An a-peel-ing event in Totnes!
PUBLISHED: 09:30 11 August 2014
There’s some fruity fun to be had in Totnes this month, as DELIA PEMBERTON reveals
Venture into Totnes on Tuesday, 19 August, and you’re likely to encounter a strange – not to say rather alarming – sight.
Don’t worry about how to find it. The noise of cheers and shouting will draw you to the town’s steep High Street, where the first thing you’ll see is a torrent of oranges pouring down the hill, swiftly followed by a stampede of people in hot pursuit.
The Totnes Orange Races take place each year on the morning of the third Tuesday in August. Introduced in the 1970s as a way to attract more visitors to the town during the school holidays, they are run over a 450-metre course, starting at the top of the High Street and ending in front of the Royal Seven Stars Hotel at the foot of the hill. The rules are simple: each participant is given an orange that they must chase and kick to the finishing line.
The Town Crier announces the start of each race, and mayhem then ensues as the runners charge downhill, jostling for position while trying to control their speeding fruit. Many an orange is reduced to pulp in the process, adding slipping and sliding to the mix of hazards involved. The rules state that to qualify for a place you must still be in possession of an orange as you cross the finish line, so if yours has perished, you must commandeer someone else’s, however unscrupulous your tactics may be!
The Totnes Orange Races were inspired by tales involving local hero Sir Francis Drake. It’s said that once, while visiting the town, the great man bumped into a delivery boy carrying a basket of oranges, sending the contents rolling down the High Street. In Tudor times, oranges were still a rare and costly import, so there must have been quite a scene as bystanders scrambled to catch the precious fruit.
Nobody knows if this story is true, but a poem by Robert Hayman, son of the town’s mayor and late Governor of Newfoundland, relates how, in 1579, he met Drake in Totnes High Street.
That encounter was especially memorable because Drake presented the lad with ‘a fair red Orange’ which young Robert was ‘right glad’ to recieve.
Town Councillor Judy Westacott is Chairman of the Totnes Elizabethan Society, which hosts the event. “The Orange Races are the highlight of our season,” she says. “There is great rivalry between locals and visitors, and over the years our race winners have come from all over the world.”
There are races for all age groups, from the under-fives to the over-60s, but the most prestigious is the Police Challenge, a heated contest between police officers and local business people.
Last year’s winner, Sergeant Helen Gerig of Totnes’ neighborhood policing team, says the race is a “good fun event”, giving officers the opportunity to engage with the community. That said, it’s no doddle: “I had really aching feet last time – and I always strap my hat on!”
Anyone is welcome to participate, so why not join in this August? All you need to do is turn up.