‘Never shoot with a wonky pea!’: meet the alternative world champions

‘Never shoot with a wonky pea!’: meet the alternative world champions

Sally Redman-Davies, peashooting world champion, 2018 and 2019

Two years ago, I found myself on the village green in Witcham in Cambridgeshire. It was my birthday and my boyfriend Ian had “treated” me by taking me to the world peashooting championship. Being a local, he had entered the competition for many years, and won twice. I had no idea what to expect.

The competition was started in 1971 by John Tyson, a local schoolteacher. After confiscating some peashooters in the playground, he had the idea of holding a competition to raise funds to build a village hall.

You stand 12ft away from a target that’s 1ft in diameter; it’s filled with putty and has three rings. The inner ring, which has a similar diameter to that of a tin can, has a score of five points, the middle ring scores three points and the outer ring scores one point. Sometimes the peas stick in the putty, sometimes they don’t, but that’s not important. It’s all about the pea leaving an impression in the putty when it hits the target.

The peashooter tube can be either metal or plastic, but it must be 12in long. Some of them are fitted with laser sights. The peas are hard and brown, and it’s best for them to fit the inside of the tube almost exactly. You don’t want them rattling around inside. You can get some square-ish ones in a packet that have shrivelled a little, but they can catch in the tube. Never shoot with a wonky pea!

I thought it would be a bit of a laugh. There’s a qualifying round, where you fire five peas one after another. There might be hundreds of people taking part, but it’s only the 16 top scorers who go through into the knockout stages. It was only after I qualified that I realised I really wanted to win. I got very, very competitive.

I reached the women’s final against Michelle Berry who was the reigning – and four-time – world champion. In the final, you each shoot 10 peas. Michelle only dropped points with two of her peas, so she scored 46. But I scored 48, missing just one bullseye out of 10 peas. There are four competitions: the juniors, the women’s, the team and the open, which is mainly men. Had I entered the open competition, I would have won that, too. Ian won the open title again, but my score was greater than his.

I used to target-shoot with rifles. I enjoyed the discipline and concentration needed for that. There are similarities with peashooting: holding your breath, deciding the moment to shoot, and so on. But you’re standing up. I used to target-shoot from a prone position.

You have to factor in any wind, plus – if it’s very sunny – you can’t see the laser. There’s a lot of heckling as well, both from the crowd and between opponents. The women tend to be very polite to one another, but the men are horrendous. They’ll say something rude just as that person’s about to take a shot.

I was so nervous when it came to defending my crown last year. I was up against a young lady called Madeline, a previous junior champion. It was touch and go, but I managed to retain the title. So I’m now the 48th and 49th women’s world champion.

This year was going to be the 50th championships, but I suppose peashooting is probably one of the least Covid-safe sports to do – blowing down a tube and having spit-flecked peas picked out of the target by an official. It did at least mean the pressure was off until next year.

Mike Cresswell, 17-times lawn-mower racing world champion

Mike Cresswell the lawn-mower racing World champion

I started in about 1993. A friend was building a lawn mower to race, so I thought I’d build one, too. I went to a garden centre in Woking and bought an old scrap mower: it was just a pile of bits, but I’ve never looked back.

I didn’t do very well for the first couple of years, so I spent six months building myself a new mower: a 24-inch Atco, and it was perfect. Working as a mechanic by day definitely helped. The mower handled really well and just kept going and going. No one beat me for five or six years.

The sport has four categories. Group 1 is for those really old-fashioned cylinder mowers that you walk up and down your garden with; the gearing is changed and the racers run behind their mowers. Group 2, the category I race in, features roller-driven mowers – the kind you might see groundsmen cutting cricket pitches with, only with a towed seat attached to them. The engine is also modified, so it revs a bit faster. It’s like riding a motocross bike, with handlebars, throttle and brake levers; it’s just that your backside is right next to the ground. A group 3 machine is a sit-on garden mower of anything up to about 14 horsepower, while group 4 mowers are effectively bonneted tractors.

It’s a comparatively cheap motorsport. You could build a really good mower for about £1,200. And, unless you blow the engine up, you’re only going to spend £200 or £300 a year maintaining it. Including entry fees and fuel, you could probably do an entire weekend of racing for under 50 quid.

The world championship is decided by 24 races over the course of a weekend, but there’s also an annual 12-hour race that goes through the night, with the winning team being the one that completes the most laps. The track for this is about three-quarters of a mile long (1.2km) with 20 or so bends and two long straights, along which Group 2 mowers get up to around 45mph. That might not seem very fast, but when your bum is two inches from the ground, it feels pretty quick.

It still hurts when you crash at that speed. We’ve had broken legs, arms, ribs and collarbones over the years, but I’ve only ever fractured my wrist, because the Group 2 mowers have a low centre of gravity. It’s the bonneted tractors that tend to go out of control.

As a multiple world champion, everyone’s waiting for me to mess up

It can be quite a tactical sport, as everyone is racing with the same amount of horsepower. Over the years, you learn to ride your mower with less physical force and more finesse. This enables you to ride a mower faster by – for instance, knowing how to ride into and out of a corner while keeping your speed up. It’s an art form.

I’ve been British champion 21 times and world champion 17 times. Last year, I got presented with a certificate that said I was the most successful lawn-mower racer ever. When I became world champion for the eighth time, I used to joke that I’d gone one better than Michael Schumacher.

There’s no animosity among us. Once the racing’s over, we light up the barbecue, have some beers and chew the fat. But as a multiple world champion, everyone’s waiting for me to mess up. I’m 61 now, and the guys who have me in their sights are half my age. They want to beat me before I slow down.

Danielle Sidebottom, coal-carrying world champion, 2018 and 2019

Two-times coal-carrying world champion, Danielle Sidebottom, on Killer Hill, the final climb of the uphill road race, in Gawthorpe, Yorkshire

The world championships take place in the village of Gawthorpe, near Huddersfield, every Easter Monday. The event was first held in 1963, after two blokes had an argument in the local pub about who could carry a sack of coal the farthest. That’s where it all started – the result of some bar-room bragging.

The winner is whoever runs the course fastest: it’s three-quarters of a mile (1.2km) and largely uphill. The women’s sacks weigh 20kg, which is about the same as a full suitcase. The men’s sacks weigh 50kgs. I don’t know how they do it; their legs are bowing under the weight.

I got involved when I became a teacher at Gawthorpe academy. The course goes right past the school, on the street that’s known as Killer Hill. I want to represent the local community, and motivate the children, but I do feel the nerves and the pressure.

I didn’t really do any training the first time. My mum suggested that I run up the hill at least once carrying something heavy, so that I knew I could do it. I think she didn’t want me to embarrass myself. So I went down to the local golf club and one of the greenkeepers filled my rucksack with sand from the bunkers. It weighed about 30kg, but I ran the course with it and knew it would be fine. There’s a big difference between a bag of sand and a bag of coal, though. Sand moulds itself to your shoulders and neck, whereas coal is knobbly and unpredictable.

I came fourth that first time, out of around 20 competitors. I surprised myself. Since then, I’ve run it six or seven times. I came third and second, and was elated when I won in 2018. I was declared the winner again in 2019, so was gutted that it got cancelled this year. I was in really good shape and going for the hat-trick.

You need strong legs, and good lungs to cope with the coal dust

The early part of the course is a slight, steady incline, then there’s a gentle downhill part before you turn on to Killer Hill. At this point, I’ll be thinking about what treats I can have afterwards – maybe a pizza or some chocolate. You make a few sacrifices when you’re training, so you can definitely have a bit of a post-race blowout. The crowds tend to be at their thickest at the top of Killer Hill and that spurs you on to the finish, where you throw your bag down at the maypole on the village green.

You need strong legs, but you also need good lungs. Your throat gets so dry from inhaling the coal dust. I have a sack of coal at home that I practise with, but every time I use it I get covered in dust. So I’ve started using a rucksack filled with water bottles wrapped in towels, to replicate the lumpiness of coal.

Thanks to endurance competitions, such as Total Warrior and Tough Mudder, people want to try these extreme events, to push themselves to the limit. The coal race is getting more and more popular. We now have three races for men, two for women and two for veterans aged 40 and over, as well as kids’ fun races without sacks.

I don’t think about the other competitors. Each time I just try to beat my performance from the previous year and get as close as possible to the world record time, which is 4 minutes and 25 seconds, set by Catherine Fenton in 2011. I’m a good 20 seconds off it at the moment.

Marc Chapman, crazy golf world champion, 2018 and 2019

Marc Chapman

I lived on the Costa del Sol as a teenager and played big golf, as we call it, fairly regularly. I wasn’t anything special – just an average youth player. But then I discovered the giant canyon between paying youth rates and a full-whack adult membership of more than a grand a year. That was when I stopped playing.

I needed to find a new hobby, and came across an article in a Sunday supplement about the world crazy golf championships that take place every year in Hastings. The prize was £1,000, and the course wasn’t too far from me, in Canterbury, Kent. I used to play pool a lot, so judging angles and the pace of the ball were relevant. I thought I could apply the same philosophy to minigolf, which is the official name of the sport known in the UK as crazy golf.

I found out that there was a British minigolf circuit, with a group of people from all over the country meeting up once or twice a month. I was hooked after my first event, where I won the top novice prize. At my first world championship in 2009, I came seventh, one place outside the prize money. I missed out on a couple of hundred quid by a single shot. So the fire in me said, right, next year.

The world title was my obsession; it kept haunting me

I went on to win other events on the circuit: I was both British Open champion and British Masters champion within two years of taking up the sport. But the world title was my obsession; it kept haunting me. I came fourth and fifth a few times, but could never seem to make the top three. I finally won my first one in 2018 and my second in 2019. This year I was supposed to be going for my hat-trick.

Most minigolf courses are found in seafront locations, which means the wind and rain can play havoc. We played through StJude’s storm in 2013, which was insane. You had the strange sight of players hurriedly chasing after their ball immediately after taking a shot, so they could mark its position before the wind blew it all the way back again. We play in any weather, except lightning: that’s the rule. Personally, I like playing in bad conditions, because I know everyone else hates it. If they’re all grumbling about how soaked through they are, I’m just smiling inside. “Good: there’s another one who won’t be winning.”

No one is full-time within the sport in the UK. There are a few players who are lucky to have enough money to travel around playing for fun, and to chase the big-money events in the US. There’s an annual series in Las Vegas called the Major Series of Putting, the prize money for which is a quarter of a million dollars. Logically, that would be the next test for me.

The golf bodies don’t recognise minigolf. Sport England doesn’t recognise our governing body, meaning we’re not eligible for lottery funding. Certain other minority sports – Ultimate Frisbee, say – are. Yes, it’s a fun activity that tens of millions of people do every year without thinking it’s a proper sport; but if you want to play semi-competitively with a group of people for pocket money, you can do that, too. It’s completely accessible – male or female, old or young. You don’t need to have played big golf before. You don’t need any athletic prowess. You can rock up without any equipment, get a ball and a putter from the hut, and off you go.

It’s all about millimetres. It’s a game of precision, finesse, skill, physical and mental stamina. You can’t be relaxed or blase. You’ve got to be in that moment. You’ve got to know when it’s show time.