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Ben le Vay’s Eccentric Britain

May 2, 2017

ebTrue eccentrics think of themselves as entirely normal, hence the serious competition that takes place in cheese-rolling and wife-carrying, and the extraordinary follies meticulously built for no apparent purpose. This book presents a list of bizarre buildings, baffling customs and daft sports, with a location map and information for places and events that can be visited.

Eccentric Britain brings together the fascinating follies, bizarre buildings, peculiar pubs, curious ceremonies and mad marquesses that make this country unique. Other countries channel their fanaticism into violence and revolution. We restore steam trains and run gnome reserves.

Compared to some of the nations of the world, the British are surely a monument to calm good sense, but our reputation for eccentricity precedes us. Tourists come here in their millions because of it.

Chipping Campden, in Gloucestershire, hosts the world shin-kicking championships later in May, while in June, leading toe-wrestlers descend in their thousands on Ashbourne in Derbyshire.

eb-3‘This sport has not been recognised at Olympic level despite repeated requests,’ writes Le Vay, more in sorrow than in anger.

He writes of Brian Radam of Southport, who has 400 lawnmowers, and used to race them, until he was unlucky enough to develop hayfever.

David Morgan of Burford in Oxfordshire collects traffic cones: he has 530 of them, all different, in his garage. He keeps standard cones in his car boot to trade for any interesting ones he encounters on his travels.

Then there is the Talbot Society, which holds gatherings for people called Talbot. The Talbots drive to Port Talbot in their Talbot cars, stopping along the way at Talbot hotels. When they arrive, they talk Talbot.

Ancient rituals, though, dominate the book. The Eton Wall Game, played since at least 1825, is ‘pointless, brutal and incomprehensible, and therefore much loved’. No one has scored a goal since 1909. At South Queensferry on the Firth of Forth, the annual festival is characterised by the Burry Man, who is covered from head to toe in burrs, the bristly hooked balls that are the fruit of the burdock.

He can’t put his legs together, in case they get stuck and can drink nothing but whisky. This has been going on every August since 1740.

le Vay’s list of the Top Ten British Eccentrics include a man who dresses as a baked bean, a chicken whisperer who wears a Marigold glove on his head, and Ted Hannaford of Kent, who loves French knitting. This produces a rope-like tube like the fingers of a glove ‘for no apparent reason,’ says le Vay. Ted has ten miles of it in a huge box, and has to keep going to stop an Australian rival breaking his world record.

Many occasions are linked to the Chuch’s calendar, e.g.Whit well-dressing in Derbyshire, clipping the chuch (a Mothering Sunday custom which he has moved to September), St. Bartholomew’s Day but unsure of the connection, frightening the devil away with discordant church bells and fireworks.

There is some unnecessary repetition/duplication.


Those who moan about social security benefits being too easily given out to today’s idle, ill-educated young people might approve of a graveside dole in Wotton, Surrey, intended to benefit local youths — on one condition. In 1717 William Glanville left 40 shillings each (then a considerable sum) to five poor boys on condition that they each lay their hands on his tomb, recite the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments from memory, read aloud from Corinthians and write two verses in a clear hand. Older villagers in Wotton can remember

Take the Revd Robert Hawker, vicar of Morwenstow, who, one night in July 1825, decided to play a trick on the superstitious people of Bude, who were always going on about sea serpents and mythical creatures. Under a full moon he rowed out to some rocks, plaited himself a wig from seaweed and wrapped his legs in more weed to resemble a tail. He sang and crooned to awestruck crowds, returning each night as the ‘mermaid’ story spread. Eventually Hawker tired of this, sang ‘God Save The King’ and plunged into the waves. When entering church to take services, he was always accompanied by nine cats; he rode a mule bareback around the parish, followed by a pet black pig called Gyp. Morwenstow Vicarage, which he built, is embellished by odd chimneystacks that are miniatures of various church towers that took his fancy. When his first wife Charlotte died — at 20 years older, she was also his godmother — he was so bereft he decided to eat nothing but clotted cream, morning, noon and night. He is also credited with inventing the modern Harvest Festival church service in 1843.

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