This is one of 40 stories from my book
Sports the Olympics Forgot
which is available here
Hadrian’s Wall stretches for 74 miles and separated Scotland from the rest of the Roman Empire. The Wall has always been a symbol of the differences between England and Scotland and this fact lies at the basis of the Pole Vaulting event held near Chesters Fort every January 27th since 1890.
There are three elements to the event, the first two of which involve leaping from England into Scotland. The first is the Pole Vault event where athletes, using professional athletic’s poles, vault over the wall and try and land as far as possible into Scotland. Each vaulter is given six attempts and the person with the longest distance is the winner,
The second event is the “Vault over the Wall” that is for both professional and amateur athletes alike. The aim here is simply to vault over the wall using any implement possible such as a garden spade, a fencepost, or even a car bumper. Not all attempts are successful; to be in with a chance of winning the athlete must clear the wall and again the furthest distance wins the prize. Competitors can have a maximum of 10 attempts in the two hours set aside for the event. All contestants sign an insurance waiver before the beginning of the event.
The third event combines pole vaulting skills and accuracy. Starting on the Scottish side vaulters have to run up to the wall, plant their vaulting implement, and try and knock down as many life-size Roman soldier cutouts as possible that have been placed on top of the wall. This event commemorates the days when Roman soldiers patrolled Hadrian’s Wall in order to stop the Picts from entering the Roman Empire.
In the professional Pole Vaulting contest the vaulters have a special 30-yard sprinting track laid down for them, at the end of which is a box where the pole is planted before the vaulter flies over the wall. This event is the complete opposite of the Olympic event where the height is the most important consideration; at Hadrian’s Wall the distance in a forwards direction is critical. Some professional Pole Vaulters have done themselves an injury here as they have cleared the wall by 10 feet but have little forward momentum so they land on the wall itself and don’t win a prize. The best technique is to use a half-length pole and ensure that the legs point out in front as the athlete heads over the wall. Some people have vaulted straight into the wall and hurt themselves quite badly. The record is 47 feet 7 inches by the Scot Rabbie Menzies in 1932; the distance is measured from the base of the wall on the Scottish side to the point where the athlete first makes contact with the ground.
The “Vault over the Wall” has a broader run-up area allowing more than one person to vault at the same time. The reason for this is that not that many people make it over the wall due to the fragility of their vaulting equipment and because of a lack of adequate training in the necessary techniques. Shovels, downspouts, and large branches have all been used as potential vaulting poles but a lack of elasticity in the implements usually means they either snap into bits or fail to hold the weight of the vaulter sufficiently for them to make it over the wall. Indeed some nasty impalement injuries are treated by the 30 medical staff every year. The record distance is 34 feet 4 inches by John McDougall in 1972; he was sixteen at the time and used a bamboo pole that he’d found at the local garden centre.
Knocking down the Roman soldiers is a very popular event. It’s an open draw which means that everyone’s name goes into a tam o’shanter and then the names are drawn out. Two players play each other; they both have five attempts to knock down as many soldiers as possible and the person with the highest cumulative total goes through to the next round. There are a number of techniques to knock down as many of the 20 soldiers as possible. The most dangerous is the leg splay where a competitor tries to do the splits in mid-air thus giving him the widest possible coverage to knock down the soldiers. The problem is that a small misjudgment can lead to a Roman soldier making contact with the athlete’s groin. Other people prefer the feet first approach with their arms spread wide, which leads to fewer injuries. There’s also the bowling ball technique where the athlete vaults into the soldiers at an angle using their shoulder, hoping to cause a ricochet down the line of cutouts.