12 Weird British Competitions
Britain is well known for having invented many of the world’s most popular sports.
Cricket was invented in Britain. The current rules of football were written in Cambridge. Rugby was, naturally, invented at Rugby School. The historic roots of tennis were in France, but the modern version was invented in Birmingham. And the list goes on: there’s table tennis, badminton, bowls, golf, netball, curling, squash and rounders – all invented in Britain.
You might be wondering if the British are just really good at inventing great sports (though having an Empire to spread them might also have helped). In fact, it seems to be the case that so many sports and competitions have been invented in the UK, while some of them had to catch on, there’s a much larger number that are played only in one area, and that sound a little weird to the rest of the world. After all, a sport only seems weird until it’s popular; kicking around an inflated pig’s bladder doesn’t sound like that much of a lark, but football is watched by about half the population of the world. In this article, we take a look at a few of the strange and obscure sports and traditions that exist across the UK.
One of the best-known British traditions is playing conkers. You take a horse chestnut seed – which is called a conker – carefully drill a hole through it, attach it to a short piece of string, and then take turns hitting someone else’s conker. The first one to break is the loser, and players gain points for the more conkers that they can break. Simple enough, but the danger of pieces of conker going flying – or people accidentally hitting each other, rather than the conkers – means that many primary schools are wary of it.
But it’s not just a game for primary school children. About five hundred people compete in the World Conker Championships in Northamptonshire every year, watched by another 5,000 spectators. There are further championships in the USA and Ireland as well.
Invented by AA Milne for his Winnie-the-Pooh series of children’s books, poohsticks is a game of luck where two players stand with sticks on one side of a bridge. They both drop the sticks into the water, and then race over to the other side of the bridge. Whoever’s stick emerges first is the winner. Some players allege that there’s skill in picking the fastest-moving part of the river, but most people have their doubts.
Nonetheless, poohsticks also has its own championship event, held annually in Oxfordshire with around 1,500 spectators. It was originally started in 1984 on a small scale by the local lock keeper, who founded it to raise money for the RNLI, the charity that operates lifeboats in Britain, but has grown hugely since then.
3. Barrel rolling
While poohsticks is inherently a calm, gentle sport no matter how competitive it becomes, competitive barrel rolling is quite different. This competition is held every year on Boxing Day in the village of Grantchester near Cambridge – it consists of a relay race, but instead of a baton, participants roll traditional beer barrels in front of them (empty of beer, thankfully). It’s no easy task as the barrels are often uneven, and rolling a barrel at speed without losing control is a lot harder than it sounds.
An even more hazardous barrel-themed competition is practised in Ottery St Mary, in Devon, where competitors race while carrying tar-soaked barrels of up to 30kg on their backs and shoulders – and to make it more hair-raising, the barrels are set on fire. While Grantchester barrel-rolling has only been going on since the 1960s, the Ottery St Mary version dates back to the 17th century.
4. Nettle eating
The stinging nettle is a common feature of the British countryside. Their sting isn’t serious, but it is unpleasant. Cooked, they lose their sting and can be made into soup – but you would think that no one would want to eat one raw.
But at the World Nettle-Eating Championships in Dorset, that’s exactly what does happen, as participants compete to eat as many 2-foot stalks of nettles in an hour as possible. Last year’s winner claimed that “it doesn’t hurt as much as you think”, which is not exactly reassuring, though it is possible to build up an immunity to the stinging relatively quickly. The event began only a couple of decades ago, after two farmers bet on who had the longest nettles, with the loser having to eat the longest stalk. Apparently, other people thought that sounded like a fun way to pass the time, because dozens of people now compete every year, including competitors from as far away as Australia.
5. Pancake race
The British tradition on Shrove Tuesday, the Tuesday before Lent, is to bake pancakes – an indulgent way to use up fatty foods ahead of the traditional fast. But another tradition that goes alongside it is a pancake day race, in which runners with frying pans race against each other, tossing their pancakes into the air and then catching them, all while running.
These races happen in towns and villages across the country, but one of the best known is the Parliamentary pancake race, where every year, MPs, members of the House of Lords, and the press who report on them compete against each other, wearing different coloured aprons for recognition. MPs have won for the past two years, but it’s always fiercely competitive.
6. Man vs Horse marathon
Can a human run faster than a horse? You might assume that the horse would win easily, but it’s actually not so clear-cut, as the Man vs Horse marathon in Wales demonstrates. It’s over 21 miles (slightly shorter than a standard marathon) over uneven ground, as even ground would give the horse a clear advantage.
Even so, the race has been won by a human on foot, rather than a rider on horseback, only twice in the 26 years than it’s been running. In both cases, the weather conditions on the June day were hot, which was perhaps less of an impediment to the human runners than the horses. Despite the general advantage being on the horse side, the human runners have seldom been more than 20 minutes behind the fastest horse in recent years.
7. Tin bath and cardboard boat races
It’s clear that running races with odd twists are a key part of British culture, but that also extends to water-based races, too. One example of this is the Isle of Mann’s Tin Bath championships, a rowing race in which all competitors are in tin baths (which can be modified, but only according to exacting rules). That competition has now been running for 45 years.
Another competition for spectators who like to watch other people get drenched is Cambridge’s annual cardboard boat race, in which hundreds of students make boats out of cardboard and sometimes significant quantities of duct tape, and race down the Cam. But as cardboard is not known for its waterproof qualities, only the best-engineered boats manage to get anywhere before they begin to sink – so mostly the Cam ends up full of disintegrating cardboard and students swimming for the shore.
8. Snail racing
Trying – usually unsuccessfully – to make snails race is a popular pastime for small children just about anywhere that there are snails. But of course, in Britain it’s been turned into a full, kitsch competition. The World Snail Racing Championships are held in Congham, in Norfolk; as you may have noticed, these competitions are more often than not a feature of small villages in rural areas. Congham claims – tongue firmly in cheek – to be to snail racing what Newmarket is to horse racing.
Snails are either stickered with their number, or in some cases, have their shells painted with flags. They then race over a 13-inch course. The record is 2 minutes, which was set by a snail called Archie in 1995. Last year’s winning snail, Herbie 2, managed it in 3 minutes 25 seconds.
9. Gravy wrestling
Some British competitions sound a bit as if they were invented by use of a random word generator – or a small child with a particularly vivid imagination. One of these is the World Gravy Wrestling Championships, in which competitors – usually in fancy dress – wrestle in 1,000 litres of gravy. The gravy makes wrestling very slippy, so the ring is padded to avoid accidents. Judges award points for the two-minute bouts not just based on wrestling skill, but also on how entertaining the contestants were – and the loser is pelted with more gravy.
As with many events on this list, gravy wrestling is a recent idea – the competition has been running for just ten years, and participants are often sponsored to raise money for charity.
10. Bog snorkeling
If gravy wrestling sounded unpleasant, then bog snorkelling is even worse. It began in Wales in the 1970s, with championships held from the mid-80s, but events now take place all over the world. What happens is that a 55m trench gets cut into a peat bog, so that it fills up with muddy water. Competitors wear snorkels and flippers, and have to swim from one end to the other and back again, without using any traditional swimming techniques except moving their flippers.
Fancy dress is standard, though only the bravest go ahead without also wearing a wetsuit. The speed record is 1 minute 22 seconds. There’s even a mountain bike bog snorkelling variant, for those who would rather cycle underwater than swim.
11. International Birdman
It’s not many competitions that seem to be inspired by the myth of Icarus. The International Birdman series started in 1971, when the challenge was to run up a ramp at Selsey pier, jump and “fly” as far as possible before landing in the sea. Anyone making it beyond 50 yards would win a prize of £1,000 – though in that year, no one did.
The event moved a couple of times to different piers, as the water needed to be deep enough to ensure that no one was injured in the inevitable crash landings. As more people entered and became more serious about trying to win, the qualifying distance and the associated prize money were both increased. It now stands at 100m, but is frequently beaten by competitors, so will probably increase again soon.
Like many events on this list, the people participating are a mixed bunch. Some get involved to raise money for charity, wear fancy dress, and usually don’t get very far at all (winning isn’t really the point for them). Some people use it as an opportunity to try out an invention that they’ve been putting together in their garden shed, with mixed results. And some show up with hang gliders and determination to succeed.
12. Worm charming
Worm charming, or the process of persuading worms to come out of the ground using vibrations (which makes them think that it’s raining) has been practised for a long time, usually in order to get bait for fishing. But in the USA, Canada and especially the UK, it’s also become a competitive sport, with a strict set of rules. Competitors are given a 3x3m plot of earth, and have to charm as many worms out of it as possible over a set period.
There are two worm charming events in the UK – the World Worm Charming Championships in Cheshire and the International Festival of Worm Charming in Devon, though the former is much more competitive than the latter. The world record on worm charming was set in 2009 in Cheshire, by Sophie Smith, a local girl who was just 10 years old at the time. She managed to encourage 567 worms out of the ground for the World Worm Charming Championships – beating the already impressive record of 511 worms set in 1980 that caused the Championships to be established in the first place.
We only had room in this article for 12 competitions, but that meant we had to miss out egg throwing, cheese rolling, bottle kicking, lawnmower races and bicycle polo. Which is your favourite? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: union flag; conkers; conker kit; ashdown forest; barrels; nettles; pancake; horse; cardboard boats; snails; gravy; mud; hang glider; worm charming.