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A collage of a dog with a pint
Image: Jamie Inglis / Shutterstock / The Lewes Arms

Spaniel racing, pea throwing and ‘dwyle flunking’: inside the UK’s most bonkers pub

The Lewes Arms has gained a rep for its seriously weird annual events. So where did these boozy traditions come from? And why are they so popular?

Written by
Eloise Hendy

On a sunny May afternoon, a man wearing bunny ears ties a string of raw sausages to his belt and sprints down a side street in East Sussex. The sausages wiggle and bounce off the tarmac, and – accompanied by whoops from the crowd assembled at the other end of the lane – a St Bernard, a Collie and about ten other dogs give chase.

This is the Lewes Arms pub’s annual spaniel race. ‘No dog too fat or unhealthy,’ proclaims the event’s poster. The definition of ‘spaniel’ is also loose. ‘Drag along your old Labrador,’ the Facebook event suggests, ‘or corner a Collie – we’re not fussed’. The only stipulation for this day of ‘high-paced, canine-powered sporting excitement’ is that ‘the judge’s decision, no matter how vague, will be final’.  

A dog eating sausages from a trophy
Photograph: The Lewes Arms

Coming upon The Lewes Arms, down a backstreet just a few minutes from Lewes Castle, can feel like stumbling into a quintessentially English fantasy. Inside, people take up positions in various rooms – front bar for the regulars, back bar for snug drinking sessions, main room for giant Yorkshire puddings – and on warm days, people sit on the pavement outside, clutching pints in what is affectionately known as ‘the gutter’. For at least 30 years, this nook has also played host to what The Lewes Arms dubs ‘idiosyncratic events’ – in other words, some seriously weird goings-on.

When it comes to eccentric pub games, spaniel racing is the tip of the iceberg. There’s the World Pea Throwing Championship, so called ‘because we don’t think anyone else does it and we once had a guy from Germany so that counts as global’. In the not-so-distant past, there was a conker contest and a pantomime animal race, which involved people dressing up and running around the block. And then, there’s the baffling romp known as ‘dwyle flunking’, which, to the uninitiated, might look like a bunch of people in straw hats taking turns to fling a beer-soaked rag at each other. But, according to community group the Friends of the Lewes Arms, ‘the rules of the game are impenetrable and the result is always contested’.

Organised chaos

‘The quirky events were one of our core reasons for living here,’ Ellie and David, owners of a wire fox terrier named Foxie Cleopatra, tell me after this year’s spaniel race. They look forward to this event every year – ‘we go for the free sausages’ – and describe it as ‘organised chaos’. It’s an apt description. People cluster in the sunshine outside the pub, drinking pints of Sussex Best from local brewery Harvey’s and trying to keep their dogs under control. There is a goofiness in the air, but when the dogs get on the starting line competitive spirit takes over.

One pub regulars lines up his phone on the finish line, ready to film in slow motion, so each heat’s blur of paws can be unscrambled and attributed correctly, before the winners take their tiny podium. Somewhere in the crowd an owner squeezes a concealed squeaky toy in an attempt to distract rivals. At one point during the second heat, a sausage comes untethered from the string and true chaos ensues, as the single now-stationary sausage splits the dogs into two packs. Owners shriek from the finish line, hoping their dog will keep their eyes on the prize (six sausages stuffed in a silver trophy). Behind me, I hear someone shout, ‘VAR!’

The winners are never the dogs you might expect. A miniature dachshund came second a couple of years ago

This chaotic energy might also help explain why the winners are never the dogs you might expect. ‘A miniature dachshund came second place a couple of years ago,’ pub landlord Paul Resende says. ‘Not even fully grown.’ There is method behind the madness, though, to a certain extent. ‘I had to cap the number of dogs we had this year,’ Resende says, ‘because the year before we ended up with about 40-odd, and I thought someone’s going to get maimed, or a dog’s going to go under a car or something.’ There are risk assessments too, he stresses. ‘Although, one thing to publish,’ he adds with an undeniable glint in his eye, ‘I never apply for a road closure.’

This desire to reclaim the streets for public use, and for fun, without the faff of getting the events officially sanctioned, seems to embody the anarchic spirit at the heart of The Lewes Arms’s games, and of Lewes more broadly. After all, this is the town known for its Bonfire Night celebrations, its connection to revolutionary political theorist Thomas Paine and its anti-authoritarian motto ‘we wunt be druv’. And indeed, The Lewes Arms has its own revolutionary history. In 2006, when previous landlord Greene King got rid of beers from local brewery Harvey’s, it prompted a 133-day boycott by locals, which led to a humiliating climbdown by ‘big, bad Greene King,’ as Resende refers to it.

Built on beer

Kate Cheyne, who works at Leicester’s De Montfort University by day, has acted as the spaniel-race ‘hare’ on at least one occasion, and as a ‘flunker’ on many more. ‘There is such a long and radical culture in the town’s community and streets’, she says. On pub-game days, this mainly manifests in a giddiness, which can only be partly blamed on the free-flowing pints. Hanging out in the front bar and ‘the gutter’, chatting with other regulars and everyone else who passed by, Cheyne says she and her husband Andrew ‘couldn’t help but get swept along by the craziness of the games’.

A group of people dressed up
Photograph: The Lewes Arms

Indeed, the gutter is where ‘the craziness’ began. ‘It’s all front-bar drunk talk,’ Paul says, which somehow got taken outside. The same bunch of early-1990s regulars started spaniel racing and pea throwing. ‘I think the pea throwing started, somebody had some frozen peas and the bag burst and everyone was drunk and went outside and started lobbing them’. Not much has really changed since. ‘Now I buy a bag of frozen peas from Waitrose, and I put them in a beer jug,’ Paul tells me. ‘They’re kind of semi-defrosted by the time they get thrown.’ You can’t bring your own pea – ‘because then people will be bringing dried peas, or ball bearings painted green or something’ – but the rest is simple. ‘We draw a chalk line at the bottom of the lane,’ Paul says, ‘and then you just chuck it as far as you can.’ 

It might still look like drunkenly lobbing peas about, but Paul insists there is a bit of technique to it. ‘Cricket bowling style works well,’ he declares, swinging his arm to demonstrate. ‘It’s better to go straight and low as opposed to high, because if the wind’s against you, the pea just blows back.’ The current record is held by Graham Butterworth from Portsmouth. His winning throw was about 44 metres, which, as Paul puts it, ‘is insane for a pea’. ‘I think he’s a Navy rescue diver or something. So he’s in good shape. He’s got good upper-body strength.’

Daft flunk

If most of the events are ‘drunk talk that actually manifested itself into something’, dwyle flunking is the exception to this rule. Nobody really knows where the game came from. Some say it’s medieval, some that it’s a totally invented tradition from the first folk revival in the 1960s, but most suspect it was originally a bit of East Anglian tomfoolery. Whatever its origins, dwyle flunking arrived in Lewes around 35 years ago thanks to one man, Steve Steggall, who, on his death in late 2010, was fondly described by fellow Lewesians as a ‘true gentleman’ with ‘many eccentricities’.  

People dancing in a circle
Photograph: The Lewes Arms

Steggall is also thought to have written the dwyle-flunking rulebook, brought out by the referee at every Lewes Arms flunk. Teams are judged before they start, with points awarded or deducted for correct costuming – ‘twirlers’ made of straw tied around the calves, red circles painted on the cheeks. ‘And then, you are allowed to bribe the ref,’ Paul notes, ‘so everyone has little treats to bribe the ref.’ The non-flunking team joins hands and dances in a circle around a member of the flunking team – a practice known as ‘girting’ – who holds a rag on a stick in a bucket filled with gallons of cask sediment.

From this point on, simple descriptions can’t hope to do justice to the true derangement that is dwyle flunking. But, essentially, each team member takes turns to sling the sediment-soaked rag at a circling opponent’s face. Direct hit: three points. Hit to the body: two. ‘I think you get extra points for hitting children,’ Paul laughs. ‘You get deducted points for hitting the musicians.’ And as for the pub landlord, naturally you get extra points for hitting him. The final and perhaps most important rule is that the Lewes Arms’s team always wins. 

Games people play  

Much has been made of the fact culture is in the midst of a folk revival. Morris dancing is back in fashion; folk-horror films fill cinema screens; sea shanties and standing stones have gone mainstream. It’s undeniable that some strains of this revitalised English folk scene are rooted in whiteness, and therefore have an exclusionary undertone, or indeed have been explicitly championed by white nationalists, some of whom have worn blackface ‘as part of morris-dancing tradition’.

Yet the childish playfulness of The Lewes Arms’s events, and the light-hearted approach they take to traditions feels cut from a different cloth. If this is a quintessential English fantasy, it’s a weird, anarchic one, in the spirit of seventeenth-century groups the Levellers, a populist political movement, and the Diggers, the agrarian socialists who attempted to farm on common land to achieve economic equality. These made-up traditions feel closer to cheese rolling and dancing around big poles than fascist neo-folk, in other words. ‘It’s just mucking around basically,’ Paul agrees. ‘You either want to just muck about outside a pub or you don’t, and that’s cool either way’.

The unique silliness and simplicity of the Lewes Arms events are what makes them so special

Cheyne and her husband have now left Lewes, and she says the move has left her feeling ‘quite shell-shocked’. ‘Who knew you could miss a pub community so much?’ she says. But that said, two of the Lewes Arms drinkers are coming to stay with them soon. ‘We all met in the front bar and dwyle flunking,’ she adds, suggesting that in itself shows how important these sorts of shenanigans are to any community. She believes there should be many more like them.

For now, though, the unique silliness and simplicity of the Lewes Arms events are what makes them so special. ‘We don’t take ourselves seriously at all,’ says Paul. ‘There aren’t any big entry costs. You don’t need loads of kit. You just need a bag of peas on a road and that’s it.’ As Georgina Burrows, owner of Bez the jackapoo, puts it, ‘where else can you watch a motley assortment of dogs chase a man attached to a string of sausages? That can’t be beaten!’

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