April 3 2015
Easter comes early this year and to the east of the Kent / Sussex border they celebrate a game that is 3,000 years old.
The game of marbles was played over 3000 years ago in Egypt. Clay marbles having been found in the tombs of the ancient Egyptians. The game is still alive and kicking in a number of Sussex towns.
Sussex marbles season lasts for 45 days and in the last century was very closely defined between Ash Wednesday and 12 noon on Good Friday, so much so that Good Friday (and in some places Ash Wednesday) were known as ‘Marbles Day’. At Lenten time toyshop windows displayed tops, skipping ropes, hoops and marbles. These colourful tiny balls of clay, stone and glass were the main attraction to both young and old alike.
One of these towns is Battle, East Sussex, site of the famous Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Each Good Friday, in the imposing shadow of Battle Abbey local teams gather to play in this traditional annual competition dating back to the early 1900s and revived in Battle in 1948, with lady entrants permitted for the first time in 1972.
The traditional Sussex smock was ‘de rigueur’ (or brown short fishermen’ smocks as these were easier to obtain) until the early 1950s and the game ended at noon sharp when marbles and hot cross buns were handed out to the local children. The smock of the late Frank Anderson, who died in 1967, can be seen in the Battle Museum of Local History, along with a small display of marbles and photos.
The Rev W. D. Parish wrote in 1879 about the game as played at Selmeston, East Sussex,
“I always wondered why so many people in the country districts of Sussex should devote themselves to marbles on Good Friday, till I discovered that the marble season is strictly defined between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; and on the last day of the season it seems to be the object of every man and boy to play marbles as much as possible: they will play in the road at the church gate till the very last moment before service, and begin again the instant they are out of church. Is it possible that it was appointed as a Lenten sport, to keep people from more boisterous and mischievous enjoyments?”
Nowadays, local pubs and businesses enter teams of 5 players and fancy dress has replaced the traditional smocks. The number of entrants has risen to over 120, all eager to win both the marbles and the fancy dress competitions.
There is the popular all comers board for spectators of all ages to give marbles a try and, as tradition dictates, there’s a free children’s marble scramble at noon with 1000 marbles up for grabs at the end of the competition. Easter eggs now replace the hot cross buns that used to be given out and there is a separate Easter bonnet competition for the children, with last year’s entry numbers reaching 65.
‘Flick-off’ is at 10 am on Good Friday – 3 April 2015. As ever, the rules include no donkey dropping and the umpire’s decision is not negotiable!
“Rye’s Own” March 2015
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