Some time in the dim and distant mists of time… March 2004 to be precise… Chris Collins, and self-styled ‘directional savant,’ Jeff Dotts, got lost en-route from Heathrow Airport to visit me in Suffolk.
Fortuitously, they stumbled across a sign saying, ‘Great Dunmow, Ancient Flitch Town.’ Their curiosity piqued, they subsquently found out all about the famous Great Dunmow Flitch Trials, where married couples can put their love on trial, and if successful, win half a pig. The die was cast – they resolved to return with wives and friends, and compete for half a cured, salted pig as couples have done since 1104.
Despite the fluctuations on the currency market meaning one of our UK pounds costs approx $1 million, three American couples – Jeff and Erin, Chris and Nathalie, Shawn and Elaine – all decided to apply for the trials. But only five couples are selected for trials, which are held every four years.
We waited with baited breath…. would one of the couples be selected…. and yes, Jeff and Erin were!
As dawn broke on July 12th, a day which will live forever in the annals of true-love and pork products, Jeff and Erin explained to an expectant nation, via the BBC Radio Four outside broadcast car, why they had come from Nashville, Tennessee to put their love on trial. ‘What better way,’ explained Jeff, to Edward Sturton, ‘to express the love you have for your wife than to compete for bacon?’
Mr Sturton, used to grilling senior politicians and world leaders, on a regular basis wanted to know more. Was Erin worried about the questions she might be asked on the trial. ‘I’m just going to tell the truth,’ she said, ‘that we’re in love and happily married.’
Flitch Trial judge, Michael Chapman, sat alongside, and explained how the trials would unfold. He would sit high on a Dias with the jury to one side and the counsel to the other. There would be counsel for the couple, whose job it was to convince the jury neither had ‘wished each other apart’ in ‘a year and a day,’or committed a ‘nuptial transgression.’ Then, there would be counsel for the owners of the bacon, whose job it was to prevent them winning the prize.
While we waited for Jeff and Erin’s trial, we happened acroos a small exhibit of Flitch Trial photographs. These ones above are from the 1905 trials. They were the inspiration for the ‘team’ photo I took of the 2008 Judge and Counsel.
Jeff and Erin were going to be the second trial of the day. However, it wasn’t just a case of turning up, each trial was preceeded by a procession through the town, led by the court usher who stopped traffic to make way for the judge, jury, claimants and Flitch.
As Jeff and Erin followed the Flitch, a BBC TV crew appeared.
They were Miriam O’Reilly, and the BBC Countryfile team and they interviewed Jeff and Erin on the …. *ahem*… hoof…
The Court Usher, Martin Reed, leading Jeff and Erin into the Court Room. There were six hundred expectant people in the audience.
The Jury of six maidens and six bachelors were sworn-in. They are all chosen for their tender years in the hope that they are un-scarred and un-cynical about the whole concept of marriage.
‘What we’re looking for,’ the girls explained before the trial, ‘is the sort of relationship we’d like to have in the future…’
Chris Hancock, Counsel for Jeff and Erin started the proceedings. His first question was, ‘Where is your home?’ Erin replied, with their Nashville address, and the whole marquee was suddenly full of whispered exclamations and comments. They were the first American couple in almost 1000 years to compete for a Flitch! Although in fairness, the trials had ben going on for 700 years before America popped up on the world scene.
Chris’s second question, once the hubub had subsided was, ‘And how on earth did you end up in Great Dunnmow?’
There was a hushed pause… Jeff leant towards the microhone, and said, ‘We drove.’
Although this blog may not be able to communicatethe hilarity of the moment, from that second the audience knew they were in for a comedy feast. Jeff and Erin were on absolute top-form. Funny, warm and self-depriciating, the strength of their relationship and their love shone through.
They explained how they met – when Jeff interviewed Erin for a job, working as a counsellor at a camp for children with life-threatening illnesses. How they started dating once the job was over and began a long-distance relationship. (Jeff was now working on a project that took inner-city kids into the countryside, ‘we called it the hoods in the woods programme,’ he explained).
There were few dry eyes in the marquee when Erin explained how Jeff proposed….. they went for a hike, and at the bottom of the bag Jeff had packed a book containing all the photos since they had met. Jeff asked Erin to look through the photos, with captions and messages, and on the last page he’d written, ‘Look at me.’
She said, ‘Yes.’
However, it was now time for the counsel for the owners of the bacon to start their attack. Chief counsel was Dave Monk, BBC Radio Essex personality. With verve and witt, he questioned their love, age difference, and why Americans should be given the pig.
However, what no-one was prepared for (except Jeff’s friend’s who’d already heard the song) was the production of a guitar, and the spectacle of Jeff singing Erin, his true love, the Dunmow Flitch song he’d especially written for the event.
Here’s a brief excerpt:
What if we don’t win, let me fill you in, the prize is firmly in my hands
She and me will be, smiling everly
Like a bacon wafting on the wind
While the jury retired to deliberate, Jeff and Erin were interviewed again by Miriam and the BBC Countryfile crew, and were asked for autographs from the audience. The gentleman in the above photo explained his wife had been on the jury when she was a young maiden.
The jury returned. What would they say? Everyone knew it was by no means a certainty that Jeff and Erin would take home the bacon.
‘Do you find for the claimaints or the owners of the bacon.’
For the claimants came the reply!
After the excitment had died down, a second couple, Mr and Mrs Thorne, took the stand. It was a little like coming on stage after The Beatles in their heyday. They didn’t help their cause by forgetting the day they got married – although it was 40 years ago – but they were unable to convince the jury to give them the bacon.
This meant, that on the return procession to the market square, Jeff and Erin would be held aloft on their Flitch chair, while the Thornes had to walk behind their chair in shame – with the prospect of a concilliatory Gammon awaiting them.
Once the whole procession arrived at the market Square, all eyes were focussed on the decorated dray.
Jeff and Erin’s next task was to join the Flitch Trial Judge and Chaplain, and kneel on pointed stones while they swore the Flitch Oath.
Michael, the Flitch Trial Judge was then able to proclaim to the crowd, ‘The Pleasure is all ours, the bacon is yours!’
Try explaining this back home…
Now, many of you may be wondering what became of the Flitch Jeff and Erin won. Well, on Thanksgiving Day 2008, Michael Chapman will be organising a hog roast with their winning pig, selling tickets and giving the proceeds to the ‘Hole in the Wall Gang,’ charity where Jeff and Erin met. Bronny and I will be going – it you’d like to come too, then let me know.
The next day, Michael invited us to join him and friends for a…. wait for it…. hog roast with his church! A few days later, Jeff, Erin and the rest of the ‘Flitch 08′ team headed home with new friends and fond memories of Great Dunmow.