Wormston Churchill vs Kaiser Wormhelm – The First Worm War at Blackawton’s Festival of Wormcharming

Written by Grant Mills on . Posted in European Bazaar, Festivals, Nature, Photography, Society, Travel

Well here we are: 7 festivals down, and over 20 yet to go in European Bazaar. But already we have a clear front-runner for the best and most bizarre festival in the One Small World Awards! Will anyone be able to eclipse the friendly lunacy of Blackawton’s International Festival of Wormcharming?

Wormcharming-26Looking out over the lush, green, crosshatched hills of England’s south-west coast, lies the charming hamlet of Blackawton. The village looks as if it had once occupied a large area over the surrounding hilltops but that time, over the course of centuries, had caused its houses to slowly pool downhill. After navigating the narrow country lanes, which themselves feel sunken next to the height of the tangled hedgerows, you find yourself in Blackawton’s quiet main street.

As with any such situation in England, when you are in need of information, you should head to the pub. In Blackawton there are two, which share the duties of organising each year’s Wormcharming festivities: the restaurant-style offerings of The Normandy Arms (known as The Wormandy Arms for the occasion) and the typical English ale pub of The George Inn.

Wormcharming-5It’s at ‘The George’ I find the key organisers of the wriggly event I’m here to witness, taking a break from their lists of tasks for a healthy meal of chips, sausages and beer. Over the course of the next few days I would spend in Blackawton, there is one unwavering constant: the generosity and kindness of the locals.

No sooner do you meet them than you feel that you are one of them. Their enthusiasm, their sincere sense of community and their cracking sense of humour go on to echo through the whole event.

Peeing for posterity

But what exactly is Wormcharming, I hear you ask? Well I can now tell you it is as bizarre as it sounds. And its origins lie in the greatest genesis story ever told. (Sorry God).

Wormcharming-13As legend tells, it was a Sunday afternoon at the pub in the good old days of 12 til 2 drinking. One fellow had had a few too many beers and went to relieve himself in the garden (or a field, depending on who’s telling). As he was duly voiding himself he noticed that the worms, thinking that this torrent was a heavy shower, came wriggling to the surface. Being in a most humorous mood, the man return to the pub and challenged his mates to see how many worms they could each charm from the earth, no doubt utilising a similar manner. The rest is history.

In 2014, The International Festival of Wormcharming celebrated its 30th year, though it is now far more family friendly than its original incarnation. It also now encompasses a Beer Festival at The George, a Dog Show offering prizes in such categories as ‘The Waggiest Tail’, a full afternoon of music and an auction that has to be experienced to be believed. This year’s theme was the First Worm War in honour of 100 years since the beginning of the Great War.

Other than the attendees that go to great trouble to dress with the theme, there are a host of interesting official characters that surround the day, keeping things to a suitable standard of strange.

  • The Worm Master: The MC of the day. Can be relied to give you all the rules and wisdom he’s supposed to – and some that he’s not supposed to. See the Worm Master’s, Worms of Engagement below.
  • Old Father Wormcharming: This Worm wizard ensures that the children are entertained and that the parents are tasting of the region’s fine ales. A positive and benevolent influence.
  • Two Official Judges: Who will be sifting out any cheaters that might try to wriggle through the net.
  • And an Official Cheat accompanied by a Junior Official Cheat: Who will be doing anything they can to undermine the ‘serious’ nature of the event, from reporting on the Judges movements during the Charming, to selling pre-dug worms to the highest bidders. They are the innocent faces of the general chaos that ensues.

(Terms of Engagement, get it?…oh, never mind…)

  1. Wormcharming-19Each team has a 1m x 1m square patch of ground and 15 minutes in which to ‘charm’ as many worms from the ground as possible without digging or forking them out.
  2. Wormcharming teams consist of three people including:
    • A Charmerer: to charm the worms out of the ground
    • A Pickerer, who will pick the worms once they have come to the surface
    • A Counterer who will count the worms
  3. You are allowed to bring your own Contraption. For example, in 2013 the winner of the Best Contraption award had bought a hand dynamo with which he ran current through his patch of ground to force the worms out. In 2014 the Best Contraption team didn’t bring a contraption so much as a full band in order to coax the worms with music.
  4. You are also allowed to bring your own liquids for pouring on your patch, any concoction or magic potion is allowed. But keep in mind that you have to drink some of it in front of the Official Judges to prove that there is nothing in it that will harm the worms.
  5. And finally for some Worm Master Wisdom:

“In reality it’s a mad free for all, where everybody rips up as much…no, it’s not. It’s a highly skillful, dedicated and professional undertaking. I’ll be back in about 10 minutes to give you the order of the day. The Official Cheat, Peter, will continue to try and sell you worms. I must warn you, don’t buy them unless it’s for at least two pounds. Thank you”


Leave no worm behind

Wormcharming-6Is worm charming fun? Absolutely. Is it frantic? Definitely! Is it bizarre? Without a doubt. Watch people dancing around on their mud-soaked ground loudly singing songs they think the worms would like or witness fathers teaching their kids to tap their fingers on the grass to imitate the falling of rain. I even heard that it was one girl’s intention to skip with a rope until the worms came out to see.

It is easily the most fun you can have with a square of dirt and a kooky idea.

And this year the winning patch of dirt yielded 105 worms! So you’d best get your thinking caps on.

Every year the event raises money for the Devon Air Ambulance and other local charities, and in 2014 will have raised well over 2000 pounds. In years past they have had teams from all over Europe and even one from China.

Wormcharming-21But I did not hear any talk of there ever having been an Australian team!! Come on Aussies, get your act together!

Yet most importantly, if you’re going to visit Blackawton you must stay the night there, because to really enjoy The International Festival of Wormcharming you have to witness The Auction.

In the front room of The George Inn, after all the other tourists have gone home, you get to witness the close community spirit of Blackawton first hand as they bid ludicrously (and hilariously) for a host of serious and not-so-serious items, all in the name of charity.

I won’t say too much other than watching a man standing in the middle of a pub, with his jeans around his ankles, bidding to buy his own braces back from the auctioneer who had purloined them, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a very long time.

In closing, you’ll come to Blackawton for the Wormcharming, but you’ll stay because of the people. They make this strangest of festivals one of the most sincere and entertaining ways to spend a weekend.

Thanks Blackawton and good luck for 2015!

Click on any of the pictures below to see the full gallery! And don’t forget to LIKE One Small World on Facebook

Where: Blackawton, Devon, England
When: Happens in early May (see the website for more exact details closer to the date)
Information: http://www.wormcharming.co.uk
How much: 3 pound entry for a team of 3.
Why: Because it’s brilliant!

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