Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

World Nettle Eating Championships

The World Nettle Eating Championships have been held at the Bottle Inn, Marshwood, on the Dorset/Devon border most years for about 30 years.  According to the Inn’s website in 2008:

‘Nettles [Urtica dioica] first came to the fore at the Bottle Inn around 1986, when two farmers were having an argument about who had the longest nettles on their land.  The landlady … commented “What makes you think you have the longest nettles, we’ll have a competition open to everyone in the area and we’ll see who has the longest nettles.'” The Longest Stinging Nettle Competition was born.                                                                                          The competition had been running for three years when local hospital porter and ex-guardsman Alex Williams entered a stinging nettle 15ft 6ins long, he said at the time, “If anyone beats that I’ll eat it.”  An American couple on holiday staying in the area came up with a nettle 16ft long and Alex true to his word promptly ate the nettle.’

In 1997 the pub’s landlord decided to hold a musical Summer Solstice event, and asked his customers to suggest suitable sideshows.  Alex asked for a corner of the beer garden and challenged anybody to eat more nettles than he could.  In 1999 80-year-old Terry ‘Bluey’ Hunt from nearby Axminster managed to eat 34ft of nettles, and in 2010 and 2014 the winners managed 80ft.  However, it is not the entire nettle stalk which is eaten, it is only the leaves.  In 2001 the landlord explained:

They don’t eat the stalks, they would be far too indigestible.  The secret is to get the leaves past your lips without touching them.  You must not let your lips get dry – I sell a lot of cask-conditioned ale during the contest.’

The consumption of ale inevitably leads to another problem; any contestant who needs to leave the competition to urinate is disqualified.

The competition probably had its heyday in the early part of the twenty-first century. On 17 June 2006, when the event was held in a field adjacent to the pub, about 40 contestants, typically young men, were watched by about 150 spectators, each of whom were charged a £5 admission fee, for which they received a wrist-band and an glass engraved with the words ‘World Stinging Nettle Eating Competition and Beer Festival.  The Bottle Inn, Marshwood’.  The nettles were cut in 2ft lengths and when competitors had finished eating the leaves the bare stems were placed in glasses so that they could later be counted.  After about 20 minutes one competitor was disqualified, and thereafter several other competitors left, either disqualified or giving up.  During the second half-hour excitement grew, with people shouting encouragement to their favourites.  Towards the end people who were seated on the grass got up and stood near the competitors’ table, and everyone joined in the final countdown: ‘Five, four, three, two, one!’  Thus, after an hour’s eating the judges counted each competitor’s bare stalks and announced the male and female winners.

Thereafter the competition ran into difficulties as the pub’s future seemed precarious (see other postings on this website), but in 2018 new records were achieved with the winning man consuming 104ft and two women each managing to eat 62ft.

In 2019, when the competition was held on 27 July, tables were set up in front of the pub in its car park, and about 100 people watched about 16 contestants, about six of whom dropped out before completing the whole hour.  The whole event was somewhat perfunctory with little attention being paid to any rules –  some of the stalks which had supposedly had their leaves eaten appeared little different from stalks which had not been eaten.

Main image, Tony Jeyes, male winner of the 2019 competition, who ate 17.7 m of nettles; upper inset poster for 1998 event; other inset photographs taken in 2019.

Edited 23 January 2020.