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SHORTLY AFTER 6.15 on Easter Sunday morning, Paul Dyson walks out into the middle of Fleet Street just up from Ludgate Circus clutching a hard-boiled egg. Together with about 60 or so others who had attended the Dawn Service at St Bride's nursing packets of eggs, he lines up across the street, looking towards St Paul's, holding his egg at the ready. “Somehow it always seems that a kid wins this thing. I'm very suspicious,” says the 51-year-old. Then, at a signal from the Rector, who has to break the line briefly to allow a No. 11 bus to pass, the congregation bowl their eggs vigorously down the hill and watch with anticipation as flecks of white and shell spray into the air.
The Easter Sunday egg-rolling competition on Fleet Street has been a fixture at St Bride's since Canon John Oates introduced it from his previous parish in Richmond some 20 years ago. “It's an old custom which symbolises the new life celebrated at Easter and the rolling away of the stone from Christ's tomb,” explains David Meara. “In my old parish in Berkshire we used to mark a course with sticks, and roll the eggs down a grassy hill. On Fleet Street there's a nice camber down to Ludgate Circus, making the spot ideal.”
The tradition is thought to have originated in France, but according to the Rector is practised in many English villages, and is even an annual event at the White House, where U.S. Presidents have invited children to have the run of the rolling green lawns every Easter Monday since 1878.
Originally raw eggs were used - the victor being the one whose egg did not break - but the more robust hard-boiled variety in the St Bride's version have enabled the winning throw to be more impressive. This year's contest - judged by the verger, Christopher Betterton, who stood in his black and russet gown with a cross just outside Starbucks - was won by 24-year-old choir member Philip Tebb of Earlsfield, whose egg nudged into the gutter near Boots after a run of some 25m.
“The idea is to have not too much air time, and get it on to the ground as soon as possible,” explains the victor, whose underarm technique has improved since he took part for the first time three years ago. While other competitors' eggs cracked and slowed quickly, Tebb's showed virtually no signs of disintegration. “There are also some tactics involved in the boiling,” he adds coyly, but will not explain further.
Not surprisingly, given this degree of sophistication, the event has courted controversy. Last year a previous winner, eager to defend his title, attempted to throw overarm, but a rule was quickly introduced banning this. One of the choir members, Bob Bryan, also tried to peel the shell off his egg, hoping for some extra length from the shiny rubbery surface. That too was disallowed.
“It has to be fair,” David Meara insists sternly. “The stakes are high, after all. We are competing for a single chocolate egg.” Tebb will return to defend his title next year, it seems. “Yeah, I'll be back,” he says with some pride.
The Blackfriars pigeons, which were already pecking at the remains before the event was finished, will be pleased.