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Snail racers, Liars and Haggis hurlers

Britainís Quirky Events

They play football in a river, snorkel through peat bogs and play hearty games of shin-kicking. There's no doubt that to the rest of the world, the British seem to have eccentricity flowing through their veins.

Yet to the British themselves, apparently bizarre behaviour like racing giant cheeses down a hill, hurling a haggis (a Scottish dish made from sheep heart, lungs and liver) as far as possible and wrestling each other's toes, are not only great fun but help preserve important local traditions.

The rest of the world thinks the British are a restrained stiff-upper-lipped lot, but give them a chance and they can let themselves go, often in the strangest ways.

One day in August each year, for example, you'll find enthusiastic villagers playing six-a-side soccer right in the Windrush River in the centre of Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire. The pretty Cotswold village has hosted the strange watery match for 70 years, with goals placed under two stone bridges. Hundreds line the banks to cheer and the village green is busy with stalls and a carnival atmosphere.

But that strange event seems almost normal in comparison to another, the World Bog Snorkelling Championships. Since 1986 this has been held on the outskirts of the smallest town in Britain, Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys, mid Wales. Competitors pull on a mask, snorkel and flippers, then leap into a 60 metre 'race track' through a murky peat bog. All proceeds from this bizarre sporting event are donated to charities.

Sounds unbelievable? Not as unbelievable as the tall-tales told at the World's Biggest Liar Competition in Wasdale in the English Lake District in Cumbria. Wasdale valley boasts England's deepest lake (Wastwater), highest mountain (Scafell Pike), smallest church (Wasdale head church). This quirky contest is held at the Bridge Inn at Santon Bridge.

Contestants travel great distances to tell lies in front of judges and an enthralled audience. The event commemorates a Victorian publican who amused his customers with made-up stories. Previous winners' straight-faced lies have include a geological account of the formation of the Lake District through the action of giant moles and one winner who apparently went on an action-packed holiday with the Pope.

Many other British outbursts of eccentricity have their roots even further back in history. Cheese rolling at Coopers Hill, at Brockworth, in Gloucestershire has been happening since medieval times. Daredevils hurl themselves down steep grassy slopes in pursuit of a giant Double Gloucester cheese while thousands cheer their efforts.

And Haggis Hurling is said to date back to Scottish clan gatherings, where women would toss a haggis across a stream to their husbands. Watch this arcane activity at Bearsden and Milngavie highland games at Milngavie.

Or how about catching the serious sport of pea shooting, where contestants blow a pea through a tube towards a target? Enjoy the world pea shooting championships on the village green, at Witcham, Cambridgeshire.

Other unlikely but colourful championships happening in Britain this year include the world snail racing championships at Congham, Kingís Lynn, Norfolk where more than 300 snails will battle for a silver tankard stuffed with lettuce.

Then there's the world toe wrestling championships at Fenny Bentley, Derbyshire, where contestants sit opposite each other, lock big toes and try to push their opponentís foot to the side.

Where else in the world could you stumble upon the world coal carrying championships. Competitors carry 50 kilos of coal for almost a mile from one pub to another in Gawthorpe, West Yorkshire.

And Chester's world town crier championship is a unique chance for those with a penchant for unassisted vocal broadcasting.

The year of eccentricity starts in January, in the Shetland Isles you'll discover Lerwick Up Helly Aa - Britain's most magnificent fire festival, incorporating the burning of a Viking galley and a torch-lit parade of nearly 1,000 people, dressed either as Vikings or in all manner of crazy fancy-dress.

And there's more with the conker championships, gooseberry weigh-ins, shin-kickings and snail races continuing across the land through the year.

You'll see the great Christmas pudding race in Covent Garden, London. Around 150 contestants race around a city centre course balancing a Christmas pudding on a flimsy paper plate while trying to avoid balloons filled with flour and jets of foam. To complicate things even further, they do it all in fancy dress.

Even as the year ends the British are up to some very odd things. At Allendale in Northumberland New Year's Eve is celebrated by villagers carrying barrels of blazing tar on their heads. At Stonehaven on Scotlandís East Coast, New Year revelers whirl baskets of fire around them as they march through the High street.

There are strange traditions, festivals and contests across the UK but it's these big public holidays that appear to bring out the strangest activities. On May Day, for example, you'll find thousands gathering at dawn to hear a choir sing a medieval hymn from an ancient tower in Oxford and Morris dancers performing on an ancient 180-foot-tall picture of a man on a Dorset hillside, cut in wide trenches of chalk above the village of Cerne Abbas.

And in Minehead in Somerset and Padstow in Cornwall the street dancing of a man dressed as the 'hobby horse' reflects an ancient pagan fertility rite.

And don't even try to understand what comes over the British on November 5th. The Guy Fawkes festivities date back to the capture of a Roman Catholic extremist who almost succeeded in blowing up both the King and Parliament 400 years ago. Today it's an excuse for fireworks, bonfires and parties. Effigies of poor Guy Fawkes are still burned.

In Ottery St Mary in Devon men carry yet more burning barrels of tar through the narrow streets, while in Lewes in Sussex local people parade through the steep, cobbled streets in colourful costumes, carrying flaming torches to the River Ouse, where they are thrown in.

The Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival in this Somerset town has evolved over the centuries into probably the largest illuminated street carnival in the world. The procession takes place after dark when more than 120 brilliantly-lit decorated lorries, some containing as many as 30,000 light bulbs, drive round the normally quiet town as huge crowds watch. Who said the British were unassuming, quiet and restrained?

Please note that event dates change from year to year, so please check before travelling.



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