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Ideas / Album / Olney Pancake Race
Pancake races in Olney

Olney is a small town (with a population of about 6,000) in the county of Buckinghamshire in England, near Milton Keynes.
The town's name is pronounced "ole-nee".
It is a market town, which still holds a weekly general market and a monthly farmers' market.

One side of the town sign shows its old industries: lacemaking and shoemaking


According to tradition it was in Olney, back in 1445, that pancake racing started.
On Shrove Tuesday the church bell rang out to signal the start of the church service.
A local housewife who was busy cooking pancakes before the start of Lent, ran to the church.
She was still carrying her frying pan and wearing her apron and headscarf, and tossed the pancake to prevent it from burning.
Local people who saw this were amused, and later started to organise pancake races.

Pancake races still take place in Olney each Shrove Tuesday.
The main course is 415 yards (about 380 metres) long. The race starts at 11:55am and is run from the Market Place to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.
The race participants are women aged over 18 who must have lived in Olney for the previous 3 months (or have their permanent home there).
Before the main race there is also a race over a much shorter distance by children from the local schools.

The second side of the town sign shows its famous pancake race

Competitors wear the traditional costume of a housewife, including a skirt, apron and head covering and race carry a frying pan containing a pancake.

Competitors practice their pancake tossing ...

... and line up on the High Street, ready to start the race

The church bell tolls every 15 minutes from 11am until 11:45am, then rings once more at 11:55am.
The starter in Market Place says, "Toss your pancakes - are you ready?" and a special hand bell is used to start the race.

Racing down to the church

Crossing the finishing line

This year's winning time: 58.5 seconds

The course finishes on the road next to the Parish Church.
The winner must toss her pancake after crossing the finishing line.
It is traditional for her to receive the "kiss of peace" from the verger
(the verger is the church officer who looks after the church interior and acts as an attendant during ceremonies).

The winner of the 2012 race

A final flip of the pancake ...

... and the kiss of peace from the verger

Le Creuset Toughened Non-Stick Crepe Pan, 24 cm
Manufacturer: Le Creuset
Waffles, Crepes and Pancakes
Author: Norma Miller
Publisher: Lorenz Books
Date: February 2004
Pancake: A Global History (Edible)
Author: Ken Albala
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Date: September 2008
  The Story of the Olney Pancake Race
Author: Graham Lenton
Publisher: gml art
Date: March 2003


After the pancake race, competitors and spectators are invited to join a Shriving service inside the Parish Church.

The Vicar of Olney

The Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul

The pancake racers join the service

The service includes a sermon explaining about the traditions of Shrove Tuesday and of Lent (which starts the next day, on Ash Wednesday).
Traditionally Christians did not eat meat or dairy products during the 40 days of Lent, so they used up milk and eggs by preparing pancakes.
The final week of Lent is known as Holy Week:
- Maunday Thursday represents the time of the Last Supper.
- Good Friday represents the death of Jesus on the cross
- Easter Sunday represents the resurrection of Jesus
The images in the stained glass windows show these events.

Stained glass window

Jesus and his disciples at the Last Supper

Jesus is crucified

Since 1950 the pancake race has become an international competition: Olney competes with the town of Liberal in the state of Kansas in the United States.
Each town runs its race over the same distance and run at a similar time of the day (in local time). The winning race times need to measured accurately.
The result of the race in Liberal is announced at a separate event in the evening, and the overall winner is declared then.
During the Shriving service the winner of Olney's race receives an engraved silver plate from the town of Liberal, and a hymn book from the church.

The British and American flags:
the pancake race is an international competition

An inscribed silver plate is awarded to the winner
of the Olney pancake race by a Liberal representative

The poet William Cowper and the writer John Newton (who devoted much of his life to the anti-slavery movement) both lived in Olney between 1769 and 1786.
Together they wrote the Olney Hymns. Several of these are sung during the Shriving service.
The most famous of the hymns is "Amazing Grace".
You can find out more information about this and other local history by visiting the Cowper & Newton Museum in Market Place.

Poet William Cowper and writer John Newton,
who together composed the Olney Hymns

A piper plays his bagpipes
after the church service

The congregation leaves
to join the awards ceremony

William Cowper's Olney Hymns
Author: William Cowper
Publisher: Curiosmith
Date: December 2009


The prizegiving ceremony takes place inside a marquee in Market Place

Awards were given to the first three
in the pancake race

The top prizes included a frying pan
and glass trophies

Special prizes were given to the oldest competitor
and to the person who raised most sponsorship money

All of the other race participants also received some presents

In 2012 Lesley Waters (celebrity chef from programmes such as Ready, Steady, Cook) was a special guest.
She also competed with James Lomax, chef from The Bull pub, to see who could flip 100 pancakes the fastest.

James Lomax and Lesley Waters demonstrated cooking and flipping

Pancakes were on sale outside and in some of the local shops

Winning raffle tickets were drawn


If you wish to visit Olney by public transport, starting from central London:

(a) Take a train to Milton Keynes Central (London Midland or Virgin Trains services from Euston, or Southern Trains services via Clapham Junction)
Take bus number 1 from stop 33, opposite Milton Keynes Central train station (make sure the destination is Lavendon, not Cranfield)
Get off at The Bull Inn in the Market Place in Olney (there are hourly services, and journey time is about 40 minutes)
For the bus timetable see the Arriva Bus timetable:

or: (b) Take a train to Beford (First Capital Connect or East Midlands Trains service via St Pancras International)
Take bus number 41 from outside the train station (the destination is Northampton)
Get off at The Bull Inn in the Market Place in Olney (there are hourly services, and journey time is about 25 minutes)
For the bus timetable see the Stagecoach Bus timetable:


Map of Olney: map
For further details about Olney, see:
For information about the pancake races in Liberal, Kansas, see:
Cowper & Newton Museum:


What's on in the UK in February: Ideas/Events/February
What's on in the UK in March: Ideas/Events/March

Pancake racing: Ideas/Album/PancakeRace
Good Friday: Ideas/Album/Good-Friday
Easter: Ideas/Album/Easter-Sunday

British food: Britain/Food

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