‘Problem is that all the best stones you’ve had, you’ve thrown away…” – Ron, back-to-back ‘Old Tosser’
I’ve always had a soft spot for Wales. The very same rain that sheeted through the streets and turned to mud underfoot while I was at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival, was the very same that made my onward trip deeper into the heart of Wales the most enjoyable drive of the trip so far.
This oft-forgotten part of the United Kingdom is impossibly green. The rain loses its dismal aspect when you’re driving through verdant pastures and skirting dense emerald forests. It also helps that even on a Bank Holiday long weekend the winding roads are almost deserted – one of the benefits of Wales’ reputation as the antithesis of a holiday destination.
Yet in contrast to its dull and muddy image, I was driving through this pristine countryside on my way to Welsh Stone Skimming Championships held in the centre of the weird sports universe, Britain’s smallest town, Llanwrtyd Wells. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it.
If Greece be home to the Olympic virtues of Stronger, Better, Faster then Llanwrtyd Wells is home to the human virtues of Funnier, Crazier, Messier.
And this analogy couldn’t be more fitting given that later this year the town will be hosting their own Olympics, one that people will actually want to go to. But more on that later…
A registration desk is set by the lake and numerous people are milling about, many with the large, friendly dogs that are possible for people familiar with a great deal of space. A small jetty sticks out into the lake with two lines of distance markers marking a broad arc in the water. As a sport, stone skimming measures how far one can skim a stone, not how many skims they can attain.
The man in charge is Pete, the proprietor of the local Stonecroft Inn and he points out the current reigning world champ, Dougie, who has come down from Scotland for the event and who is already nursing a pint.
Dougie is apparently also nursing a cracking hangover, the World Champ tells me. Putting down his pint he pulls a number of rocks from his pocket, each one almost perfectly round, flat and the size of his palm. They’re much larger and heavier than the stones I would have thought you’d use for skimming, but then the day was destined to give me a new appreciation for the physics of the sport.
Every year the Stone Skimming World Championships are held in Easdale, Scotland. Out of his ten World Championship attempts Dougie’s won five times. He says that when he gets to 10 world titles he’ll be able to retire.
Yet today is not for a world title, just the Welsh championships, and he’s down here ‘just for the craic’ and because it will be good practice. He laments not having practiced over winter and pre-empts a bad performance. It’s just for the craic.
The competition is simple, £5 gets you five ‘stones’, in this case, tile-like rocks that are vacuum-moulded out of Scottish hardstone grit. The Welsh have them made especially. They come in three different sizes and each size category contains three different shapes that offer a choice of grip while maintaining the same weight and surface area with the other stones in their category. I’m told that the shapes and weights were all empirically derived from extensive experimentation. Even the little Welsh dragon that is stamped on each stone is supposed to reduce the drag on the rock, like dimples on a golf ball. It’s all surprisingly exact.
With your 5 stones you skim off the jetty, trying to keep your skipping rock within the throwing arc for the greatest distance. There is a simple elegance to stone-skimming; it’s one of those skills that most people are taught as children and we never really lose our excitement at seeing our rock skitter off as if by magic.
After your five stones you’re more than welcome to buy another five and try and best yourself. The Championships offer numerous categories, including events for boys, girls, men, women and ‘Old Tossers’ for the over-60s. In addition to the men’s event there is the ‘Stoned’ event in which any competitors that have previously placed in a Stone Skimming Championship have to compete in. Which separates the pros like Dougie, from the first-timers, like me.
Despite his lack of practice and hangover Dougie, who hates the moulded stones and bought a bucket of his own real stones down from Scotland, wastes no time in throwing what might have been a new World Record, skipping his stone an incredible 120m!
Everyone from small children to Ron, the reigning Old Tosser, stride out along the jetty numerous times, in silent competition with themselves or with their friends, or trying in vain to eclipse Dougie’s impossible throw. In the end Dougie claims his 1st prize in the Stoned section, with the cheerful Tim taking out second with 111m.
Rain or shine (and Wales offered up plenty of both) stone skimming is as fun as you remember it, and the Welsh Championship surrounds you with enthusiastic experts and laughing amateurs. As soon as the prizes are awarded people already begin to talk about the next meet. I’m ruefully considering my poor results – my best throw was 67m, barely half of the World Champ’s – and am beginning to understand that niggling need for one more skip that keeps bringing these people back.
Which is fortunate because in August Llanwrtyd Wells will play host to the second World Alternative Games, their answer to the Olympics. Two weeks of the games and sports that the Official Olympic committee refuse to include. Things like Gravy Wrestling, Husband Dragging (the gender equality answer to Wife Carrying) and of course Stone Skimming. In fact, competitors are welcome to take part in over 60 of the world’s most bizarre competitive events, like Finger Jousting, Backwards Running and Belly Flopping.
Already Lonely Planet have declared it “The Coolest Place To Be in 2014” Check out the website www.worldalternativegames.co.uk for more info.
I’ll be there; will you?
Welsh Stone Skimming Championship
Where: LLanwrtyd Wells, Wales, UK
When: May Bank Holiday (See the Green Events Website for more info)
Cost: £5 for 5 throws
Why: A sport anyone can play, winning as an adult just as exciting as beating your siblings as a child!
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