I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
If you are so inclined, you can spend a summer traveling around the U.K. to catch such engaging activities as black pudding hurling, pea shooting, Lancashire gravy wrestling, and the ever-popular eating of stinging nettles.
First let’s drop in on the English tourist trap called the Cotswolds and find out what the shin kickers are up to.
This might be loads of fun for masochists. For everybody else, there’s always Snakes and Ladders or lawn bowls.
Four centuries ago, the hardy folk of the Cotswolds in central England dreamed up a contest that involves balance and pain—a lot of pain. You’d have thought the appetite for shin kicking would have waned a while ago.
In its modern form, shin kicking involves two contestants who grab each other by the shoulders and then, in the colourful description of the event’s organizers, attempt to “kick the shin out of” one another.
After pummelling shins black and blue, the goal is to put the other player on the ground. Simon Head of The Mirror explains: “The rules of shin kicking are very simple. Kick your opponent to the ground and you win. No throwing, tripping, or pulling—the ‘fall’ must be precipitated by a kick to the shins.” And, no kicking above the knee.
A referee called a Stickler ensures fair play.
The Cotswold Olimpick Games
There’s a bit of murkiness surrounding the creation of a festival of sport that was started in about 1612 by Robert Dover, described as a lawyer, author, and wit.
The event carried the blessing of King James I, who saw such occasions as a way of boosting his popularity: “Certain days in the year would be appointed, for delighting the people with public spectacles of all honest games, and exercise of arms.”
The Games involved gentle pursuits such as dancing, chess, and card playing, as well as fighting with swords and sticks, horse racing, and, of course, shin kicking.
The Games have fallen silent a couple of times, with the latest resurrection starting in 1951. The Cotswold Olimpick Games are held annually in early June outside the town of Chipping Camden.
Kinder, Gentler Shin Kicking
As the Cotswold Olimpicks website notes, “In the early 19th century, the activity was more brutal, with villages challenging each other, contestants hardening shins with coal-hammers and wearing boots tipped with iron! Many a leg was broken!” Yikes.
Today’s contestants are allowed to pad their socks and trousers with straw and the footwear has to be of the soft-toed variety, such as running shoes. Bunch of wusses.
Former champion Joe McDonagh offered some advice to would-be contestants: “You need a few beers inside you to do it—you need a bit of anaesthetic.”
Players wear white smocks in honour of the shepherds who traditionally started the whole silly thing.
Poohsticks is a game created by an animal with, shall we say, limited intellectual capacity.
Winnie the Pooh invented the game of Poohsticks, albeit by accident. One day, Winnie was strolling through the 100-Acre Wood towards a bridge. He had a fir cone in his paw and was trying to compose a song. Distracted by his attempts to find a rhyme for fir, the bear tripped and the fir cone fell from his grasp and landed in the river.
Clearly, this was a problem that needed a serious ponder. As Pooh sat on the bridge and thought about finding another fir cone, he saw the one he’d dropped float by.
He wondered if this always happened, and it did. He dropped two cones on one side of the bridge, crossed the decking, and waited to see which one came out first. He switched from fir cones to twigs—and Poohsticks was born.
Soon, Pooh, Christopher Robin, Piglet, and Eeyore were playing Poohsticks. Surprisingly, Eeyore, for whom nothing goes right, turned out to be very skilled at the game. He explained to Tigger that the secret to success was “letting your stick drop in a twitchy sort of way, if you understand what I mean.”
“When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.”
— A. A. Milne
The Rules of Poohsticks
Let’s go down to Ashdown Forest in East Sussex; it’s about an hour’s drive south and a little bit east of London. We’ll go through the village of Hartfield and take Jib Jacks Hill, which turns into Chuck Hatch Road, to the parking lot at Posingford Wood.
From there it’s a 15-minute walk through leafy glades to what used to be called Posingford Bridge, a small wooden structure that crosses a little stream called Steel Forge River. This is where the game of Poohsticks was first played, and the bridge has since been renamed Poohsticks Bridge.
The game usually involves two people—well, one person and an imaginary critter such as a cuddly stuffed teddy bear or a nervous little piglet.
The contestants stand on one side of a bridge and drop one stick each into the flowing river. They cross to the other side to see whose stick appears first. A winner is declared.
Rabbit observed: “They always take longer than you think.”
Perhaps the game is a little too pedestrian for today’s children who can electronically vaporize an entire civilization with the click of a button, but it still has its followers.
Poohsticks World Championships
Humans, being competitive creatures, have turned a simple game into a global contest. The event's popularity dictated it be held at a larger venue than Poohsticks Bridge, so the larger Little Wittenham Bridge in Oxfordshire on the River Thames had the honour of hosting the World Championships.
The event has since moved to Witney on the Windrush River, which is about 19 km west of Oxford. Mid-June is the date to mark in your calendar, and it’s only about an hour away from the shin kickers.
Competitors come from all over the world and pay £2.50 for an official Poohstick. The event raises money for the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.
For a couple of hundred years, children in Britain have played a game involving a chestnut and string.
The conker is the inedible seed of the horse chestnut tree, also known as the “conker tree.” In America, the trees are called Buckeyes. In some parts of the world, the game of conkers is known as “Donny wackers.” Other names that crop up in the literature are cheggies, oblionkers, kingers, and cheesers.
The Rules of Conkers
The nut is pierced with a skewer, gimlet, or nail, string is passed through the hole, and a knot tied in the end.
One player dangles his or her conker at arm’s length and the other tries to strike it with their own conker. The players take turns in delivering blows.
The game ends when one conker is smashed and falls off the string or until the bell rings and it’s time to go back to class.
There are variations, such as each player getting three shots in a row.
Also, if the object conker is hit and performs a complete 360, known to the cognoscenti as a “windmill,” the striker gets another shot.
If the strings get tangled the first player to shout “Stringsies” gets a free hit.
There are other refinements as described by the guardians of the sport's integrity “If a player drops his conker or it is knocked from his hand, the other player can shout ‘stamps’ and immediately stamps on the conker; but should its owner first shout ‘no stamps’ then ‘stamps’ is disallowed and the conker hopefully remains intact.”
Scoring in Conkers
If two brand new conkers are engaged in battle, the winner becomes a “one-er.” A second win against a previously unplayed conker makes the conker a “two-er.” If a “two-er” defeats a “three-er” it becomes a “five-er?” No, it becomes a “six-er;” two previous victories plus the victory over the three-er, plus the three score of the three-er. In some areas, there is a deep philosophical debate about whether a first-time conker should be called a “one-er” or a “none-er.” I’m also confused.
Ben Schott, in his book Schott’s Sporting, Gaming, and Idling Miscellany, calls the notion of a “none-er” “unsound and frankly reckless” and risks “making a mockery of the traditional scoring method.” His reasoning is that if a “four-er” smashes a virgin “none-er” it would still be a “four-er” when simple justice demands that it be a “five-er.”
As you can see, this is serious business.
Keeping track of the score is up to the owner of the conker and demands scrupulous honesty, a commodity not always in plentiful supply in the playground.
Perhaps not on the scale of Lance Armstrong shooting up to win the Tour de France, but ethically challenged conker players do try to cheat.
The most frequent ploy of the scoundrels is to harden their conkers. Various schools of thought hold that baking or freezing produces a nut of unbeatable strength. Others say the job can be done with a bath of vinegar or a prolonged stay in a warm, dark place such as the sock drawer.
Two-time World Conker Champion Charlie Bray has his own technique: pass your chestnut through a pig. He says “The conker will harden by soaking in its stomach juices. Then you search through the pig’s waste to find the conker.” Peachy.
Roald Dahl wrote that “a great conker is one that has been stored in a dry place for at least a year. This matures it and makes it rock hard and therefore formidable.”
(The BBC, that bastion of fair play, offers advice on how to toughen up a conker. Standards appear to be slipping.)
The penchant for chicanery leads organized competitions to demand all players use “house conkers.”
World Conker Championships
Every year since 1965, the village of Ashton in central England has hosted the World Conker Championships. The date is the second Sunday in October, the prime season for fully mature conkers to drop from the trees. Ashton is just over an hour from Witney, home of the Poohsticks extravaganza. That allows for a gentle four-month meander through the English countryside and a survey of all the village pubs along the way.
Several hundred competitors show up for the conker tournament along with several thousand spectators. It’s a knock-out tournament until two contestants are left with undefeated chestnuts. The winner of the final joust is crowned King Conker (men’s division) and Queen Conker (ladies’ division). The king and queen also play each other to determine an overall champion. Entrants come from all over the world.
Along with the prestige, name in the record books, and a silver-plated trophy the winners get a year’s supply of ice cream. The real beneficiaries are the charities for the blind and the visually impaired. By 2016, the event had raised more than four hundred thousand pounds for these causes.
- One common factor among these strange “sporting” events is that the organizing committees always meet in pubs.
- In late May, revellers gather at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire, and chase a wheel of double-Gloucester cheese down a very steep incline. Hilarity and fractures ensue. According to the BBC, “In 1997, 33 cheese-rollers were treated for everything from splinters to broken bones. In 2005, some races were delayed due to the lack of ambulances—because they were all already at A&E (Emergency) with other competitors.” A spectator aptly described the event as “bonkers.”
- Kez Mercel and Tigger Webb are not names that appear in any hall of fame. They are two Australian men who travel to Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, every year to take part in the World Bog-Snorkelling Championships. Basically, contestants “swim” through a swamp of rotting vegetation. Lonely Planet named this event one of 50 “must do” things from around the world in 2014. Perhaps they are running a bit dry for ideas.
- Robert Dover’s Cotswold Olimpicks.
- “Vancouverite Wins Shin-Kicking World Championship.” Thandi Fletcher, Metro News, June 3, 2014.
- “Old Shin Sport Alive and Kicking.” Neil Leighton, BBC, June 3, 2005.
- “Can I Kick him? Yes you Can! Shin-kicking Championships Take Place in Gloucestershire.” Simon Head, The Mirror, June 5, 2012.
- “The House at Pooh Corner.” A.A. Milne.
- “Poohsticks.” h2g2, January 21, 2000.
- “World Pooh Sticks Championship.”
- “The Poohsticks Bridge.” Mike Ridley, Pooh Country, undated.
- “Bonkers for Conkers.” BBC, October 5, 2006
- World Conker Championships.
- “How to Play Conkers.” Mandy Barrow, Project Britain, 2013.
- “The Lure of Eccentric Sports.” Jenny Sims, BBC News Magazine, May 2, 2011.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor
Glenis Rix on September 15, 2017:
I'm sticking to Pooh sticks - conkers is too scary! (I think it is banned from schools nowadays).