The tiny town that's home to every sport you've never heard of.

Dispatches from the dark corners of sports.
July 26 2004 2:05 PM

Small Wonder

The littlest town in Britain is home to every sport you've never heard of.

Illustration by Keith Seidel

As is often the case with fairy tales, it all started with a frog. One day in 1732, while strolling through the wilds of Wales, the sickly Vicar of Llanwrtyd stumbled upon a foul-smelling spring. He gazed into the bubbling muck and, to his surprise, a rudely healthy frog popped out. The priest swallowed a mouthful of swamp and was instantly cured of his scurvy.

During its Victorian heyday, the hamlet of Llanwrtyd (pronounced Hlanurted) Wells transformed into a bustling spa resort where British gentry flocked to take the waters—chalybeate for anemia, sulphur for the complexion. Today, villagers mostly revel in the accomplishment of living in the tiniest town (pop. 606) in Britain. But what the vowel-deprived frog hamlet lacks in size, it makes up for in crackpot competitions.


Llanwrtyd Wells hosts every contest from the Man vs. Horse Marathon—a spring rite that pits Brit against Beast—to the World Bog Snorkeling Championships, to the Mountain Bike Bog Leaping Point-to-Point, a summer offering that is promoted as the dirtiest weekend in athletics. There's also the Real Ale Ramble (a kind of athletic pub crawl), the Real Ale Wobble (off-road cyclists stop at checkpoints on the course for free brew), the Red Kite Bash (bike-dismantling limbo contest, bike polo, chainless downhill), and the decidedly squidgy World Mountain Bike Bog Snorkeling Championships.

The man responsible for all this self-conscious nuttiness is Gordon Green, the town's chief kook and PR agent. An irascible 69-year-old with hair the color of old clothesline and a becalmed, moonstruck humor, Green is the former landlord of the Neuadd Arms, a Georgian hotel that seems to have been patterned after Fawlty Towers (or vice versa). "Bog snorkeling became truly international the year a Spaniard entered," he says, neglecting to mention the Spaniard worked at the Neuadd Arms.

Green will guide you on a town tour, starting with the small stone bridge that straddles the River Ifron. Down the road is Bernard's Bakery, where a window notice says: "Dogs parked at owner's risk." Farther on stands a plaque commemorating Sospan Fach, an allegedly famous Welsh song written in Llanwrtyd Wells. The sad refrain: "The little saucepan is boiling on the fire/ The little saucepan is boiling on the fire/ And the cat has passed away." Not one to let the allegedly famous go unmemorialized, Green has raised $6,000 to erect a giant stainless-steel cooking pot as tribute to this homegrown canticle to kittens and kitchenware.

No matter its dimensions, the souped-up saucepan likely won't rival the wattage of Green's most famous creation, the Man vs. Horse Marathon. It all started in 1980, as a bar bet in the Neuadd Arms. Emboldened by several pints of Double Dragon, two huntsmen debated whether a man was equal to a horse over the rugged terrain of the Cambrian mountains. Green overheard the argument and, like a brazen reality show producer, turned private dispute into public race. Bookmaker William Hill, who now sponsors the mad dash, offered £25,000 sterling to the first human who could outlast the equine competition over 22 miles of hills, woods, and bogs. The booty remained unclaimed until last month, when 27-year-old Huw Lobb of London beat 565 other bipeds and 47 quadripeds.

The town's obsession with bog snorkeling isn't as high-minded as the quest to settle the man vs. beast debate. "Llanwrtyd Wells needed funds for a new community center," Green recalls. "We held a meeting and a woman said, 'All I have in my garden is a bog.' That's how I came up with bog snorkeling."

What, exactly, was the connection between a bog and snorkeling?

"That, I don't know."

Snorkelers must complete two lengths of a turbid 60-yard trench cut through a peat bog. The swimming is done facedown, against both the clock and what Green calls the "natural bog ingredients"—sludge, rotting weeds, and a floating carpet of leeches, newts, tadpoles, water scorpions, and decaying dead stuff. Mask, flippers, and wetsuits are allowed; conventional strokes are not. Most entrants sluice and splutter through the thick glop using a sort of bog paddle. Asked to describe what competitors might expect to see in the muddy waters, former champ Sian Evans has said, "Not much."



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Sept. 19 2014 2:06 PM The Guest and Fort Bliss How do we tell the stories of soldiers returning home from war?
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.