Ian McMillan: Reviving the art of rhubarb leaf racing

It’s funny how, before the rules of various sports were written down, codified, and etched on the hearts of players and supporters, most villages had their own games that they’d played for so long they’d forgotten why they played them. Despite this they’d still turn out on a certain day every year and roll a ball down a hill or chase some balls down a street or chuck a ball as high as it would go and then scatter shouting “Ahhhhhh” when it fell to the ground and threatened to flatten them. A ball didn’t have to be involved, of course. In Haxey in Nottinghamshire they use a hood; in certain parts of Gloucestershire they use a cheese and at Eton it’s the Eton Wall game which may or may not involve eating a wall. Perhaps that’s just for the scholarship boys.

Many of these games are, of course, lost in what historians call The Mists of Time, to use a technical term. Who now remembers the Wath-Juxta-Ripon Cheese Cricket Weekend or the Scarborough Hoopy Hoopy Chuck? They’ve fallen down that hole marked The Past.

Well, I’m pleased to report that here in Darfield in the whirling heart of the South Yorkshire Vortex we’re hoping to revive the ancient Rhubarb Leaf Race this spring. I mention it now because, frankly, I’m trying to drum up some media interest and create a bit of a buzz for a sport that was once widely played in this part of the country but which, like many of the older leaf-jockeys, has almost faded away.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

This wouldn’t have been the case if you’d come to Darfield in the early 1930s in April when the local rhubarb was just coming into its own and the leaves were flapping in the wind like elephant’s ears. If you’d stood at the top of Snape Hill on a Saturday morning you’d have seen a crowd of people jostling excitedly, trying to catch a glimpse of the action.

The premise of the Rhubarb Leaf Race was like curd tart: beautiful in its simplicity. You just got the biggest rhubarb leaf you could, sat on it at the top of a hill and sped down shouting “Rhubaarb!” The winner was the person who got to the bottom of the hill in the shortest time. It sounds easy but there was a lot of skill involved. Amateurs who’d had a few pints or who were too rotund fell off almost immediately; those who’d forgotten to wear the protective britches suffered severe buttock-singe; those who turned to wave at friends and family found themselves heading into a pub wall in top gear.

The best rhubarb-leaf jockeys were lithe individuals who had a great sense of balance and protective britches made from the finest flame-proof bratish. They kept their gaze straight ahead and were never distracted by families waving banners or rivals’ families waving threatening fists. They were brave.

As the jockeys grew older the sport became less popular until the last race was held in 1961, with only two entrants, both of whom tumbled off before they got to Harry Holden’s barber’s shop. Rhubarb leaf racing died with their fall.

Until now. The revival begins, in Darfield in the spring. And you really did hear it here first.