From Ancient times the fens were a place of mystery and solitude.
Innumerable waterways wove their way in and out of higher ground, which flooded seasonally, and some permanent hills upon which human settlements sprang up and thrived.
The people kept themselves to themselves living a pastoral life, raising cattle, wild-fowling and fishing. (One scholar stated the greatest invention to hit the fens was the bicycle).
Attempts to drain areas Fen were undertaken by the Romans (Kings Dyke) and medieval landowners, particularly the monasteries.
When Charles II was restored to the throne he determined to claim the fertile land. The Earl of Bedford sought the services of a Dutchman, Cornelius Vermuyden, born in 1595, a specialist engineer in water and land drainage.
In January 1650 work began despite huge opposition from locals who were losing their livelihoods. Fenmen known as the Fen Tigers tried to sabotage the drainage efforts.
During this time, or perhaps earlier when drains were first dug, Fenmen encountered a problem moving livestock between grazing grounds.
Cattle could be persuaded to swim across the channels, but goats, for whatever reason, shied away from crossing the man made dykes.
A solution had to be found.
One large Fenman lead the way. Boldly picking up his reluctant bill he proceeded to toss (throw) the surprised animal over the dyke.
So the pastime of Goat Tossing began!
The likely lads of the Fens thought this ‘good sport’ and began to congregate purely to watch the greatest exponents of “Tossing” toss larger and larger beasts across wider and wider dykes (and, of course, drink copious quantities of beer while betting on the fate of goats in flight).
Rules were formulated including a dress code for the Committee and ‘Tossers’.
With the advent of more bridges over the dykes, and animal rights and welfare groups, the practice has gone underground. However if you’re out on a balmy summer’s evening in the Fens you may still hear the cry “Toss your goat!” and possibly even see this fine old tradition being practised.
Alternatively settle down and drink a few pints of Goat Tosser (responsibly, of course).