Nice ’n’ peasy

IT was a big weekend in the world of sport. As well as the World Cup final in Berlin and the Wimbledon tennis finals, the hotly-contested World Pea Shooting Championships took place in the tiny village of Witcham. Media attention hailed from far and wide

IT was a big weekend in the world of sport.

As well as the World Cup final in Berlin and the Wimbledon tennis finals, the hotly-contested World Pea Shooting Championships took place in the tiny village of Witcham.

Media attention hailed from far and wide; as well as this reporter from your number one local newspaper, and an Anglia News team, there was Russian national news channel NTV Broadcast Company and King's Lynn-based TV Concepts making a programme for Indonesian television's Bizarre, presumably their version of Tarrant on TV.

Previous competitors have hailed from America, Scandinavia, France, Spain, New Zealand and Holland. Russian cameraman Evgeny Ksenzenko ran around frantically, shooting from every angle. When questioned about the Russian interest in pea shooting, he said: "You English people are crazy. The people in Russia will love this. We really enjoy watching eccentric and crazy things. This fits with our view of the English character and it's just wonderful that people are still doing this sort of thing in 2006. It must have been going on hundreds of years ago."

Many colourful characters came to Witcham on Saturday for the 36th World Pea Shooting Championships. Mark Rye, Emma Hagerty and Tom Maxwell travelled all the way from Cardiff, meeting up with their friend Alan Forrest from Norwich, to form The Principality of Sea Land to compete in the team event. They are on a tour of Britain with a mission to compete in as many unconventional sporting world championships as they can. They have previously entered world championships in cheese rolling, stone slinging, crazy golf, bar skittles, for which Emma is the current number three in the world, and sack racing. The fact that they are yet to actually win anything is a sore point.

Mark said: "We went into this whole thing with the intention of becoming world champions and I can't believe we haven't won anything yet. I can feel something in the air and today has to be our lucky day."

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The Principality of Sea Land put up a valiant effort and ended up as runners-up in the team event. They were not the only competitors to make a long journey. Sally Rodgers and James Bamber made a 266-mile trip from Devon to rub shoulders with the world's best pea shooters. They intend to compete in 100 events throughout the course of the year and are currently in the process of writing a book about their adventures. Sally and James have managed to discover yet more unusual competitions than the Cardiff team. Their list includes: brick throwing, bog snorkelling, mud racing, stinging nettle eating, shin kicking (which is exactly as it sounds) and the seemingly suicidal, tar barrelling in their native Devon. The infamous tar barrelling involves 17 large barrels being set alight and raced through the town on the backs of the competitors. So how does the World Pea Shooting Championships compare?

"It's a lot safer than some of the events we've been in", explains Sally, "but equally as fun and it taps right into that old spirit of English eccentricity that we are looking for." James added: "I'm still suffering from the shin kicking in Gloucestershire. I was up against a 20 stone beast of a man and, though I'd like to say I gave as good as I got, I took an absolute pasting. I'm glad to be competing in a non-contact sport today."

So who came up with the ingenious idea of a pea shooting world championships? And why was Witcham Village Green chosen as its venue? Was there a grand Pea Shooting Select Committee in the age old times before television that made the conscious decision to hold it there, or did somebody just shut their eyes and pick out Witcham on a world map?

The history of the World Pea Shooting Championships is a charming tale. The village schoolmaster, Mr Tyson, caught some pupils amusing themselves by pinging peas at one another and he confiscated the offending weapons. At the time the village had identified the need for a village hall and they were seeking ways to raise funds. Mr Tyson came up with the idea of a World Pea Shooting Championships. This went ahead for the first time in 1971, the hall was duly built. The rest is history. Mr Tyson sadly passed away in 2003 and the champion now receives the John Tyson Shield.

Now in its 36th year, the championships are held in conjunction with the village fair, and its main purpose is still to raise money for the upkeep of the village hall.

The competition has been fierce over the years and, like many sports, pea shooting has developed over time through technical advancement. For some time now there has been much controversy and impassioned debate about the use of laser enhanced telescopic sights. The 1994 and 95 World Champion George Hollis was, with Phil Garner, a pioneer of the laser sighted shooters.

He explained: "It was just a bit of fun at first. A few of us were putting our heads together to see what we could do to bring the sport on a bit and give it another dimension. But people were getting crazy and saying we were gaining an unfair advantage. It really was getting quite heated."

To resolve the problem Tom Wood, who was for the previous six years the chairman of the organising committee, came up with the idea of a separate class for specialist shooters.

However, due to a lack of competitors in this field it has been phased out and this year the class did not exist. Mr Wood explained: "It was a great idea at first for generating a wider interest in the sport and getting the youngsters involved, but people would be coming up to me all day and they were getting so intense about the issue. I'd end the day with a splitting headache. Many people take this sport very seriously."

Mr Wood has now handed the reigns over to a newcomer to the village, Steve Ball. Mr Ball who recently moved from Thurrock in Essex explained: "Tom had been trying to pass on the responsibility for a while and my wife pushed me into it and I thought why not jump in head first into village life. I've since been hugely impressed with the community spirit in the village and I'm having a great time here."

On Sunday Mr Ball reflected on his first ever World Pea Shooting Championships. He said: "It was a hugely successful day. We raised more than £1,000 and everyone had a really good time. I'm looking forward to next year and I'm looking to make it even bigger and better. I've heard that someone is in the process of making a machine-gun pea shooter so we're going to expand the specialist class. I'm also going to canvas the local schools and clubs to get more young people involved and I'm looking to make it as high-profile an event as Aquafest."

Results: Open Competition winner - Sandra Ashley, runner-up - Colin Long. Junior winner - Toby Sander, runner-up - Zak Bomey. Ladies winner - Sandra Ashley, runner-up Silvana Taylor, Team winner - Afterthoughts, runners-up - The Principality of Sea Land.