The sport of Dyke Leaping has been taking place in the Fens and Lincolnshire since the time of Hereward the Wake and his insurrection against the Norman invaders.
Each village in the counties of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, and Western Norfolk has their own festival each year to celebrate Hereward’s successful evasion of the Norman invasion.
There are competitions for children, adults up to the age of 30, and for those 30 and above. Men, women, boys, and girls compete in the same event – the only stipulation being that everyone must wear a brown sack in memory of Hereward’s sartorial elegance.
For over 800 years people were allowed to use trees, branches and poles to help them across the dykes, but due to human right’s issues the poles are no longer forced to stand up to their waists in cold water for around six hours. As a nod to the history of the event, the only alcoholic beverage available during a dyke leaping is vodka.
The idea behind the dyke leaping is that competitors are allowed to take a run up and then propel themselves across the dyke by any means possible without landing in the water. Special moisture judges are on hand with vast paper rolls to check that competitors don’t touch the water as they crossed the dyke. If the judges find a damp mark then you are out of the competition. There can be any number of rounds of dyke-leaping. It should be noted that the distance that people are allowed to use as a run-up is reduced by 5 feet per round until there’s only one dry competitor left.
The only trouble that’s ever occurred was in 1971 when a pressure group of American lesbians held up placards denouncing the demeaning manner in which their fellow women were being treated. Only when they were shown a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and watched the event taking place did they realize their mistake. One of the women even took part in the event – she came 5th ,winning a prize of a beetroot, which she wasn’t allowed to take back to the USA because of their importing of foreign fruit and vegetables laws.
The only fatality was in 1671 when Henry de Belancourt starved to death at the King’s Lynn sea-dyke leaping. He was determined to win and so decided to vault across using a small willow tree. In the final round a successful leap would have won him the first prize of six acorns, but he got stuck halfway. Unfortunately, the tide came in and because the rules forbid any outside interference Henry decided to wait – however, the tide came in for two weeks and by the tenth day Henry was delusional and believed himself to be St Simeon Stylites. He eventually passed out and was draped over the tree when rescued. Attempts made to revive him failed. His last recorded words were “Acorns, acorns, where are my acorns?” Since 1671, in Henry’s honour, the Squirrel Cup has been awarded to the winner of the King’s Lynn sea-dyke leaping contest.
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker