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Quirkiness and eccentricity are part and parcel of British culture — dozens of things about the Brits seem to baffle the rest of the world. There’s an ingrained love of “queueing,” apologies for being apologetic, eccentric wigs worn by court judges, and a seriousness about tea drinking — to name a few. The same can be said for Britain’s traditional sporting events. While many are happy to play golf, rugby, football (never soccer), and tennis, other Brits like to take things to the extreme. For centuries, people have been chasing cheese down a hill, throwing logs of wood into the air, and running through towns with bags of wool and flaming barrels on their backs. Here are eight of the most bizarre sports to discover when visiting the United Kingdom.
Cheese Rolling (England)
What’s more fun than chasing an eight-pound round of Double Gloucester cheese down a hill? For more than 200 years, people have come to the Cotswolds village of Brockworth, Gloucestershire, in late May to be crowned the Cheese Rolling champion. Competitors line up at the top of the near- vertical Cooper’s Hill, lapping up the cheers of an excited crowd numbering in the thousands. The Double Gloucester is released, and the competitors run, roll, bounce, and tumble after the cheese, which gains breakneck speeds down the 590-foot hill. The first to reach the bottom wins the race. The grand prize, of course, is the cheese they chased.
Woolsack Races (England)
Just 20 miles down the road from Cooper’s Hill, the Cotswolds town of Tetbury is home of the ancient tradition of Woolsack Races. Competitors start at the bottom of a hill, haul a bag of wool — 60 pounds for men and 35 pounds for women — and race up and down a demanding 240-yard-long route. Local lore says that races were first held in the 1600s, when Tetbury was one of Britain’s most renowned wool markets. Drunken young drovers (cattle herders) believed they could woo and impress the town’s women by showing off their strength and endurance. They raced between two pubs situated at either end of the hill. Just as then, pints of locally brewed beer await racegoers today.
River Football (England)
Also in the Cotswolds, Bourton-on-the-Water is often ranked among England’s prettiest villages. Its stone cottages, duck-filled river, quaint teahouses, and craft shops could be lifted from a movie set. But in August, a rowdier atmosphere permeates the air for the annual river football event. Goalposts are set up in the ankle-deep waters of the River Windrush, and the ducks swim downstream for the afternoon. Then two teams of six, made up of players from the local football club, vie to become the year’s victors. With hundreds of spectators standing on the riverbanks, it’s not only the players that can get a soaking. True to the sport’s quirky nature, tradition states that the referee is a man dressed as a woman.
Royal Shrovetide Football (England)
As its name suggests, football is a game played with the feet. But this isn’t always the case in England. Make your way to the Peak District on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday) to witness one of the most barbaric and dangerous extant forms of football on record. This medieval game pits the residents of opposing halves of the market town of Ashbourne against each other. It’s the Up’Ards versus the Down’Ards, and the aim is to get the ball to a post on your opponent’s side of town. At 2 p.m. the ball is thrown into the crowd — hundreds of townsfolk hug, push, and shove each other through the streets and across muddy fields. Games last until 10 p.m. and anyone who scores a goal becomes a lifelong local hero.
Caber Tossing (Scotland)
An emblematic image of Scottish sports is hulking men dressed in tartan kilts while throwing huge Larch tree trunks. This is caber tossing, one of the main events of the summertime Highland Games. The task is simple; throw the caber — taken from the Gaelic word for wooden beam — so that it lands end-over-end in the 12 o’clock position. However, the caber weighs some 175 pounds and is almost 20 feet tall. Tossers are given three attempts at tossing, but given the strength and technique required, it gets harder with each effort. There’s debate as to the origins of the sport, but some say it evolved from lumberjacks throwing trees into streams to transport them; others claim that logs were tossed over chasms to form bridges.
Tin Bath Racing (Isle of Man)
What to do on a summer’s day in July in Castletown, the ancient capital of the self-governing Isle of Man? Head to the harbor and watch as 100-plus entrants attempt to complete a 440-yard course in a tin bathtub, of course. The World Tin Bath Championship began in 1971 and today welcomes competitors from all corners of the globe. There are strict rules, such as the length and material of the bathtub and what alterations can and can’t be made. Racers can power their vessel using only either a single or double-bladed paddle. Despite this, there are no restrictions on a vessel’s decorations, which makes the race a flamboyant affair.
Bog Snorkeling (Wales)
Travel to central Wales in late August for the muckiest sporting event on this list. The annual Bog Snorkeling World Championship sees brave souls partake in a one-of-a-kind test of endurance. Armed with a snorkel, mask, and flippers, participants try to complete two laps of the 120-yard-long Waen Rhydd peat bog. It’s dark, smelly, and bone-chillingly cold. Moreover, the rules stipulate that no recognized swimming stroke is allowed. Instead, swimmers must invent new ways to propel themselves. There’s even a grueling triathlon that includes one lap of the bog. Like many of the world’s zaniest events, bog snorkeling was conceived in a pub. It also strives to highlight the importance of peat bogs to the ecosystem.
Tar Barrel Racing (England)
Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, is a tradition celebrated throughout the United Kingdom every November. Bonfires and firework displays honor the day Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 but were thwarted — saving the King’s life. In Ottery St. Mary, Devon, they take the festivities to extreme levels. Here it is completely normal to set fire to a beer barrel soaked in tar, balance it on your shoulders, and run through the town’s streets. In the beginning, the custom of Tar Barrels was to roll them, but the daredevil townsfolk soon decided that this was too tame. Today men, women, and children as young as seven from the town participate in this exhilarating and unique event.