Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Rare glimpse of Midlands' only intact cock-fighting pit

IT IS a unique, secret slice of rural history – a glimpse of a barbaric time, when the mutilation of wildlife was considered sport by the landed gentry.
Hidden among the fruit trees in a remote corner of a Shropshire parish is what is believed to be the Midlands’ only intact cock-fighting pit.
For the first time, owners of the site allowed a Sunday Mercury journalist access to the tiny area that has been hidden from public view for years.
This is a place where huge wagers were laid down as cockerels with razor-sharp spurs attached to their feet fought to the death.
It was erected in the early 1700s only a stone’s throw from Beckbury Church. The location was chosen for a reason – sprinkling churchyard soil in the pit prior to a battle was believed to bring good luck.
The bloodsport was banned in England in 1835, but illegal contests still took place at the Shropshire pit long after that date.
A 73-year-old, who has lived in the village all his life, said: “My grandfather told me that roses were planted all around it.
“They had look-outs and if they spotted police on horseback the birds would be put away and the gentry would pretend that they were simply admiring the display of flowers.”
Those roses are long gone and have been replaced by fruit trees. A mulberry bush close to the spot is even older – it is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
Very little is known about the pit, attached to a manor house dating back to the 1570s.
It is rumoured, locally, that two sisters ‘lost’ the sprawling pile in a cock-fight.
Many tourists have walked just feet from the circle of holly trees that surrounds the ancient sporting venue, oblivious to the fact they were within touching distance of one of the rarest surviving pieces of the region’s past.
Like finding fossils, you have to know what you’re looking for.
Church rector Rev Keith Hodson laughs: “It’s always been said the cockpit was for the benefit of gentry who visited the hall, not the church.
“It has survived while others have been filled in, landscaped or simply built on.”
Historian DH Robinson devotes several paragraphs to the gem in his book ‘The Wandering Worfe’ – named after the River Worfe which threads through the picturesque village.
The author writes: “On top of a plateau overlooking the church, is the pit – a circular enclosure about 50 yards in diameter.
“It is protected by a strong, tall fence and entrance is gained through a gated opening on the north side.
“In the very centre is a circular area raised three feet above the surrounding ground and measures 50 feet in diameter. It seems to be made of sandstone blocks.
“On the southern perimeter are some sandstone steps leading to a small, underground chamber.
“Tradition has it that this enclosure, dating possibly from the 18th century, was used for the matching of gamecocks and the underground chamber was utilised as a store for the alcoholic beverages needed to encourage the onlookers.
“It is surprising so little precise information is available about this cockpit.”
He added: “It was the general belief among the miners of the district that if the cockpit, wherever situated, was sprinkled on the morning of the affray with earth from the nearest churchyard, both spells and charms would be broken and ‘the best bird would win’.”The maximum penalty for cockfighting is 51 weeks’ prison or a £5,000 fine.

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