As the London Olympics thunders into action, the eyes of the sporting world turn towards Britain as everyone wonders if we’re capable of more than lacklustre penalty shootouts and purgatorially endless rounds of golf and cricket. But we love sports – especially if they carry some element of potential humiliation, embarrassment and personal injury.
Check out these 5 quirky traditional British contests designed to delight our inner masochists.
For the last 200 years, people have been congregating once a year on a terrifyingly steep hillside in Gloucestershire to watch other people tumble down it. It’s been described as the world’s most dangerous footrace, and it attracts over a thousand spectators every year. In the memorable words of the Sydney Morning Herald:
“…twenty young men chase a cheese off a cliff and tumble 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital”.
This was true until a few years ago, when the local emergency services deemed the festival too dangerous and refused to attend in an official capacity. In response, locals took it underground, where it runs to this day (translation: no paramedics, rough-handed marshalling and risk of injury for both participant and spectator alike).
Interested in watching the madness in early Jun 2013? Cooper’s Hill is just ten minutes by car from the beautiful Cotswolds spa town of Cheltenham.
Walk the streets of Orkney’s capital town Kirkwall on the wrong day and you’d be forgiven for assuming a riot was in progress – 350 men pushing, scratching, punching and trampling on each other. Eli Saslow of the Washington Post calls it a “human juicer”. Locals call it a wee bit of fun. It lies somewhere between football, rugby, volleyball and a bar-room brawl, and in its present incarnation it’s been around since the 1850s, although its origins are probably far older. The “Uppies” (up-towners) struggle for mastery against the “Doonies”, trying to manhandle a leather ball over one of two lines at either side of the town by any means possible. There are no uniforms – the game is only open to local men (largely for safety reasons), so everyone knows each other. And it gets rough.
Reaching Orkney is easiest done via the John O’Groats ferry across the Pentland Firth – and regarding accommodation, Kirkwall offers the most options, from umpteen guesthouses to the Orkney Hotel and its competitors. And for food? Try the Aberdeen Angus steak at the Ayre Hotel, and pop in for a fortifying cup of tea & a cake in the Pomona Café.
If they encountered a waterlogged bog in the British landscape, most people would backtrack or go around it. Not the pioneers of the traditional Welsh sport of bog-snorkelling, in which seemingly sane people don a face mask, snorkel and flippers and leap into a peat-cut ditch filled with zero-visibility water to paddle 120 yards (no swimming strokes allowed), only lifting their heads to find out where they’re pointing. All this, mind, on an island not known for its clement weather. And if that wasn’t enough, why not watch other people attempting to solve that timeless question “is a man faster than a horse?” (The answer isn’t as obvious as you might think).
If either of these sound appealing, get yourself to Llanwrtyd Wells in the middle of Wales, near the stunning Brecon Beacons . It’s a modest-sized town with so few people (600-ish) that the locals claim it’s the smallest in Britain, but there are still plenty of places to stay – say, the Carlton Riverside Hotel. Get the full list of accommodation from the town’s website.
Let us pay tribute to the arcane rituals of an increasingly popular British sport involving feet. First, the players disrobe (or rather unshoe), tradition stating that each player must remove his opponent’s footwear. Then the gladiators sit and place the sole of their fighting foot against their opponent’s. After a short chant (commonly “1,2,3,4, I declare a toe war” or “toes away!”), each participant attempts to subdue the foot of the other for 3 seconds to achieve victory.
Welcome to the wonderful world of toe-wrestling, begun in the ‘70s in Wetton, Staffordshire as an attempt to create a sport that the British could excel in. (Tragically, the first winner was a Canadian). The championship now takes place at the Bentley Brook Inn in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, with the 2012 bout taking place on July 14th.
Dorset Nettle Eating
Apparently tarantula spiders are edible. You have to wonder about the state of mind of the first person who discovered this. In a similar vein is the lively sport of competitive stinging nettle eating, in which participants have an hour to eat as many leaves from pre-cut nettle stalks as they can manage, or presumably until they pass out in sheer agony, whichever comes first. Rules? There aren’t any, other than you’re not allowed to bring your own nettles (in case you nobble them before you gobble them), and you’re allowed to drink beer – although we presume that most of the drinking takes place before the event even starts.
Fancy shoving leaves covered with tiny natural hypodermic needles into your mouth for a laugh? Then make your way down to the George Inn in Chideock, Dorset for the 30th of June next year (so you have a year to build up your pain tolerance threshold). Alternately, rent a self-catering cottage and do some exploring of Dorset on foot. Much more civilized, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Mike Sowden is a UK-based freelance writer, narrative consultant and misadventurist. His work has been featured in publications including Mashable, EcoSalon, Matador Network’s Brave New Traveler and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his spare time is spent suffering on lonely British hillsides in the hope he’ll live to write about it afterwards. He blogs at the aptly named Fevered Mutterings.