Wrap up warm for traditional skipping day

Pancake-tossing on Shrove Tuesday, by George Cruikshank, 1837
Pancake-tossing on Shrove Tuesday, by George Cruikshank, 1837

Written by Heather Elvidge

When the night sky has been clear, the stars have twinkled and flickered like Will-o’-the-wisps. This is caused by strong winds high up in the atmosphere, and it means that wild weather is on the way.

The end of January brought particularly fierce winds, and the swing between Arctic and Atlantic looks set to continue. Watch out for the spell between February 7 and 14, which is one of the year’s “cold periods” identified by Victorian meteorologist, Alexander Buchan.

As Easter Sunday falls on March 31 this year, there’ll be the usual calls to fix the holiday at a time of better weather. In the 1920s a date between April 9 and 15 was proposed, and it was Buchan’s work that helped to scupper those plans.

One of his cold periods occurs between April 11 and 14, something that was widely publicised at the time. When an Act to fix Easter was passed in 1928 it never became law.

Shrove Tuesday is on February 12, within Buchan’s cold spell, so we’ll have to wrap up for Scarborough’s day of skipping. At least jumping up and down is a good way to keep warm.

Long-rope skipping at Scarborough entered the records in 1903, but could it be older? We know that nineteenth-century Scarborians played ball games on the beach — they even called it Ball Day.

At that time long-rope skipping was known among fishing communities elsewhere, on Good Friday. So there could have been some rope turning among bottom-enders at the beginning of Lent.


Shrove Tuesday is the last day before Lent, the 40 days that lead up to Easter. The original point of the day was to confess your sins — be “shriven” — then spend the rest of the day doing things that would be forbidden during Lent.

So there were cakes, waffles and pancakes to eat; bacon and eggs or fried “collops” of meat to get through; and after all that, an afternoon spent at your favourite sport or pastime.

Strict fasting was largely over in Queen Victoria’s day. Yet Lent remained a solemn time, and Shrove Tuesday provided the last chance for unruly pursuits.

The country’s favourite activity was cockfighting, until it was banned in 1849. Next in popularity was mass football, a game with few rules and unlimited numbers on each side. Incredibly, this was played in urban areas, until it was outlawed in 1835. The game continued in the countryside and Shrovetide Football is still played at Sedgefield in County Durham, Alnwick and Rothbury in Northumberland, and Ashbourne in Derbyshire.

Rope-pulling provided another opportunity for mayhem. This was a bit like tug-o’-war, except that an obstacle, such as a river, lay between the two teams.

But some of the day’s events didn’t involve bodily harm. The joy of tossing pancakes, only to see them end up on the floor, was well known in the early 1600s. Pancakes are the day’s oldest and still the most widespread custom.