The British appetite for all things eccentric – particularly anything with a competitive element – ensures that on any given weekend you can find a bunch of people who lead otherwise sensible lives in a damp field somewhere snorkelling through bog water, racing pigs or chucking around black puddings. Here are the best ones to watch – from a safe and sensible distance of course.
They breed them tough in Yorkshire. How else can you explain the idea of running for a mile with a sack of coal on your shoulders for fun? That’s the challenge that’s been laid down for the past 46 years in the World Coal Carrying Championships. Apparently the race started when two local coal merchants decided to settle a pub argument about who was fitter. It’s exhausting, sweaty and very, very hard.
Wallowing around in the mud may be their favourite pastime, but pigs can actually pick up a fair head of steam too. The nippiest porkers and their owners gather at Bath Racecourse every April where they’re put to the test to see who is the speediest piglet in the country. The pun-tastic “Ham National” involves eight pigs running around a track and jumping over some (very low) hurdles.
Cheese-rolling, an organized bout of cheese chasing down a grassy mound in Gloucestershire, is one of Britain’s best-loved oddball events. It’s certainly in the best spirit of British amateurism: anyone can enter and all they have to do is fling themselves down a precipitous hill after an eighteen-pound wheel of Double Gloucester. The first one to reach it wins – and no prizes for guessing what. The official event was cancelled in 2010, but enthusiasts ensured an unofficial one took place, and you can always take part on your iPhone – a cheese-rolling app has been developed.
The reckless, fearless and the just plain filth-loving join in this competition each year, whereby participants must navigate their way through a 60ft-long peat bog without using any kind of conventional swimming strokes. Snorkels, masks and flippers are allowed but you’re only allowed to raise your head above the gunk a maximum of four times. The perfect event for anyone who thinks that Glastonbury in the rain is just a bit too clean.
Man has always wanted to fly, but unlike Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, the Birdmen of Bognor tend to spend most of their time flying far too close to and then very quickly downwards into the freezing sea water. Since 1971 contestants from across the world have come to the seaside resort town of Bognor to take part. The idea is to run off the end of the pier and attempt to fly as far as possible, usually in hang-gliders but often on bicycles, in Heath Robinson-esque wooden contraptions and in fancy dress. There’s a cash prize for the winner, though nobody has ever yet gone as far as 100 metres – the closest contestant coming within centimetres of this in 2009.
Just what are you to do with leftover gravy? You could always ask the Rose ‘n’ Bowl pub in Stacksteads, Lancashire, to take it off your hands. Every year they get hold of 440 gallons of gravy for the gravy wrestling championships. Wrestlers are required to take down their opponent in a paddling pool filled to the brim with the brown stuff. The mess is so bad that local firefighters are drafted in to hose down the Bisto barbarians afterwards.
Having to drink seven pints of beer while covering two-thirds of a mile on foot doesn’t sound like such an arduous challenge. And it isn’t. Unless of course you’re dressed up as a baby and pushing a fully grown man in a pram for the entire distance. The Oxted Pram Race, running since 1977, requires its competitors to race some sort of pram device – with their team-mate inside – through the market town of Oxted, stopping at seven pubs along the way where they have to down a pint in each. Prams tend to be of the home-made variety, constructed out of old armchairs, wooden boxes and giant fish tanks.
The ultimate antidote to Miss World, the World Gurning Championships are an exercise in ugliness in which contestants must curl their lips and extend their jaws into a “gurn” that usually looks something like a constipated pit bull terrier lunging after a sausage. It takes place as part of a local fair that has been held in the town of Egremont in Cumbria since 1267. Anyone can enter, though be prepared for fellow competitors to make pretty serious sacrifices. One winner in the 1990s even had his front teeth removed to perfect his trophy-winning gurn. That’s dedication. And frankly, that’s just weird.
Cooked pig blood and fat wrapped in intestine has long been a favoured breakfast staple for Brits in the form of black pudding. They’re quite handy weapons as well. The targets at the World Black Pudding Throwing Championships in Ramsbottom, near Manchester, are Yorkshire puddings, placed on top of a wall, which contestants aim to knock off by way of a well-thrown pud. Dating back to the 1850s, this is a contest that defies logic, but certainly leaves one wondering what other British foods could be used for sport. Spam tennis anyone?
There’s something beautifully pointless about chucking a stone into some water, but it’s not a spectator sport in itself. Skimming on the other hand attracts hundreds of competitors to the tiny island of Easdale. The idea is to make a flat piece of slate stone go the furthest distance along the water while “skimming” the surface at least three times. The trick is to have the correct stance, to throw it at the correct angle and to find a stone of just the right smoothness. Children have their own contest as do people over 50, who can compete in the charmingly named “Old Tosser” section.