Britain is one of the best places in the world to live in, because here eccentrics are not just accepted, they are celebrated.
Every week in every year, somewhere in our beautiful island, you can find enthusiastic nut-cases joining together to enjoy their own oddity.....
World championships, contests, ancient traditions, festivals of dance and song: life need never be dull.
Here are a few suggestions for you.
Why not join in one or two this year?
THIS CAN BE PAINFUL!
WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP NETTLE EATING
The Bottle Inn is a 16th century public house in Marshwood in Dorset, England, which hosts the World Nettle Eating Championship.
The building started life as an ale house which was close to a church where people came to pay their tithes.
It was named The Bottle Inn late in the 18th Century when it became the first inn in the area to sell bottled beers.
During its history the building has also housed the village shop and during World War II, the village school.
The Bottle Inn hosts the annual World Nettle Eating Championships as part of a charity beer festival.
Competitors are served 2-foot (0.61 m) long stalks of stinging nettles from which they pluck and eat the leaves.
Here is someone delivering the stalks to the competitors.
After an hour the bare stalks are measured and the winner is the competitor with the greatest accumulated length of nettle-stalks.
The contest began in the late 1980s when two farmers argued over who had the longest stinging nettles in their field and evolved into the World Nettle Eating Championships when one of the farmers promised to eat any nettle which was longer than his.
The championship has separate men’s and women’s sections and attracts competitors from as far afield as Canada and Australia.
In June 2010 Sam Cunningham, a fishmonger from Somerset won the contest, after eating 74 feet of nettles!
ABOUT THE STINGING NETTLE (Urtica dioica)
Nettles grow in almost every kind of environment so it's normally not hard to find some.
They like nitrogen-rich soil.
Nettles are high in iron and are one of the best sources of this mineral on the planet.
And, like all greens, they are full of chlorophyll.
They are at their best in terms of nutrition in the spring when they're young.
As they grow older, the iron content increases to the point where eating them in quantity may cause kidney damage and symptoms of poisoning.
Of course, not many folk eat nettles in quantity!
Anyway, cutting nettles causes them to grow back so you can have fresh, young nettles throughout the season.
When I was an evacuee during World War Two, my Yorkshire hosts cooked me nettle porridge.
But how to eat nettles raw?
Take courage, be bold!
Be firm in your movements.
The spines that inject formic acid causing the sting are on the upper side of the leaf and not on the underside.
So pick a leaf from underneath, fold it in half along its length and continue folding it until none of the upperside of the leaf or its edge is exposed.
Next, squeeze the little leaf package to break the spines and pop it in between your teeth (ensuring the leaf parcel does not unfold in your mouth) and immediately begin to chew.
It has a wonderful flavour and substantial quality.
Another technique is to pick a leaf, roll it together so the upperside is not exposed and then rub it between the palms to break the spines before popping in the mouth.
And nettles can be juiced!
The leaves can also be used for herbal tea and as a medicine, and the stalks can be used to make cordage and cloth.
Nettles attract butterflies.
All gardeners should grow nettles in a spare, wild corner of their plot.
What a versatile and wonderful plant - get to know nettles today!
THE WORLD CONKER CHAMPIONSHIPS
The World Conker Championships are held annually on the second Sunday in October in the village of Ashton near Oundle in Northamptonshire, England.
Since 1965, conker players from around the world have gathered on the village green to compete for the world title.
The male champion is crowned King Conker, and the women's champion is Queen Conker.
The championships began in 1965 after a group of people in Ashton held a conker contest because the weather was too bad to go fishing.
At first the event was modest in size but in the last twelve years, rising numbers of participants and more interest from abroad have brought it into the headlines.
Money made from the competition goes to charity; since 1965 over £400,000 has been raised.
The competition is divided into men's and women's events with some of these playing as part of a team; as the event raises funds for charities helping the visually impaired, blind and partly sighted people can be seen playing at the event.
In 2004, 5,000 spectators watched more than 500 participants from 13 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Austria, the Ukraine, Scotland, France and Poland.
France, the winning team in 2003, looked in for a good chance but were finally beaten by Britain.
Prior to the game, 2,283 conkers (horse chestnuts) of the required 1.25-inch width are collected, drilled and strung for the game by Ashton Conker Club officials.
There was a period when worries were voiced over the leaf-miner moth, Cameraria ohridella, which has appeared in the region and could have a detrimental effect on conker yields, but so far supplies of conkers have been readily available.
The competition caters for 256 Men and 64 Ladies.
[Why the sex discrimination?]
The men's section is split into 4 different colour groups, red, blue, green and orange, each with 64 players.
A "grand slam" or knockout procedure is in place, reducing the 64 in each group to 32, then 16, then 8 etc., until only one person remains in each group.
This is the semi-finals, when the red winner may play the blue and the green winner may play the orange.
This results in 2 players, who battle out in the final for the title of World Conker Champion.
THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
Players’ Rules of Engagement for the Noble Game of Conkers at the Liberal Clubs Conker Championships:
The game will commence with a toss of a coin.
The winner of the toss may elect to strike or receive.
A distance of no less than 8" or 20 cm of lace must be between knuckle and nut.
Each player then takes three alternate strikes at the opponent’s conker.
Each attempted strike must be clearly aimed at the nut, no deliberate miss hits.
The game will be decided once one of the conkers is smashed.
A small piece of nut or skin remaining shall be judged out, it must be enough to mount an attack.
If both nuts smash at the same time then the match shall be replayed.
Any nut being knocked from the lace but not smashing may be re threaded and the game continued.
A player causing a knotting of the laces (a snag) will be noted, three snags will lead to disqualification.
If a game lasts for more than five minutes then play will halt and the "5 minute rule" will come into effect.
Each player will be allowed up to nine further strikes at their opponents nut, again alternating three strikes each.
If neither conker has been smashed at the end of the nine strikes then the player who strikes the nut the most times during this period will be judged the winner.
Conker contests are serious affairs!
THE ANNUAL CLOWNS SERVICE
In face paint and costume, hundreds of clowns gather every year at a church in Dalston to celebrate the life of Joseph Grimaldi, the “father of modern clowning”.
Grimaldi (1778-1837) made his debut aged three at Sadlers Wells.
He transformed the art of clowning and invented many of the characteristics that define today’s clowns.
He was the first clown to paint his face white.
The Clowns’ Church Service in his memory has taken place at Holy Trinity Church in Dalston every year since 1946.
The clowns have a meal beforehand and perform for the public afterwards.
Around 60 members of clowning organisation Clowns International turn up in their full garb.
Dating back to 1947, the service began in a Pentonville Road church, but when the building was destroyed by fire in 1959 the celebration was moved to Holy Trinity in Beechwood Road, which is now known as the ‘Clown’s Church’.
Clowns International secretary Antony Eldridge is delighted with the public support for the occasion, with some of the congregation coming from as far afield as Peru and Spain.
The church is always full and there are queues for entry.
“It’s because of us that people turn up,” he said.
“They like to see everybody in costume.
“It’s only since 1968 the vicar of the day was persuaded to give permission for clowns to come in costume, which made it a rather whacky service.
“I’ve seen photos of them in the old church all in their Sunday best looking very formal like people did when they went to church in those days.
Of course it has turned it more into a show, it’s not your usual straight- laced church service and gradually it has developed into more of a light hearted celebration, to give thanks for the joy and pleasure of laughter of someone who made so many people happy.”
It has been known for the vicar to blow bubbles from the pulpit....
THE BURRY MAN
A very old tradition....
The "Burry Man" has appeared on the streets of South Queens bury, West Lothian, Scotland, annually for over 600 years.
He has quite a difficult day.......
He wears a headdress made of flowers that completely hides his face, and his body is costumed with a thick mat of teazle burrs and thistles.
With a staff in each hand, he walks from house to house without uttering a word.
It is difficult to talk through a mask of thistles!
Nevertheless, people address him politely and often offer him money, in return for which he bestows good fortune on their home.
Some say that the ceremonies of Burry Man Day commemorate King Malcolm III's escape from the British, which he accomplished with the aid of a thick covering of burrs and flowers.
I confess, I dont know anything about King Malcolm.
Another theory contends that the Burry Man is a remnant of an old custom connected with the gathering of fair tolls.
The present Ferry Fair website suggests that his day comes at the end of a week-long fair.
On the Friday morning, a local man is covered from head to ankles in burrs (the sticky flowerheads or seedheads of two species of burdock, Arctium lappa and A. minus)that grow locally.
The stickiness of his burry covering means that he has to walk awkwardly, with legs apart and arms held out sideways, but he is nevertheless paraded around a seven-mile route through South Queensferry for nine hours or more.
He supports his aching arms on waist-high poles decorated with flowers.
Two attendants (dressed in normal clothing) guide him through the town and help him through his ordeal.
They visit the town's pubs, some factories, and the provost's house, at each of which the Burryman is given a drink of whisky, but because of his sticky facial covering he can only drink through a straw.
He is not allowed to speak.
By the end of the day he is exhausted.
Tradition holds that he will bring good luck to the town if they give him whisky and money, and that bad luck will result if the custom is discontinued.
Only men born in the village can take on the role of the Burryman.
Although local residents must apply annually to the local council for the dubious honour, some have held the office for several years.
Alan Reid was the Burryman for 25 years (until 1999); his successor, John Nichol, took over till 2011.
MAKING THE BURRY COSTUME
The Burryman is meant to collect his covering of burrs for himself, as well as any ferns and flowers used to decorate his costume and the two flower-covered staves (poles) on which he rests his hands.
However, John Nichol admits to recruiting his family to help gather the large number of burrs: approximately 11,000 are needed.
They are then meshed together into about 25 flat panels (A3 in size), like natural Velcro, which can be wrapped around his body on the morning of the ceremony.
The process takes about half an hour.
He dresses in several layers of clothing to protect himself from their hooks.
A balaclava covers his head and face; it too is covered with burrs, leaving only small eye and mouth holes;a flower-covered bowler hat tops off the outfit.
He wears boots (his feet are the only parts of his body to remain uncovered by burrs) and has a broad, sash around his waist, currently made from a folded Royal Standard of Scotland, displaying the top half of a red lion rampant on a bright yellow background.
Similar ceremonies used to be held in other Scottish fishing communities, notably Buckie on the Moray Firth and Fraserburgh, to 'raise the herring' when there had been a poor fishing season.
THE MAD MALDON MUD RACE
The annual Mad Maldon Mud Race is a charity fundraising event which originated as a bright idea in the local pub in the 1970s.
Competitors, often in fancy dress, must make their way through the mud of the Blackwater estuary and back on a course with a total distance of 400 metres, which no doubt seems much further whilst wading through the slime!
If you don't know the area, I can assure you that Maldon mud is very black and very, very smelly!
Shoes are often lost along with dignity in the struggle to get out, but there is never a shortage of competitors.
Individuals and teams can enter, but must raise sponsorship money, for a variety of good causes.
Originally held in late December to January, the date from 2011 has shifted to Easter Monday.
Not quite so cold!
CHEESE ROLLING - A VERY DANGEROUS EVENT!
The Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake is an annual event held on the Spring Bank Holiday at Cooper's Hill, near Gloucester in the Cotswolds region of England.
It was traditionally by and for the people who live in the local village of Brockworth, but now people from all over the world take part.
The event takes its name from the hill on which it occurs.
From the top of the hill a round of Double Gloucester cheese is rolled, and competitors race down the hill after it.
The first person over the finish line at the bottom of the hill wins the cheese.
In theory, competitors are aiming to catch the cheese, however it has around a one second head start and can reach speeds up to 70 mph, enough to knock over and injure a spectator.
Traditionally, the winner of each year's contest is expected to perform a shirtless victory ascent of Cooper's Hill where he or she will return the cheese to its ceremonial plinth.
Since the fifteenth century a cheese has been rolled down this hill, and annually men, women and children have competed for it in a number of races.
Two possible origins have been proposed for the ceremony.
The first suggestion is that it evolved from a requirement for maintaining grazing rights on the common.
The second idea is that there are pagan origins for the custom of rolling objects down the hill.
It is thought that bundles of burning brushwood were rolled down the hill to represent the birth of the New Year after winter.
Connected with this belief is the traditional scattering of buns, biscuits and sweets at the top of the hill by the Master of Ceremonies.
This is said to be a fertility rite to encourage the fruits of harvest.
Each year the event becomes more and more popular, with contestants coming from all across the world to compete or even simply to spectate.
It can be quite a theatrical occasion!
In 1993, fifteen people were injured, four seriously, chasing cheeses down the one in three hill.
The cheese currently used in the event is 7-9 lb. Double Gloucester, a hard cheese typically manufactured in cylindrical blocks.
Each is protected for the rolling by a wooden casing round the side and is decorated with ribbons at the start of the race.
The current supplier is local cheesemaker Diana Smart, who has supplied the cheese since 1988.
At one time, hessian covers were put on the cheeses.
During the Second World War rationing was introduced, preventing the use of a cheese in the event.
Consequently, from 1941 to 1954 a wooden "cheese" was used instead with a piece of cheese in a hollow space in the centre of the wooden replica.
BREAKS AND BRUISES
Due to the steepness and uneven surface of the hill there are usually a number of injuries, ranging from sprained ankles to broken bones and concussion.
A first aid service is provided by the local St John Ambulance (Gloucester, Cheltenham and Stroud Divisions) at the bottom of the hill, with a volunteer rescue group on hand to carry down to them any casualties who do not end up at the bottom through gravity.
A number of ambulance vehicles attend the event, since there is invariably at least one, and often several injuries requiring hospital treatment.
Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling has been summarised as "twenty young men chase a cheese off a cliff and tumble 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital."
Cheese-rolling remains one of Britain's most popular annual events, with many more participants than are able to run in the four races.
It is the eccentrics among us who make the Great in Great Britain!
Here we can be ourselves........
Breat British Nutcases!