The rain hammers down, and the wind howls. The damp seeps into my bones. It is early January, dreary, dark and exhausting, in the Pacific Northwest.
However, springtime, and with it renewal, is on the way. I know this because television ads announce The Masters, set for early April, the first of golf’s four annual major tournaments. Suddenly, images abound of blue skies and sunshine, of azaleas in full bloom, of dogwoods and Georgia pines, of Amen Corner. Of Magnolia Lane, patrons, manicured fairways and lightning fast greens. Of ceremonial tee shots and the past champion's dinner. All as the dulcet tones of the lead CBS commentator voice over equally soothing music.
The Masters, first held in 1934, is just one sporting event played on a yearly basis. Yet, a host of others, also revered and bound by various customs, have been around a lot longer.
In this vein, I find myself in Berkshire, just west of London, some years ago. Mid October. I am to visit a friend affiliated with Eton College, a venerable institution founded in the 15th century by King Henry VI. Dripping in wealth and privilege, it is one of the most famous schools in the world.
I arrive, on foot, just before 4pm. My journey takes me down Slough Road, between the College and Sixpenny Fields. It is there I come across “The Wall”, slightly curved, just over 110 meters in length and some ten feet high.
Along its base, a most curious, mysterious game is underway. A peculiar mix of soccer, rugby and dogpile, the fixture involves 25 minute halves and two teams of ten players. For the most part, an old and soggy ball seems to be buried under heaps of bodies in a never-ending scrum, called a “bully”, against the wall. Unless the ball somehow pops out from the melee and is then hoofed down field, progress along the narrow five meter channel, labeled the “furrow”, can be measured in inches.
Indeed, players wear woolen helmets with earflaps, gardening type gloves, sweatpants and colourful long sleeved shirts, so to avoid scraping their ears, hands, arms and legs against the wall. The rules seem quite arbitrary, with forming a “phalanx”, in order for one team to smuggle the ball back to its side before then crabbing forward, apparently a key tactic. Striking, knuckling and smothering are other important core skills, though, for whatever reason, the obscure crime of “furking" is not.
Very, very occasionally, a “shy”, worth one point, is scored, though how, why or when is a complete puzzle to me. And a “calx”, or goal, worth an additional nine points and rarer than a blue moon, can be scored at one end of the furrow against a wooden door, at the other against a designated elm tree.
The game I watch features a pair of scratch sides, involving boys from different year groups as well as various staff members. A selection of other students, resplendent in the school uniform of tailcoats, white ties and pinstriped- trousers, spectate atop the wall.
My friend duly arrives. With a wry smile, he asks if I am enjoying myself, getting my sporting fix. He also points out the two dour, unsmiling gentlemen hovering close by. Sporting dark glasses despite the growing afternoon shadows. Collars and ties, grey overcoats and polished brogues. I learn they comprise the royal security detail, as one of the players buried in the pileup is none other than Prince William, second in line to the British throne.
Played only at Eton, the Wall Game dates back to 1766. The season "highlight" remains the annual St. Andrews Day match, typically contested in late November mud and sludge, and since 1844. The Collegers, in their purple and white stripes, are a team chosen from the 70 Etonians on full scholarship. They battle the purple and orange clad Offidans, a selection taken from the 1200 students who live in boarding houses dotted about the town. On arrival, and before clambering up themselves, the Offidans throw their caps over “The Wall”, to officially mark their challenge.
To say that scoring is at a premium in this yearly matchup would be a massive understatement. In fact, the last actual goal registered in a St. Andrews Day encounter occurred in 1909. I try to imagine the 110 consecutive shutouts that follow. Not exactly riveting excitement or fan friendly. But maybe that is the point. Because the Wall Game, despite its odd, bizarre rules, in its weird and wacky way clearly is a cherished part of school history, part of folklore.
Just the other day, my friend calls. He informs me that, due to Covid, the 2020 Wall Game had been not been played, but rather conducted virtually. But that the ritual, pandemic willing, will start again this coming fall. Like The Masters, a renewal of sorts.
And also, given that England is currently an embattled nation foundering on the rocks, maybe, just maybe, in its own arcane way, the Wall Game remains something solid and valuable to hang on to, "a tradition unlike any other".