Worm charming, cheese rolling, championship marbles…no one can deny some of the things the British get up to for fun show our international reputation for eccentricity is well deserved. But what strange games get us going, and why?
Every year crowds gather in Blackawton to get on their knees in a muddy field and entice worms from the ground. It’s not easy – no digging or forking allowed! Believing in fair play, Official Cheat offers ready-charmed worms to weedle out possible cheaters, while Old Father Worm offers advice to newbies.
World Stoneskimming Championships
Everyone has idly skimmed a stone in their time, but some make it their chosen sport. The Scottish event is gaining strength since the recent invention of man-made “skimming stones”, making the task of finding ammunition so much easier.
Every late May Bank Holiday thousands of enthusiasts turn up on a hill in Gloucester to watch participants chase a 9lb block of the white stuff down a terrifying incline. There is even a local pub named after the event. In recent years, a Japanese and an American won first place, proving our eccentricity can catch on worldwide.
Playing football in the River Windrush
For over a century Bourton-on-the-Water has lived up to its name by staging a six-a-side football match in the River Windrush. Teams compete for 15 minutes each way to score goals up and down the river, splashing majestically in the knee-deep water.
World Bog Snorkelling Championships
Two hundred people compete in this race in Wales, snorkelling 120 yards of bog using flipper power alone. Starting out as so many great ideas do – with a chat over a pint in the pub – 30 years later the sport has spread to Australia, Ireland and Sweden.
World Marble Championships
We usually give this up as kids but why stop what you enjoy? Since 1932, hundreds have flocked to the British Marble Championships, held every Good Friday in West Sussex. Of course, the venue – in a pub car park – makes it a little more grown up!
So what is it about the British that makes us so eccentric?
The phenomenon inspired the 1866 two-part tome by John Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, while essayist George Santayana’s 1922 Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, described how “England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies, and humors.”
Now according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, securing the basics – food, water, shelter – is necessary before we can spend time on more frivolous things, which perhaps explains why so many of Britain’s past eccentrics hailed from the aristocracy.
With no need to work, or indeed do anything but indulge their whims, many rich eccentrics bloomed, including Lord Rokeby, who’d swim in the sea so long he was regularly dragged out unconscious by his servants, and Lord North, who’d hibernate in bed from October to March, dining with guests at a giant table installed in his bedroom.
Stepping outside the little boxes society creates for us requires confidence – and an island nation with an empire which dominated the entire planet for centuries has had plenty of time to build confidence.
Dr David Weeks, Edinburgh psychiatrist and author of “Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness”, studied 1,000 peculiar people for 10 years and found the qualities they had in common were curiosity, creativity, idealism, obsessive hobbies and a non-conforming attitude.
Weeks suggests eccentrics are pioneers in unusual and untested ideas that inspire societal progression, reiterating philosopher John Stuart Mill, who said:
“Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character had abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and courage which it contained.”
Weeks also found eccentrics are less likely to suffer mental health problems – often living longer, which he attributes to the non-conformist attitude required by all eccentrics. Essentially, being yourself, and worrying less about others’ expectations, reduces stress and boosts the immune system.
So embrace the weird and get worm charming – you have nothing to lose!