusiasm of Reverend Nathan when he was younger and less inclined to hernias, it’s been revived.
So the rules are very simple. Each village has a goal, about 200 yards from a central point in the forest clearing. Each team consists of as many players as the villagers believe are vaguely able-bodied. They get a ball each and have to get it into the goal of any of the other teams. Handball, GBH and shoving the ball up your jumper are all legitimate techniques. But not swinging through the trees to get to another team’s goal. That caused terrible trouble when somebody fell out the other year. His own broken collar bone was considered to be his own problem – but landing on the picnickers made matters much worse.
But you know what it’s like, out here in the countryside. Old sores fester. The people of Woodby remember how Rab from Little Tremlett Manor Farm dropped manure off the back off his tractor on their main road. The Woodby Chapel End folk remember how one of their girls got in trouble with a lad from Grilsby-on-the-Hill in 1893. And next thing you know, the English countryside is being watered with the blood of the local sons of the soil. I say sons of the soil – most of them are shopworkers, chartered accountants and artists who work from home.
Anyway, Grilsby started off well. They managed to get several members of the LIttle Tremlett squad tied to trees, and then launched an attack down their left wing. Woodby got the upper hand on Woodby Chapel End early on (as they would – the population of Chapel End has an average age of 82) and got the goal that knocked out Chapel End. They then went for Grilsby’s goal, but Grilsby’s defence was a lot more robust than anyone expected. The bear trap was a real defensive masterstroke. Caught six boys from Woodby. Grilsby swore blind after the game that they had actually caught that bear – not shoved it in themselves as an added treat.
So with Woodby and Chapel End out of the game, Grilsby and Little Tremlett formed some kind of a united front, and both teams bore down on the Great Tremlett goal. The Great Tremlett lads are robust enough, but they were heavily outnumbered, and running out of stones to throw. It seemed inevitable that they would have to concede.
But then one of the Great Tremlett spectators invaded the pitch. Within a ten minute period of berserk violence, half of the other villages’ teams were incapacitated. Mostly blows to the head or the groin. Not the sort of stuff you’d expect at a church picnic, and it’s a shame the Sunday Schools had to see it.
They’ve checked the rule book, and confirmed that the game is open to all adult inhabitants of the five villages. So technically the intervention was legal, and Great Tremlett have won this year’s game with a record number of opposition injuries.
However, they have agreed to modify the rules to ban the use of cricket bats in future. I feel victorious, but quite embarrassed. I don’t know what came over me.