Credit: Mike McKenzie

Mad Up North

by Jim Coulson


In the north, we are not like everyone else. And that is the way we like it. We are proud of our bizarre and brilliant traditions that you just don’t get anywhere else. So this article dives into the unique customs that make the north the brilliant place that it is. Don’t forget to let us know if you have taken part in any of these particularly northern activities.

Skipping Day

As with all good customs, no one really knows the true story behind Scarborough’s annual Skipping Day celebrations. It takes place on Shrove Tuesday and involves hundreds of people skipping with ropes on Foreshore Road in the town. It usually follows the traditional pancake race, held in the afternoon after the sounding of the pancake bell in the town. Some say that the Skipping Day celebrations relate to the time of year when fisher folk would sort out their nets and ropes, giving the discarded items to schoolchildren to be used for skipping. Others believe it was borne out of Ball Day, another Shrove Tuesday celebration in Scarborough. On Ball Day, apprentices in the town were given a half day and generally spent it on the beach playing a game of mob football. Children also finished school early to enjoy the spectacle, with canny stall holders pitching up and selling goods, such as skipping ropes, to the assembled crowds. To this day, hundreds of people head to the seafront to show off their rope skills. Whatever the origins more than a century ago, Skipping Day continues to play a key role in Scarborough’s social calendar, and long may that continue.


A classic northern activity is gurning. The act of contorting your face, jutting out your jaw and essentially looking like you are trying to eat your own face has a special place in our hearts and there are even annual championships around these parts.
Egremont in Cumbria was given a royal charter to host an annual crab fair in 1267 by King Henry III. Little did Henry know that the event would come to be overshadowed by the annual gurning competition that has been a feature of the fair since before anyone can remember.
And the competition is stiff too. From the fair’s website, it recalls this incident: “There was controversy at the 1997 World Gurning Championship when the judges awarded first prize to the wrong contestant. Peter Clifford, an actor from Manchester, was initially given the Championship, but after the event the judges stated that they had meant Peter Jackman. The situation was resolved when Peter Jackman was handed the trophy on TV programme They Think It’s All Over a few months later.
It’s like Moonlight and La La Land all over again.

May Goslings

It really is no surprise to anyone that northerners enjoy being different from everyone else. In fact, it is rather a badge of honour for us. And that is why we came up with May goslings whilst the rest of the world keeps plugging away with April Fools’ Day. On May Day, one month later than everyone else, in parts of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire, northerners spend the morning pranking and hoaxing each other. It dates back to the 18th century at least and could even have been an occurrence much earlier. It seems to have waned throughout the 20th century, but some hardy souls still dismiss the April date for the very northern May affair to this day. As with April Fools’ Day, the jollity is limited to before midday, with a special rhyme existing to admonish anyone pranking after the deadline. It goes:
“May gosling’s past and gone.
You’re the fool for making me one!”

Gawthorpe World Coal Carrying Championships


World Coal Carrying Championships

The village of Gawthorpe near Ossett can lay claim to hosting its own major annual sporting occasion. It is the setting for the World Coal Carrying Championships on Easter Monday every year, in which runners carry coal sacks over a distance of 1.1km. Like many hairbrained ideas, the concept for the championships developed from a conversation in the pub. One day in 1963, some friends were engaged in a debate about their respective athletic abilities when the idea of testing their mettle with a coal-carrying race came up. The secretary of the Gawthorpe Maypole Committee suggested they tie it in with the village’s Easter celebrations and a new tradition was born. You will find men’s and women’s races setting off from the Royal Oak pub and heading towards the maypole on the village green every Easter Monday. The first prize for being quickest over the 1108.25 yards is £750 for the men, who carry 50kg of coal on their backs, and £500 for the women, who carry 20kg. It is a hotly contested event. The current course records are 4 mins 6 seconds for the fellas, held by David Jones of Meltham, and 4 minutes 25 seconds for the women, as achieved by Catherine Foley from Heckmondwike.

World Black Pudding Throwing Championships

Another northern town that takes pride in its inclusion in the sporting calendar is Ramsbottom. This Greater Manchester location is home to the World Black Pudding Throwing Championships, which take place on the second Sunday of September. The Royal Oak pub is the second venue to hold the annual tournament, replacing the Corner Pin which closed down. Contestants have three black puddings each and must try to knock as many Yorkshire puddings off a 7.6-metre-high plinth as they can, with the champion being the one who dislodges the most. Andrew Ferrier is the current champion, having regained the title in 2021 that he previously held in 2018. The symbolism is less than subtle, of course. And the roots of the contest are said to date back to the War of the Roses, where the legend goes that the battling Yorkists and Lancastrians ran out of ammunition at a battle in nearby Stubbins, and so continued fighting with food. Yorkshire puddings on one side, black pudding on the other. It is almost certainly not true, but it does make for a good story.

NorthernLife May/June 2022