This is my all-time favourite image of Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling. It’s a great photograph, apart from anything else. And a great sports photograph.
It was taken in 2015 by Jill Robson, who attends most of the summer agricultural fairs (Grasmere, Ambleside, Penrith) where this kind of wrestling traditionally takes place.
Apart from the rain, the photo shows a very finely executed throw called the full buttock, a young man in a hoodie defiantly eating a Magnum, and (on the right) the extremely dedicated referee Tom Harrington, MBE – received for services to the sport. This is not WWE wrestling (John Cena, know him?). It’s not steroid muscles, big characters, ludicrous story lines. It’s not fake. It’s about as real as sport gets.
You’ll see that the young man in the white T-shirt who is about to hit the grass with some force is a. wearing socks and b. still bound on to the young man in the stripy shorts. This is because C&W wrestling isn’t catch as catch can style wrestling, where there’s that tedious bit at the start where the wrestlers try and grab bits of one another’s clothes. C&W starts like this:
And it has started that way for centuries. That’s a Thomas Bewick woodcut from 1776. (A recent blog on the LRB website by Miranda Vane gives more details.)
When the wrestlers are ready, the referee says, ‘Take hold.’ They then reach around one another’s backs, heads close. When they’re ready, no advantage to either, the ref says, ‘En guard’ and then, a couple of seconds later, ‘Wrestle.’
If any part of your body apart from the soles of your feet touches the ground, you lose. Basically, it’s the first to trip or chuck the other to the floor. Anyone can understand it, and it’s usually fairly obvious who has won. Best of three throws. Usually it’s a knockout competition. Winner goes through to the next round.
When a wrestler hits the ground, you can hear a crunch.
Photographer Jill’s husband, Roger Robson, wrote the book on this particular kind of wrestling (the book is called Cumberland and Westmorland Wrestling). He’s an ex-wrestler and maintains the C&W Association website.
When I was researching Wrestliana, Roger was my main informant. He was the one who, in the end, arranged for me to have a go. More on that another time.