The World Championship Woolsack Races
If you thought that hurling yourself down a hill trying to catch a cheese was just a little odd, how about running uphill with a giant sack of wool on your back??
The ‘World Championship Woolsack Races’, held in Tetbury each May, draws a crowd of over five thousand people waiting to watch strong young men impress with their wool carrying ability and is a tradition that draws on the true heritage of the Cotswolds – its Lions.
Though most visitors might not be aware of it, they visit the Cotswolds because of its lions. More specifically, because of its sheep. It is little known to tourists that the Cotswold Lion, a particular breed of indigenous sheep, was at one time the backbone of industry in medieval England. Indeed, these sheep quite literally carried the wealth of England on their backs. It was the character of the wool industry and the nature of its decline that has left us today with the market towns, farms and quaint villages that make up the picturesque Cotswold landscape. In fact, there are even wool churches funded by the wealth of wool that can still be seen today on our Active England Bike Tours.
The Roman Sheep
The name Cotswolds comes from the Anglo Saxon ‘cotes’ meaning sheep enclosure, and ‘wolds’ being hills. So even the name of the area recognises its debt to the sheep! It was the Romans however who are believed to have introduced of the particular breed of Cotswold Lion around 2000 years ago, or who at least cultivated their growth in numbers, building on the methods of their Celtic forbearers.
After the Norman conquest of 1066, the church helped instigate an open field system in order to support much larger flocks of sheep, with monasteries owning some of the biggest flocks and increasing the church’s wealth. During the Middle Ages Cotswold sheep became the main source of England’s wool exports to mainland Europe. Cotswold sheep’s fleece was coveted because of its long nature, relatively quick growth and mohair likeness.
Stemming from this period, the Lord Chancellor’s seat in the House of Lords was made of wool – at the time Cotswold wool – and named the woolsack, as a reminder of the nation’s dependence on wool. Our Lord Chancellor still sits on this today as a continued reminder of wool-based heritage.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries the Church lost its controlling influence on the wool trade, bringing great wealth to wool merchants – many of whom patronised fine houses which sat alongside the wool churches, and contain a beauty relished today as classic picturesque Cotswolds.
On our tours you’ll notice that we stay in The Lamb Inn in Burford on Sheep Street and near to Shepherd’s Lane. The signs of our woollen past are everywhere – what were once grass grazing verges for sheep are now lawns for the golden-stoned cottages that line the streets of this historic town.
During the late sixteenth century the wool weaving industry developed around Stroud where the water running off the Cotswold escarpment powered the new woollen mills. However, with the industrial revolution (circa. 1750- 1850) wool production in the North of England took advantage of newer, more efficient forms of power. Unable to compete, the Cotswold woollen industry rapidly declined and a desperate poverty spread through the Cotswolds. With little money spare to develop the Cotswolds buildings, towns and villages, much has remained as it was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Bizarre to think that it was wool that both brought enormous wealth to the Cotswolds, building its characteristic golden-stoned buildings and churches, while also bringing the great poverty that has kept them preserved through time.
By the turn of the twentieth century the Cotswold Lion had become a rare breed, though efforts of conservationists have expanded the breed to over fifty flocks, safeguarding the sheep that has shaped our landscape. Designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Cotswolds owes this title to its sheep!
Look out for these sheep on our tours as we pass several flocks, noticeable because of their long ‘fringes’ and wide-set build.