The Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant, native and widespread in Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America. It also hurts like crazy. Covered in thousands of microscopic hypodermic needles, a cocktail of chemicals pour over and burn the skin when the tips are disturbed. Little more than an annoyance to most, nettles have also been eaten since antiquity, usually cooked like spinach or in soups, and are unusually nutritious.
The sport of competitive nettle eating is a modern creation. In 1986, two neighbouring farmers were having a drink in the Bottle Inn, in Marshwood, Dorset. Both had infestations of the weed and were arguing whose nettles were longest. The initial ‘mine is bigger than yours’ local competition this provoked lasted three years, until one competitor, Alex Williams, declared that he would eat whichever nettle beat his 15’6 monstrosity. When this duly happened, Williams gamely ingested, and continued to do so whenever he lost the competition until 1997.
At that time, new owner Shane Pym took over the Bottle Inn and instituted a summer beer festival, at which Williams took on all-comers at nettle-eating. From there, it was only a small step to the fully-fledged world championship which exists today.
The World Stinging Nettle Eating Championship, to give its full title, is held annually in mid-June, usually just before the summer solstice, in the beer garden and car park of the Bottle Inn. From small beginnings it has gained significant notoriety, attracting competitors from around the world as well as crowds of upto a thousand.
Due to the potential for skulduggery by competitors, nettles for the championship are all grown by local landowner Richard Hooper, who also acts as competition judge. The nettles are distributed in two foot portions, and the cumulative length calculated by measuring the combined stalks that have successfully been cleared of leaves.
The rules are strict, with disqualification automatic for spitting leaves out, vomiting, hiding them, or leaving the competition table for the toilet – which, as nettles are a virulent laxative, is quite a limitation. The competitors eat for an hour (or as much of an hour as they can stomach), before the stalks are counted and the King of the Stingers declared.
Critical to the championship’s outcome (according to the Daily Telegraph) is the quality and character of each season’s nettles. Much is determined by the weather with lush, moist plants considered more palatable than the drier variety. Nearly all the big scores have been achieved after wet conditions.
All Time King of the Stingers: Simon Sleigh of Hawkchurch – 76ft
All Time Queen of the Stingers: Mel Lang of West Bay – 48ft