The ex expat
Kate Birch discovers that on weekends Brits relax their stiff upper lips to take part in some bizarre sports.
I’m off to the British Pooh Sticks World Championships this weekend. For the uninitiated, Pooh Sticks is a game invented by English author AA Milne for his son Christopher Robin, which subsequently featured in the Winnie-the-Pooh books.
To cut a long sport story short, you stand on the upstream side of a bridge and, along with other players, drop your stick into the water. The first stick to cross the finish line (the other side of the bridge) wins.
OK, I know it’s simple – silly even. But before you pooh pooh this sport (yes, it is a sport), you should know that the practice of pooh sticks requires skill.
Or at least that’s what I keep telling myself as I stand on a bridge repeatedly dropping sticks, justifying my reasons for taking part in what is quite clearly a pointless practice, a crazy contest, a weird world championship.
But as silly as it sounds, this is not some one-off event attended by a madas-a-fruitcake few. Not only is the Pooh Sticks Championships in its 30th year and attended by some 1,500 people annually, but it keeps crazy company.
Pretty much every weekend in the UK, you will find a bunch of Brits – seemingly sane, sensible, successful people – standing in a damp field or on top of a hill, participating in, or just watching, an eccentric sporting event. The event is usually pretty pointless, though always competitive, with a bit of brutality, a dash of dirt and often an outrageous outfit thrown in somewhere for good measure.
Yes, the Brits may be conservative and conventional during the week, but at the weekend, they relax their stiff upper lips and go potty… pushing beds, climbing greasy poles and paddling giant Yorkshire puddings across lakes, hoping to secure not just a trophy and a title, but a legacy: their name in
as the World’s Greatest Tin Bath Racer/Wife Carrier/ Toe Wrestler.
And while the British certainly have a passion for throwing things (sticks, boots, clogs, eggs, peas, custard pies) they also rejoice in chasing things down hills (think hard-boiled eggs and oranges) and carrying things (namely bags of coal, sacks of wool and women) while racing.
In fact, the British simply love to race – with prams, with beds, with lawnmowers – and to pit themselves against, not just man, but beast, machine and nature.
You can compete against a horse in the 22-mile Man Versus Horse Race; against a train in the Race The Train race; and against nature in the Nettle Eating Championships, where only the very brave, or brainless, are tasked with consuming as many of these perilous plants as they can. Yes, danger lurks on every leaf, with contestants
At the weekend, the Brits relax their stiff upper lips and go potty
sustaining everything from swollen lips to temporary facial paralysis.
Though that’s nothing compared to the injuries sustained at Blighty’s most famous – so famous, there’s a book and iPhone app dedicated to it – alternative sporting event, Cheese Rolling.
Bruises, bumps and broken bones are this event’s takeaway trophies after competitors hurl themselves down a 200m-high (and very steep) hill to pursue a 4kg Double Gloucester cheese travelling at 70kph.
And just in case you were in any doubt as to how much the British really take pleasure in the misfortune of others, an incredible 40,000 people turn out every year to watch the cheese chasers break their backs. But these off-the-wall affairs aren’t just catering to the barking-mad Brits.
Hopefuls hail from as far afield as Finland, Japan, American, Australia and South Africa – two of the winners from this year’s cheese-rolling contest were an American and a Japanese – all competing for a slice of the crazy contest action.
It’s not just danger drawing contestants and crowds from far and wide. It’s also dirt. In fact, the dirtier the day out, the better, as the World Gravy Championships proves – at this event the fire brigade are called in to hose people down.
It has nothing on the Bog Snorkelling Championships though. Ancient vegetation meets acidic water in a 115m-long peat bog, which flipper and mask-armed combatants must navigate, some while dressed in Viking, pirate or other comedy outfits.
From Borat bathing attire at the British Bellyboarding Championships, to top hats at the Cotswold Olimpick Games, where the ancient practice of shin-kicking reigns supreme, daft dressing-up is part of the practice.
But while Brits do what they love doing best – that’s laughing at themselves and at others doing silly stuff – competitors and organisers take it all very seriously.
There are, for example, no fewer than 18 rules governing the World Worm Charming Championships in Cheshire, in which competitors use a variety of means – from watering the earth with tea, to prodding it with a fork – to lure worms to the surface.
So having embraced Britain’s crazed competitive culture, my sight is now set on sports that are dirtier, dafter and more dangerous than our politicians. Forget running with bulls in Pamplona, the next big item on your bucket list could well be sewer skating in Scotland. Now, there’s an idea…
Overworked, overwhelmed and over there... long-term Dubai expat Kate Birch misses
her maid, struggles with small talk and is desperate for someone
to pack her shopping