Strange English Sporting Exploits
Every year since 1267, the town of Egremont in northwest England has held a crab fair. The highlight of the fair, which is held on the third Saturday in September, is the World Gurning Championships. Contestants—and they come from all over the world—must stick their heads through a horse collar, known locally as a Baffin, and pull the most grotesque face they can manage.
According to The Guinness Book of World Records, “The only gurner to have won the World Championship ten times is Gordon Mattinson of Aspatria, Cumbria, from 1967-72 and 1974-77.”
Mattinson is a local, and looking at the list of previous winners, people from near Egremont seem to have a near lock on the title. Something in the water, perhaps? More likely it’s because the winner is determined by the volume of cheers from the crowd. Someone from Yokohama or Nairobi would seem to be at a big disadvantage.
England’s Rich Vein of Silliness
All over the English countryside, towns and villages compete with each other to devise daft events. Every spring the villagers of Brockworth, Gloucestershire, gather at nearby Cooper’s Hill. At the top of the very steep hill, someone releases a wheel of Double-Gloucester cheese. One second later, contestants try to catch it before it reaches the finish line at the bottom. As the cheese can reach speeds of 112 km/h (70 mph), it always wins the race. The human winner is the one who crosses the finish line first, and he or she gets the cheese.
However, everybody else has a jolly time because, due to the steepness of the hill and the rough ground, there are plenty of sprains, fractures, and even a few concussions.
On November 18, 2008, The Sydney Morning Herald quoted a spectator’s description of the event as, “20 young men chasing a cheese off a cliff and tumbling 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital.”
Bottle Kicking Between Villages
Visits to emergency rooms are a side effect of several rural “sports.” Two villages in south Leicestershire have been going at each other since the 17th century and perhaps much longer. Hallaton and Medbourne are as picturesque, serene, and bucolic as any photo in an English country village calendar, but on Easter Monday every year, there’s mayhem afoot.
A small beer keg, called a bottle, is the source of the disorder. People from the two villages and anybody else who is crazy enough to join in gather in a muddy field. There are two streams about a mile apart and the object of the game is to get the bottle into the other village’s river.
BBC News covered the event in 2005 and interviewed its organizer, Phil Allen. He said, “A different bottle is used for each point played and the first village to two points wins. The rules are very simple; there aren’t any.” That last point does lead to a bit of bloodshed.
The BBC story explained, “The event is accompanied by the ritual parading and cutting-up of a hare pie at the village church, which is said to date back to pagan fertility rituals (the tradition, not the pie). This is followed by the “Hare Pie Scramble,” during which pieces of hare pie are thrown to waiting combatants before the battle begins.”
Royal Shrovetide Football
Carnage happens in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, when the Up’Ards take on the Down’Ards. This is a no-rules football match (although handball would be a better name) that takes place over two days—Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. It traces its heritage back to the 17th century.
The Up’Ards are those born north of the River Henmore, which divides the town. It should be obvious where the Down’Ards come from.
The two teams face off and try to score “goals” by tapping the ball against millstones set into a wall. There are no limits on the number of team members and it’s hard to tell the difference between the players and the thousands of spectators who turn out to watch the spectacle.
Visitors are warned that they park their cars at their own risk and most shops and businesses get boarded up and closed for the match. The pubs, of course, stay open.
World Egg Catching Championships
The story goes that in 1322, the abbot in Swaton, Lincolnshire, wanted to boost the size of his congregation. Each peasant that showed up was offered a free egg. When the River Eau flooded, preventing people from getting to the church, the monks would throw the eggs to the waiting throng.
Fast forward seven centuries or so and the egg-throwing continues. Teams come from many countries to compete in the events. The egg-throwing game is played all over the world and simply involves tossing an uncooked hen’s egg to a partner at an increasing distance until the fragile missile breaks. Germany currently holds the distance record of 76.7 metres (251 feet).
A fan favourite is the Russian Egg Roulette. Six eggs are placed in front of each contestant; five are hard-boiled and one is raw. Players must choose one and face plant it. There’s also an accuracy contest that offers the prospect of pelting a raw egg at a personality. Politicians are invited to be targets, but they are rarely keen to take part. And, nobody wants to miss the gravy wrestling.
British eccentricity is on display every summer at the London Chap Olympiad, which is devoted to the art and sport of the perfect English gentleman. There is a jousting contest with bicycles for mounts, furled umbrellas for lances, and briefcases as shields. Other events include lobster fencing, aunt avoidance (“competitors must make it from one end of the track to the other, avoiding absurd requests from aunts while keeping a lit pipe and with a chap-like saunter”), and bread basketball.
The World Snail Racing Championship is held in the village of Congham, Norfolk every July. It all begins with a rousing cheer of “Ready. Steady. Slow.” Competitors slither from the centre of a circle to its edge. The record time for the 13-inch course is two minutes set by a snail called Charlie in 1995.
Another breathtakingly exciting contest is Worm Charming, held in Willaston, Cheshire. The official website tells of the origin, “On Saturday 5th July 1980 local Willaston farmer’s son, Tom Shufflebotham (of course) amazed a disbelieving world by charming a total of 511 worms out of the ground in half an hour.” Apparently, the usual technique involves jabbing a standard garden fork into the ground and vibrating it. This causes the worms to emerge above ground.
- “Egremont Crab Fair.”
- “Bottle Kicking Krazy.” Chris Breese, BBC News, September 24, 2014.
- “Ashbourne’s Royal Shrovetide Football Match.” The Guardian, February 11, 2016.
- “World Egg Throwing Championships Held in Swaton.” BBC News, June 26, 2016.
- “25 Weird and Wacky British Sports, in Pictures.” The Telegraph, 2016.
- “The Chap Olympiad.”
- “The World Snail Racing Championship.”
- “The World Worm Charming Competition.”
© 2016 Rupert Taylor