Banbury: Ancient blood sport now fun pub cavort

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles tries an English throwing game with Cavalier origins.

An Aunt Sally match in Banbury demonstrates the different throwing techniques. Photo / Jim Eagles
An Aunt Sally match in Banbury demonstrates the different throwing techniques. Photo / Jim Eagles

I'm sure it was only jetlag that stopped me from becoming a new star in the royal and ancient English game of Aunt Sally. My performance during the practice session at the General Foods Social Club, in the historic city of Banbury, was so impressive that I was immediately offered a chance to play for the A team in the local Aunt Sally league.

It was an honour considering this competition is unique to the area around Oxford, where it is said to have been introduced during the English Civil War when King Charles I set up his capital in the university city.

But, having arrived from New Zealand the day before, we were already starting to fade at about 6pm and the prospect of playing until after 10pm was a bit daunting. Pity, though, because it's an intriguing game.

You've probably never heard of the game Aunt Sally - I hadn't - but you may have heard the name being used to refer to someone who is an easy target for criticism.

When I arrived in Oxfordshire I discovered the expression originated in a pub game that involves throwing a stick to knock a white wooden dolly - the Aunt Sally - off a metal spike about 1m high.

Keen to see this sport in action, I contacted the Aunt Sally League for the Banbury area where I was staying. "We've got a home game tonight," the secretary said. "Do you want to come along?"

When we arrived I studied the throwing techniques carefully. When Sharon's husband, Ali, asked if I'd like a go I was ready.

My first six throws were close but flew about 20cm to the right of the target. When Ali asked if I would like another try I decided to aim to the left. It worked a treat.

The first stick just about scraped the dolly. The second one knocked it off. The third and fourth sticks just missed. The fifth was another strike. The sixth hit the metal stand, which doesn't count. I was delighted and the onlookers seemed impressed. "Oooh," said one of the team members. "Sign him up."

There are several Aunt Sally competitions in Oxfordshire, the largest being the Oxford league which has about 1500 members, and numbers are increasing every year. "There's probably twice as many teams now as when I started," said Ali, who'd played Aunt Sally for nearly 40 years.

Its origins don't sound pleasant. According to one version it comes from an ancient blood sport which involved tying a rooster to a stake and throwing clubs at it. Whoever killed the poor bird got to take it home. Another version has it as a development of a fairground game in which players threw clubs at a doll dressed as an old woman.

A match involves two teams of eight, each player getting six throws a turn, playing three legs. In the first leg against a visiting team from Souldern, my team went first and scored eight out of a possible 48. The Red Fox team scored 14. It didn't look good.

By that time we were falling asleep with jetlag so we left reluctantly. But Sharon kindly sent me the score: The Red Fox won all three legs and took the match. But "we made up for it by winning the beer leg". Sounds like my kind of result.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies three times daily from Auckland to Dubai with direct connections to its daily services from Dubai to six airports in the United Kingdom: London-Heathrow, London-Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow. Currently, fares to the United Kingdom are from $2925 return (inclusive of all taxes).

Where to stay: Grange Farm B&B, near Swalcliffe in Oxfordshire, is within easy driving distance of Banbury.

Aunt Sally: To find out about Aunt Sally games see banburyasl@yahoo.co.uk and oxfordauntsally.co.uk.

Further information: For more about visiting the UK see visitbritain.com.

* Jim Eagles played Aunt Sally with help from Emirates and Visit Britain.

- NZ Herald

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