Over the course of one hour on the Saturday before the 2002 summer solstice, Simon Sleigh, an organic vegetable farmer from the village of Hawkchurch in Devon, England, crammed 76 feet of stinging nettles down his ravenous maw. The notion of ingesting nettles in some form isn't odd, given the ubiquity and touted health benefits of teas, infusions, and even beers made from the weed. But eating the plant straight is another matter. Spiny stalks aside, each nettle leaf is tipped with thousands of microscopic hairs that, when brushed, detach as needles and inject a cocktail of irritating chemicals into whatever flesh tries to disturb them. The tongue and throat are abraded. The mouth turns black. And sometimes the nettles start to ferment in the gut with an audible gargling noise.
Sleigh wasn't alone. He embarked on this test of endurance alongside several dozen others and a crowd of hundreds who'd turned up for one of southern England's numerous bizarre spring traditions: Dorset's own World Nettle Eating Championship, in the town of Marshwood.Contestants in the heat of battle. Photo courtesy bizarreodditiesThe competition takes place every year just before the summer solstice, the keystone event of a larger beer festival at the thatched-roofed, 500-plus-year-old Bottle Inn pub. On Saturday evening, comers and takers from all over the world (and an attendant crush of local, national, and international spectators and media) pay a varied pittance of a fee to consume 20-inch segments of nettle stalks and leaves. They have one hour to strip from the stalk as many stinging leaves as they can eat. No nettles from home, no bathroom breaks, no numbing agents. Only swigs of beer (or sometimes water) are allowed to lubricate the process. The prize is a small trophy and, usually, £100 ($166).As one suspects is the case for most of these English traditions, the competition started out as a buzzed bet between local farmers. Back in 1986, so the local story goes, a farmer named Alex Williams was complain-boasting about the size of the nettles in his fields. If anyone could show him nettles larger than the 15-foot-6-inch monsters he was cultivating, he said, he'd eat his weeds raw. Soon after, another farmer came in with a 16-foot nettle stalk. Williams did not welch on his bet. Year after year, the boasts and bets evolved into an informal tradition. Then, in 1997, a man named Shane Pym bought the Inn, noticed the competition, and saw a chance to make a buck off it. Thus was the World Nettle Eating Championship born: of booze, betting, and boisterous capitalism.
Unfortunately, the competition alone wasn't enough of a windfall or a draw to save the pub. "This place had a lot of bad history," says Nigel Blake, the current owner of the Bottle Inn, which he restored and reopened in mid 2012. Before that, he says, "it was closed for almost four years." The competition didn't die, though. Just a few miles down the road, Steve Smith of the George Inn, in Chideock, says he noticed "a fear that the tradition of eating nettles in the area would be lost." So in order to preserve it, he says, "I held the Dorset Nettle Eating Championship here in 2012." Blake doesn't buy this story, saying the George Inn swooped in knowing the Bottle was set to reopen later that year and saw its last opportunity to benefit from the competition. Either way, there was enough local demand for an afternoon of mouth sadomasochism that the competition survived the seeming death of its progenitors and a long hiatus.Perhaps it's grown popular because, like most competitive eating, consuming nettles is a cultivable skill. Blake has only participated in the competition once, "because I was being filmed on TV for the opening of the pub," he admits, but he's still an expert on nettle-eating form and will give demonstrations to patrons on how to play the game. Just fold the leaf over between your fingers, and the hairs will press down so that you won't get stung but can still enjoy the flavor—something halfway between spinach and arugula. The hitch is that the competition is a race, so those less skilled will fail to fold with speed and precision, stinging themselves to bits. And much depends on factors beyond one's control, like the heat and rain of the past season and the resultant prickliness of the year's crop. The best way to prepare, as the winner of the past two years told Blake, is to eat a big breakfast, starve into the evening, and not drink the beer.
Given that the strategy contestants use to win the competition involves not eating the pub's food or drinking its beers, hosting this yearly event might seem like an unsound business decision on the part of the Bottle. But 50 contestants can draw in crowds as large as 2,000, all of whom are gorging and guzzling, so it's well worth the investment in nettle stocks, and of course the fans are drinking the inn dry throughout the day. Best of all, says Blake, "people don't seem to get tired of it. The guy who won last year and the year before wants to come back next time, on June 7, 2014, because he wasn't happy with his record."For the contestants, coming back is a matter of skill and pride, of honing one little corner of personal greatness. But as for the audience and press, they're no longer coming or covering the event because of the novelty. In fact, nettle eating wasn't that novel to begin with when you look at some of southern England's other traditions. Up the road in Gloucestershire, they have an onion-eating competition in Newent, and a cheese-rolling competition on Cooper's Hill. To the northeast, in Whittlesey, Peterborough, men dress up as animate straw monstrosities and galumph about. And just down the road to the southwest, in Ottery St. Mary, East Devon, folks race through the night hoisting flaming wooden barrels of tar over their heads. Even the George Inn, now deprived of the chance to host the nettle-eating contest, has launched the World Garlic Eating Competition.It seems that the sun-starved peoples of this land are all looking for some invigorating, outdoorsy way of celebrating the highest hovering of the sun before slipping back toward a damp and unyielding English winter. While some of the events have ancient histories (playing with barrels engulfed in flames dates back to the days of burning witches), others are just a result of tipsy bluster. But there's no real reason to argue with that. Sometimes it's best to just drunkenly praise the sun, fuck up your mouth, and hock a roll of cheese down a hillside without thinking about it too much.