Helen Moat visits Bonsall in Derbyshire for the annual World Championship Hen Race and discovers that you never, ever count your chickens until they've raced
The competitors, country gals born and bred, with names like Betty and Ginger, are ready and lined up to do battle at any price – at least in their owners’ minds. Welcome to the strangest racing event in Britain, maybe the world.
The World Championship Hen Race takes place on the first Saturday of August every year at the Barley Mow pub in Bonsall, Derbyshire. The summer event seems bizarre to say the least: who in their right mind would think of racing bird-brained chickens on an annual basis? Only Bonsall, is the answer. Indeed, Bonsall is an unusual place any time of the year. For a start, it touts itself as the UFO centre of the world, with its residents claiming numerous sightings of unidentifiable objects on the moors above the village.
There’s no sign of little green men on this rainy, August day: just fifty-odd hens, their owners and trainers, along with several hundred bemused spectators, some who have come from the other end of England to enjoy the event.
The hens’ owners fuss over their feathered friends, although some of the names, it now materialises, are less country sweet and more sardonic nasty – names such as Korma, Kebab, Nugget and Drumsticks. It’s just as well the fowl have a poor grasp of English – and their fate.
But for now, they are preened and pampered, tucked in cages with fresh straw and water, some with umbrellas over their cages to keep them dry.
Just before the races begin, the birds are lined up with their trainers. And then – they're off! Some of the hens shoot across the 15 metre track in record time and there are murmurs of ‘fowl’ play. Race assistants are allowed to rattle bags of food at the other end of the track behind the finishing line, but today’s crafty tactics include rattling metal tins and banging forks to ensure there’s no doubt where the finishing line is. It’s enough to ruffle a few feathers. Other rumours have been circulating that some over-competitive trainers have been coaching their hens for months, putting them through a rigorous exercise regime and keeping a close eye on their diet.
Some of the other birds, however, are hopeless cases, stopping to peck at the ground, amble over to the audience, or even wander back to the starting line. They’ve ‘beaked too early,’ Colette, the Barley Mow landlady and mistress of hen puns, comments.
Other potential winners of the feathered variety allow their competitive streak to get the better of them. But Collette, adjudicator as well as commentator, is taking no nonsense: the slightest peck, never mind a full blown hen fight, gets the yellow card, then disqualification.
I’ve decided on my favourite now. A solemn boy dressed in red from head to toe is racing his bird, Road Runner, and she looks a cracker. She’s got stiff competition though from Save Our NHS and Living Wage entered by the local Labour councillor.
Then there’s a tough looking guy calling himself Coop-erman, dressed in a brightly coloured suit printed with words like ‘booo', 'crack' and 'pow’, and his gangster accomplice, The Master General, who's kitted out in sinister black. They clearly mean business. Just as I’m starting to feel I’m in the middle of a wacky dream, a man with an Irish accent steps onto the racetrack in cowboy hat, jeans and suede waist-coat and starts to sing Nessun Dorma – to inspire the hens, it transpires.
A number of heats later, and the final line-up is ready to go. Road Runner’s in there, and would you believe it, she shoots across the track in seconds: pure poultry in motion. It’s been a closely run race and I have to wait a few minutes while video is scrutinised. But finally the winner’s declared – and it is Road Runner.
By the end of the champion races I’m convinced I’m in the middle of the most surreal dream, with Road Runner sitting serenely in the winning cup and another feathered competitor drinking ale from her owner’s wooden tankard.
And just as I’m thinking things can’t get any madder, the two assistant organisers who’ve come dressed to the event in matching feather-print dresses and boa scarves, run up the track to do a human version of the race.
It’s all getting too much for me by this stage and I realise I’m in need of a lie down.
Helen Moat has won several travel writing competitions, including runner-up x 2 with The British Guild of Travel Writers and highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing competition. She is currently writing the Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Publishers.You can find more of her travel pieces on her blog.