How the serpents ruined football - 15 June 1858

As is often the case with traditions that are rooted in the mists of time, the annual Mellstock vs Weatherbury football match actually goes back to about 1850.

It was at this time that Parson Maybold and the vicar of Weatherbury, Parson Thirdly, decided that they needed to do something about the habit of the local peasantry, particularly of the younger age, to use their energies in drinking and wenching during the days before haymaking.

You know how it is.  In a little world's-end sort of a place like Mellstock, time hangs heavy on your hands.  And before the days of radio and TV, the other alternative occupation to sex and booze and folk and roll is to try reading - a wide selection of Jane Austen or the Bible.  And since, even today, many of the workfolk struggle with signing their names that's not getting them far.

So in order to wear the the males of the locality out in these long sunlit days, the vicars introduced the annual football match. By all accounts last year's encounter was a close, hard-fought affair that ended in a 4-3 win for Mellstock. But the parsons have decided that seven players is quite an excessive death toll, so this time round they experimented with using a ball.

On the whole, the game is as hard on the spectators as the players, due to the ground you have to cover.  The goals, being at opposite sides of Egdon Heath, are nearly four miles apart, so the average attacking move takes two hours to execute.  Having the rising ground with the Rainbarrows burial mound as the centre circle certainly makes for the long ball game from the off, but then it tends to grind to a halt as the teams of thirty smock-frocked yokels aside hack around the gorse trying to get the ball out of piles of pony droppings.  Due to the terrain, the expression "playing in the hole" is more literal than in later times, as midfielders fall into conical pits in the landscape and retrieve themselves from holly trees.

All of which is strenuous, fairly pointless but tolerable. But what makes it far worse is the decision by the former Church Bands of the two villages, and their musical descendants, to provide musical accompaniment. The Mellstock Band, or at least Reuben and Dick Dewey with their violins, are quite refined and, with the wind howling across the heath, completely inaudible. But the Weatherbury boys, having more of a Wind tradition, turned up with half a dozen clarionets, a trombone and a couple of serpents.

I don't know if you've ever heard a serpent?  Let's just say their noise puts you in mind of the so-called "brown noise" that the US government will experiment in the Second World War. And when you hear them blasting away for a few hours, accompanied by the tooting clarionets - well, it gets a bit wearing. You can't hear the screams of the players over the sound of tuneless horns being tootled away.

The game's been over a few hours now, but   the serpents have really caught on. Various old gaffers and gammers have been through their cellars, attics and wash houses, and now the village is resounding to the rasp of the serpent. I was hoping they'd pack it in before evening, but I've a horrible feeling it's going to go on all night.

Oh - the final score? Afraid the ball was accidentally booted onto the coal tender of the up train and disappeared towards Melchester. So it was 0-0 on goals at full time, but Weatherbury won three-two on fractures.

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