Read time of 5 minutes.
From the sublime to the ridiculous - we've found the most bizarre UK customs that have to be seen to be believed.
From Welly Wanging to Morris Dancing, the UK is well known for its regional customs that showcase the brilliantly bonkers nature of rural British life. Inspired in part by the Olympics and driven by a love of all things quirky, we decided to delve into the archives and uncover some of the strangest sporting practices across the UK.
A quick trawl of the internet revealed some absolute corkers - many of which are rooted in historical tradition, some of which are comparatively modern, and nearly all of which are guaranteed to make your mind boggle! While most are specific to the local area in which they originated, several have proven to be so popular that they are now practiced across the country and even, in some cases, the world.
With this in mind, we've compiled a list of our top seven kooky customs that we think deserve a place in our fantasy alternative Olympic Games. Read on, be inspired, and if you're curious, why not incorporate a trip to spectate some of these rural gems into your staycation? We're sure it'll be a road trip to remember!
1) Cheese Rolling, Gloucestershire.
Perhaps one of the better-known events on our list, this annual free-for-all takes place over the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in May at Cooper's Hill, Shurdington. At approximately 182m in length, it isn't the longest race - but the famously steep 45-degree angle certainly makes it one of the toughest.
Every year, between 10 and 40 competitors line up at the summit of Cooper's Hill and await the Keeper of Game's traditional call "One to be ready, two to be steady, three to prepare, and four to be off!" before flinging themselves at high speeds down the hill in pursuit of...cheese.
Yes, you read that correctly, cheese.
The cheese - a 3kg wheel of locally made Double Gloucester - is released on the Keeper of Game's 'three'. The basic aim for participants is to beat not only other racers to the finish line but also the wheel of cheese itself. Measuring 22.86cm in diameter and a hefty 7.62cm thick, the Double Gloucester is a substantial beast that typically reaches speeds of around 30mph on its descent.
With the participants regularly reaching similar top speeds as they plunge down the hill it seems more fitting to describe it as a tumbling race than a running one.
The earliest official record of the race is in the Town Crier's notes from 1826, but it certainly predates that by quite a bit. Local residents and historians proffer unofficial family records that go back as far as the 1700s, and some even suggest that it originated as long ago as 54BC with the Phoenicians.
Despite having been established for a considerable amount of time, and the obvious risks, there have been comparatively few serious injuries and no recorded fatalities as a result of the race. That's not to say it has been without its drama though. In 1982 a sudden thunderstorm mid-race led to four adults and four children being struck by lightning, forcing them out of the competition - fortunately, nobody was badly hurt. Undeterred, one of the boys hit re-entered the event ten years later only to fall and snap his thigh bone mid-race, resulting in an 18-inch pin in his leg and retirement from competing.
The 'Great Cheese Chase Chaos' of 1990 notched up a record 22 casualties - including a grandmother who was knocked unconscious by the rolling cheese - and the event was banned altogether in 1998 amidst fears that it was only a matter of time until a fatality occurred. Unfazed, the organisers put a few cursory safety measures in place and the event continues to thrive to this day - with a much more palatable average injury count of 12 people per year.
2) Ferret Legging, Yorkshire.
Although the exact origin of Ferret Legging is ambiguous, it is believed to hail from an era when only the relatively wealthy in Britain were able to keep animals for hunting. As a consequence, poachers were forced to be creative in their smuggling methods, and they thought nothing of stuffing the animals down their trousers in a bid to get away undetected. Legend has it that post poach, a stop off at the local public house was customary and it was here that the practice of comparing how long the ferrets could remain in the trousers was born.
As romanticised as that may be, the sport was popular. For reasons best known to them, it enjoyed a successful resurgence amongst Yorkshire miners in the 1970s and 80s. Now quite uncommon in the UK, having been replaced by Ferret Racing (in which the animals race against each other through plastic tubes), the former is still practiced on occasion in the US and Canada under strict animal protection guidelines.
The rules of the game state that participants must secure the bottoms of their trouser legs and wear a belt pulled tight at the waist. Underwear is forbidden so the creatures are able to move freely between trouser legs.
Notable British competitor Reg Mellor is credited with the practice of wearing white trousers so the bloodstains could be seen by all and sundry. Contestants may attempt to dislodge the ferrets from outside of their trousers, but as the animals are renowned for their ability to maintain a stronghold for prolonged periods of time, this is rarely successful.
Mellor is probably the most famous participant of the sport, having set a new world record of 5 hours and 26 minutes in July 1981. The retired miner claimed that he had spent his entire life hunting with ferrets and had become accustomed to storing them in his trousers to keep them warm and dry. He attempted to break his own record in 1986 and surpass the 6-hour mark in front of an audience of 2,500.
Sadly for Mellor, after 5 hours when most of the spectators had got bored and left, workmen turned up to dismantle the stage. Mellor was left heartbroken and disenchanted. Nonetheless, Mellor held the record for quite some time, until a charity attempt by former headteacher Frank Bartlett in 2010 surpassed his efforts by 4 whole minutes.
3) Bog Snorkelling, Wales.
It may not come as too much of a shock that, along with some of the greatest ideas in history (probably), Bog Snorkelling was conceived in a pub. Its beginnings can be traced back to the Neuadd Arms, in the village of Llanwrtyd Wells in Mid Wales way back in 1976, and its popularity has been on a surprisingly upward trajectory ever since.
The principle is simple, with participants expected to traverse two complete lengths of a 60m course - a trench cut through a peat bog. So far, so good.
The only pre-requisite in terms of equipment are goggles, a snorkel, and flippers. But it is widely expected that competitors will attempt the course in an array of weird and wonderful fancy dress costumes. Previous years have seen anything from superheroes to sharks to elephants, and even to the fabulous Bogness Monster - a two-person attempt to tackle the course in one costume, the logistics of which are mind-boggling.
Swimming or engaging in any recognised swimming stroke is strictly forbidden and so participants are left to rely on the power of their flippers alone to propel them along the course.
The custom has enjoyed immense popularity since its conception, with similar events taking place across the globe. The official World Championships began in 1985 at the Waen Rhydd peat bog - just down the road from the infamous Neuadd Arms, and it remains extremely well attended to this day. It takes place over the August Bank Holiday weekend and draws competitors from all over the world. The competition has expanded to include the prestigious Bog Triathlon and shortened events that are suitable for children and juniors too.
If you fancy giving it a go, it's time to get training. The current record time for the men's race is an impressive 1 minute 18 seconds and the women's is a speedy 1 minute 22 seconds. That's some fast flippering!
4) Shin Kicking, The Cotswolds.
Almost certainly as brutal as it sounds, Shin Kicking originated in the early 17th century as part of the Cotswold Olimpick Games.
The games were founded by lawyer Robert Dover as a modern-day alternative to the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece. Dover devised the idea of the games following the completion of his degree at Cambridge and believed that the collection of events would be a good way to channel the competitive nature of the local unwashed population.
Shin Kicking swiftly emerged as the most popular event at the Cotswold Olimpicks and it maintained that position until the late 1850s. By its very nature, it was seen as requiring a combination of agility and skill that only the most elite sportsmen possessed, though many tried.
Later, it gained a substantial following further south and became a regular custom amongst Cornish miners. A group of British immigrants residing in the USA decided to revive the Olimpicks as a whole in 1951 and once again, Shin Kicking proved to be a hit. So much so, in fact, that the practice endured and the States now hosts an annual World Shin Kicking Championship.
Contestants begin by facing each other and taking a firm grasp of their opponent's collar. Traditionally, they wear white coats supposedly to represent the smocks worn by shepherds in Dover's time. Proceedings are meticulously overseen by a referee known as the Stickler. The aim is to strike your opponent's shins as hard as possible with the inside of your foot and toes until he can stand no more and utters the recognised cry of "Sufficient" to indicate his defeat.
Modern-day events are considerably less violent than the early competitions, with the favoured practice of wearing steel-toed boots having been outlawed. Hardened competitors were thought to train and prepare for the sport by repeatedly hitting their shins with a hammer to 'toughen them up'.
Nowadays, the event is played in 10 rounds, with anyone who reaches a 6 game majority declared the winner. Injury is lessened by the introduction of a soft shoe policy and the requirement for participants to stuff their trousers with hay for added protection.
5) Snail Racing, Norfolk.
Now an immensely popular event across the globe, the UK can't claim ownership of Snail Racing. But we can certainly claim to be extremely enthusiastic about it! The sport first hit our shores in the 1960s when Tom Elwes witnessed something similar in France and decided to replicate it in his hometown of Congham, Norfolk.
With several illustrious snail races taking place across the country, Congham remains the epicentre of the practice and is home to the official World Snail Racing Championships. Competitors are permitted to enter any air-breathing land snail, though by far the most popular entrant is the Cornu Aspersum - or common garden snail to you and I.
It's a simple premise but the race draws in excess of 215 snails, their owners, and trainers each year - all of whom are eager to claim the World Champion title.
Snails are placed at the start of the 33cm course with the race getting underway to a cry of "Ready, steady...slow!". This is followed by a nail-biting battle for supremacy that typically lasts between two and three minutes as the creatures storm their way to the finish line.
Current reigning World Champ Sammy the Snail stole the title back in 2019 (before the race was cancelled because of the pandemic) with a race time of 2 minutes and 38 seconds.
Other snail races of note are the annual Grand Snail Race, held in Snailwell (yes, really), Cambridgeshire - a prestigious affair that draws up to 400 visitors each year and effectively doubles the village population. Historically, the 1999 Guinness Gastropod Championship drew the interest of sporting pundit John McCririck. Of the event, McCririck deadpanned: "It is easier to commentate on because it is slower than horse racing."
6) Gurning, Cumbria.
For those unfamiliar with the term, gurning is defined as an 'extremely distorted and particular facial expression that is achieved by projecting one's jaw as far forward and upward as possible, ensuring that the upper lip is covered by the lower lip'.
The purpose of the custom is a little unclear but it has been practiced throughout rural Britain for centuries. Participant's faces are traditionally framed with a horse collar - known as 'gurning with a braffin'.
Whilst gurning is popular across the nation, the most well-known official event is the World Gurning Championships, held as part of the Egremont Crab Fair in Cumbria. The fair itself dates back to 1297 and whilst there are no records to clarify exactly when gurning became a part of it, the custom is certainly well established. Indeed, an article in the local paper The Cumberland Paquet in 1852 cites gurning as an ancient tradition.
The act of gurning is acknowledged to be much easier for those without teeth and consequently, the most successful participants tend to err on the more mature side. Legend has it that some older people have been known to have such malleable faces owing to lack of teeth that they are capable of gurns that cover their entire noses.
The men's world championship title was won fifteen times between 1986 and 2010 by UK competitor Tommy Mattinson, whilst the women's record titleholder is Anne Woods, with a huge twenty-eight wins under her belt.
Perhaps the most recognised gurner of all is four-time champion Peter Jackman, who has featured in several TV shows and electively removed all of his teeth in 2000 for greater manoeuverability. If that's not a commitment to the cause, we don't know what is!
7) Dwile Flonking, East Anglia.
Brilliantly named and something of an enigma, we've definitely saved the best until last.
The origins of Dwile Flonking are hotly contested, with some believing it to be an ancient tradition that dates back centuries, while others believe that it was created for effect in the twentieth century as an excuse for pub-goers to have a few too many!
The first modern-day record of the supposedly archaic custom dates back to 1966 when Dwile Flonking was played at the Beccles Festival of Sport, but the terminology used in the game is surprisingly authentic - which suggests that either it does have roots in historical practice or someone has really done their research.
The name is a great example of this - a dwile is a knitted floor cloth, the etymology of which is likely to be an amalgamation derived from the Dutch and old East Anglian dialect for the object. Flonking literally means throwing - most likely a corruption of the word 'flung'.
Still following? Here's how to play...
The rules specifically state that a 'dull-witted person' must be appointed as referee - known as a Jobanowl - who oversees proceedings and is able to change the direction of play at will, as well as levy drinking penalties should they feel that a participant is not taking the game seriously enough.
The event is divided into two rounds, called snurds, and each snurd comprises one team dancing around the other team.
The non-dancing team elects a single representative by throwing a sugar beet as far as possible - this representative is then known as the flonker.
With the preliminaries out of the way, the Jobanowl starts the game with a cry of "Here y'go t'gither. T'gither." It's at this point the dancing team joins hands and dances in a circle around the flonker - a practice known as girting.
The flonker dips his dwile tipped driveller (a 2-3 foot pole made of yew of hazel) in a bucket of beer, spins in the opposite direction to the girters, and proceeds to flonk his dwile at them.
A flonker's dwile failing to hit an opponent is known as a swadge and carries a penalty for the flonker. This entails drinking beer from a chamber pot while the dwile is passed through the hands of the now stationary girting team as they chant 'pot, pot, pot' ceremoniously.
The winning team is the one with the most points at the end of two snurds and points are accrued in the following ways:
A Wanton - a direct hit on a girter's head carries 3+ points.
A Morther - or direct body hit carries 2+ points.
A Ripper - a leg hit carries 1 point.
Any person found to be sober at the end of the game will incur a minus point for their team... and most likely a lifetime of shame to boot.