Five British world champions in quirky events you didn’t know
There's a rich sporting history in the United Kingdom.
It's now 54 years since England's men won the football world cup, Team GB came second in the medal table in both the Olympics and Paralympics in 2016 and across sports as diverse as golf, rugby, curling, boxing, cycling and much more - there have been trophies and medals galore won by the home nations.
But what about the world champions you might not know about – the men and women who can legitimately claim to be the very best in the world at some of the more quirky events held in Britain?
Food for thought - puddings and pies
An annual event held in Ramsbottom, Greater Manchester claims to be rooted in history stretching back more than 500 years.
The World Black Pudding Throwing Championships take place in the town each year where competitors attempt to knock as many Yorkshire puddings off a 7.6m high plinth as possible, by chucking black puddings at them.
The legend goes that at the Battle of Stubbins Bridge in 1455 in the War of the Roses, both the House of Lancaster and the House of York ran out of ammunition, so resorted to throwing food supplies at each other.
The Lancastrians opted for black pudding, a Bury tradition, while their opponents threw Yorkshire puddings.
Sadly, this story has been widely discredited.
Historian Lucy Worsley revealed on her BBC Four show British History’s Biggest Fibs that the food fight didn’t take place, with records showing it was only first mentioned in 1980 – around the time that the championships took place for the first time.
The fictitious backstory hasn’t stopped crowds turning out in Ramsbottom each year to see who can take the world title – in 2019, Tom Lowten from Scunthorpe beat a field of over 1,000 people to win the trophy, knocking down eight Yorkshire puddings, just two shy of the all-time record.
Continuing on the food theme with another Northern delicacy, the World Pie Eating Championships have taken place in Wigan since 1992.
People from Wigan are sometimes known as pie-eaters – but that may not be due to their love of the food. Instead, the name is said to have come from the 1926 General Strike. Miners in Wigan were forced back to work before the strike was over and were said to have 'eaten humble pie' – according to this story, the nickname has stuck ever since.
There was a hometown hero who became world champion in 2019 – with builder Ian Gerrard ending the four-year winning streak of Martin Appleton-Clare.
Competitors had to eat a meat and potato pie as quickly as possible with Gerrard finishing his in an astonishing 35.4 seconds. Attempting this sort of challenge can be very dangerous, so it's best to not try this one at home and leave it to the professionals.
Just keep skimming
On Easdale Island, near Oban on the West coast of Scotland, an international field of competitors converge each year.
They battle it out in the World Stone Skimming Championships – the art of bouncing a stone across the surface of water.
18th Century Italian scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani is thought to be the first to have explored why we are able to skim stones rather than seeing them plunge to the bottom of the water.
His research found that the stone pushes the water down as it moves, generating lift. The flatter and rounder the stone, the better – the world championships restrict entrants to a stone of no more than three inches in diameter.
A French physicist led a team in 2004 to look further into the science of stone skimming finding a top tip for the world’s best skimmers – a maximum bounce can be achieved if the stone is released at the optimum angle of 20 degrees.
While the men’s title has been won by overseas talent in the last few years, there was a home champion in the women’s competition in 2019, with the UK's Christina Bowen-Bravery’s 41m skim earning her the top honours.
Muddy worms and water
Slightly dirtier work is the traditional practice of worm charming – the art of attracting earthworms to come out of the ground.
Most frequently used as a means of gathering bait for fishing, worm charming usually relies on some form of vibration to lure the worms out.
Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA found that a frequently used method known as grunting – where a wooden stake is driven into the ground and the top of it is rubbed with a flat piece of steel to make a grunting sound – produces similar vibrations to those of digging moles, who hunt earthworms. As a result, the worms head to the surface in search of safety.
An early worm charming contest took place in Willaston, Cheshire in 1980 where a local farmer’s son is believed to have charmed 511 worms out of the ground in half an hour.
The World Worm Charming Championships now take place at a local primary school every year. The competition has 18 rules, many of which are designed to protect the worms themselves - no worms can be dug out of the ground, any charmed must be placed carefully in a container with damp peat to be counted and all worms must be released at the end of the day (but only once all the birds have gone to roost).
A virtual event took place from competitor’s gardens as a result of social distancing measures in 2020. The newly-crowned champions were the Brookshaw family from Willaston who charmed an impressive 155 worms.
If worm charming sounds a bit grubby to you, then a trip to Llanwrtyd Wells in mid-Wales might also not be your thing.
The Waen Rhydd peat bog plays host to the prestigious World Bog Snorkelling Championships – an event that’s taken place annually since 1985.
Competitors must cover two lengths of a bog over a total of 110metres but aren’t allowed to swim. Wearing traditional snorkels, masks, and flippers, they must rely on flipper power only to complete the course.
Current world record holder Neil Rutter has won the men’s title for the last three years – his advice? Don’t swim into the walls and don’t be put off by the creepy crawlies. Yuck.
So, it's not just the major sports like football, cricket and cycling that have delivered incredible success to these shores over the years - we also have plenty to celebrate from some of Britain’s more interesting international competitions.
It’s coming home? If you’re a fan of pudding throwing, pie eating, stone skimming, worm charming or bog snorkelling, it already has.