Races track

Races track

Ancient ritual: Alan Sherwood pictured with the Dakyn Chest

Peter Wilce who died aged 90

First published in News
Last updated
The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by

THOUGH unlikely to feature in the pages of the Sporting Chronicle, Kirby Hill Races takes place on Friday. It’s an extraordinary – indeed unique – event, nonetheless. That one of the central players is The Waxman may suggest something from those early Batman films, though Alan Sherwood supposes Harry Potter to be a better analogy. “It’s quite quaint,” he adds.

Kirby Hill is a small village between Richmond and the A66, described by Pevsner as “exceptional and perfect” and possibly best known for its pub. Nearby is the late 14th Century church of St Peter and St Felix. It’s there, on August 29 in alternate years, that the races take place – a historical re-enactment so ancient it’s almost mummified.

Back in 1556, Fr John Dakyn, the parish priest, dedicated to St John the Baptist a trust to provide almshouses plus seven pence a week for the aged poor and a free grammar school for boys and youths. It was open to residents of Kirby Hill and nearby Ravensworth (where Sir Ian Botham now holds court.) August 29 is the Feast of the saint’s decollation, a religious euphemism meaning beheading. For waxman read axeman.

Dakyn, it’s supposed, was trying to salve his conscience – “to lament sincerely my errors, ignorances and most grievous sins” – not least in harrying Protestants to the pyre.

The trust continues, thought to be the oldest of its kind in Europe: grants for students and apprentices, six flats for the elderly. Though now getting on a bit, it is not thought that Sir Ian qualifies.

Two wardens are chosen every second year, following a short church service. The electoral process has been unchanged since 1556 and goes, probably, like this.

  • After the service, the vicar and two churchwardens each produce a key with which to open the Dakyn chest, in use since 1784.
  • A water-filled stone urn, known somewhat prosaically as The Pot, is removed from the chest and carried ceremonially to the adjoining schoolroom.
  • The Pot holds the names, written on waterproof paper and encased in wax, of the four unsuccessful candidates at the last wardens’ election.
  • The Waxman, aforesaid, breaks the seal, reads the names and discards them. The Waxman seals another six names – chosen from “the gravest and most honest” – in hollowed pieces of candle and places them in The Pot.
  • The vicar, currently the Rev John Richards, stirs the pot, averts his gaze and picks from the six nominees the names of two new wardens.
  • The Pot with the remaining four names are again locked in the chest, only to be opened in the event of what now would be called a byelection.

Alan Sherman, an outgoing warden, is also the resident expert. “It would be difficult to change the procedure now,” he says, “We’d have to go through the Charity Commissioners, but I don’t think anyone’s ever wanted to do it.”

The wardens answer to the trustees.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s perceived as an honour exactly,” says Alan. “You sometimes have to do things at the drop of a hat, day or night.”

But why the Kirby Hill Races? “No one’s ever been able to tell me. The Kirby Hill Races it remains.”

AH, but they do things differently in North Yorkshire.

Take the compelling case of the other Mayor Boris.

Boris is Mayor of Sleegill, of which few may have heard but where – wholly coincidentally – the Dakyn Trust owns five houses and other land. Though his real name is Chris Peary, few know him that way.

“Oh Boris,” says the lady at his place of work and promises that the mayor will ring back.

Sleegill is on the southern side of what Richmond folk call the green bridge and which, they insist, administratively divides the two communities.

The mayoralty goes back a long way. Eddie Roberts, himself in Richmond, sends a splendid 1913 photograph of Sleegill’s first citizen outside the Good Intent Inn. The pub – “the most evocatively named ever,” says Eddie – is long gone. The Holly Hill now slakes Sleegill thirsts.

Though we haven’t given up, the call still hasn’t been returned. It’s most unlike Mayor Boris to forego a bit of publicity.

PETER WILCE, once described hereabouts as a Vasco da Gama among Explorer ticket holders, has reached the end of a long and winding road.

Peter was 90, believed Yorkshire dales buses to be a veritable transport of delight, became so familiar and so frequent a face that the United gave him a lifetime’s pass.

We’d first met on a brave bus over the Buttertubs, many years before the Tour de France overtook it.

“Buttertubs is extraordinary,” the column had observed, “plunging like a Hurley neckline and even more sensational.”

His other great love was Darlington FC, where he held a season ticket – 11.45am from Leyburn – until four years ago. “Their oldest supporter?” wonders his sister, Pauline Hustwick.

Peter was a Leyburn lad, returned to the Roman Catholic primary school in 2001 to tell them about the good old days – stick-wielding nuns outside toilets, no school dinners – and to hand out a few presents.

He’d been a bus regular since 1936, when the Northallerton Traction Company worked buses up there.

Since they parked overnight at the back of their house, Peter also got to push them next morning.

His jobs included delivering Calor gas and digging the parish graves.

When he retired through ill health he travelled the bus routes six days a week, a guide to younger drivers and a tea maker to their seniors.

“It’s better than sitting at home being miserable,” said Peter.

He’d spent the last few years in a care home in Catterick Garrison, where we joined birthday celebrations in January. Peter’s funeral will be at Leyburn RC church at 11am today.

A BELATED word on Norman Cornish, a gentle genius who was never too busy to afford a grass-green cub reporter half an hour of his time.

The Times was among those which afforded substantial obituaries, in turn drawing affectionate memories from Judge Simon Wood.

The future North-East circuit judge was a nine-year-old pupil at Durham Chorister School when, circa 1968, the former Dean and Chapter pitman arrived to give an illustrated talk.

Most queued for autographs.

Young Wood held back, embarrassed by the eye patch that the “redoubtable” matron had compelled him to wear in response to a minor affliction.

Seeing the kid’s discomfort, Norman drew one of his “pitmatic” characters, complete with eye patch, and signed it. “The drawing remains a permanent reminder of that kind and spontaneous gesture.”

...And finally, thanks to John Maughan in Wolsingham who sends a flyer from the local pizza parlour in which he has counted “at least 11” spelling mistakes. “There’s not much to do up here,” adds John.

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