The ultimate dirty laugh

People come from all over the world for a lark in the murk of a bog in Wales

It is amazing the sort of things that people get up to in bogs. Some even swim in them. Snorkelling, actually, sluicing and spluttering their way through two 60-yard lengths of reeking reeds, mud, sludge, newts, tadpoles and dead dragonflies for a bank holiday lark. The World Bog Snorkelling Championships, held annually in a rancid trench just outside Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys, have become something of a cult happening at which more than the mind boggles.

It is amazing the sort of things that people get up to in bogs. Some even swim in them. Snorkelling, actually, sluicing and spluttering their way through two 60-yard lengths of reeking reeds, mud, sludge, newts, tadpoles and dead dragonflies for a bank holiday lark. The World Bog Snorkelling Championships, held annually in a rancid trench just outside Llanwrtyd Wells in Powys, have become something of a cult happening at which more than the mind boggles.

Llanwrtyd Wells (population 600) is the smallest town in Britain, but once a year it hits the big time, waves of putative bog-snorkellers from all over the world descending on the pub where it all began 15 years ago, the Neuadd Arms, which also happens to be the headquarters of the Monster Raving Loony Party, once home from home for the late Screaming Lord Sutch.

The landlord, Gordon Green, 65, is the founder, organiser and sole arbiter of the event that attracts worldwide publicity - one American, a 42-year-old property manager from Cape Cod, entered this year after reading about it in the Boston Globe - has baffled Lineker's lot on They Think It's All Over and is logged in the book Eccentric Britain as one of the most bizarre sporting odysseys (shouldn't that be oddities?) of our time.

Green, a Mancunian, dreamed up the idea after a late-night drinking session when regulars debated how they might raise money for a badly needed community centre. Green decided the answer lay in the local bogs, and the dirtiest of all sports was born.

Which is why, with teeming rain winning its spasmodic bouts against the sun, about 500 of us squelched and slithered across a muddy field towards the specially cut black hole of Llanwrtyd Wells, while 58 competitors - a record - queued with their snorkels and flippers to register at a fiver a time for the chance to submerge themselves with the plankton and other forms of unpleasant pond-life, not to mention the landlord's spectacles which he lost a few years ago while inspecting the course.

Local medics patrolled the bank just in case anyone needed to be hauled out and resuscitated. But apart from swallowing a mouthful or two of the treacly, dark-brown water there were no casualties, and no one has ever demanded a jab. Indeed, back in 1732 the then Vicar of Llanwrtyd reckoned sulphurous waters from what was known as the Stinking Well cured his scurvy.

So what's it like, we enquired of a lady competitor? "A bit like swimming through Bisto," she gasped. "Though I imagine Bisto tastes a bit better." One by one they took the plunge throughout the afternoon, many wearing the advised wet-suits, because otherwise, they say, it takes a good week to get all the black bits out of the various orifices.

No one is allowed to use a conventional swimming stroke, just a doggy- paddle, which is why the fastest time seemed to be accomplished by a local terrier who decided to show the human bog-snorkellers how it should be done.

Apart from the odd canine contender there was a man called Horse and another called Whale, though he floundered about for some four-and-a-half minutes before giving up. The oldest competitor, 51-year-old Edmund Coady, a sales director from up the road in Beulah, has had a kidney transplant, and there was a larger-than-life lady, Julia Galvin, from Co Kerry, who is using bog-snorkelling as therapy after a near-crippling car crash.

As well as the American, Eric McLoughlin, there were a couple of Aussies, a New Zealander and a whole bevy of boggies from Ireland who turned it into something of a submariners' Cheltenham. Inevitably the Irish, who admit they know a bit about bogs, produced the new men's champion, 40-year-old John Cantillon, a community welfare officer from Dublin, whose winning time of 1min 39sec was about the equivalent of Ben Johnson's 100m run in Seoul, slicing five seconds off the existing world record.

A touch of EPO behind the new bog standard, we jokingly suggested? "Not at all, nothing stronger than Guinness," he laughed. "And lots of line-dancing." Actually, Cantillon had been practising in peat, winning the Irish title in his only other bog snorkel, but he also plays underwater hockey (known as octopush) and underwater rugby, though he reckons nothing matches the bog experience.

So how would he describe conditions? "Well," he said, "the Irish have a nice adjective, scuttery. It's usually applied to the word shite. Actually it's not as bad as all that. A bit dirty and smelly perhaps, but the real problem is you can't see a thing. It's a bit like running in the dark."

Gemma Davies, an 18-year-old university student and part-time lifeguard from Tonypandy, won the women's event in 1min 54sec. Everyone went home dirty but happy, the winners with a £50 cheque apiece and a year's supply of ice-cream, courtesy of the sponsors, Ben and Jerry's. The Cystic Fibrosis charity also benefited from an occasion which Green denies is a bit of a dirty joke.

"For a start you need to be quite athletic, and it's not really unhygienic. The bog has an underwater spring which cleans it. The minerals are also very good for the skin and no one has ever complained of being ill afterwards."

Llanwrtyd Wells has another claim to fame as the scene of the annual man v horse race. David Sutch did his final gig at the Neuadd Arms, and in his memory Green is pondering several other wacky ideas. They already have a mountain-bike bog-leaping event (cancelled this year because of insurance problems) and mountain-bike bog-snorkelling, when the tyres are filled with water and the riders wear lead belts and bricks to weigh them down. Green is thinking of turning it into a triathlon (running to the bog, cycling through it and then snorkelling it).

There is also the Real Ale Wobble, where mountain bikers are given free beer at checkpoints along a 40-mile course, and Green is also exploring the possibility of mud-diving and a chariot race around the town. Not in the bogs, though, he says. That really would be playing silly-boggers.

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