Have you visited all the galleries in the British Museum? Is your English Heritage membership giving you no joy? Are you sick of the seaside? As that Apple ad campaign once put it: think different. The British pride themselves on their quirks, and their nation has no shortage of unusual outings to offer. Whether you think art is best viewed in a gallery or letterboxing is just a way of formatting films, whether you enjoy scanning the earth for gold or the sky for stars, you could stand to learn something from our list of the top ten eccentric days out in Britain.
1. Go letterboxing
Increasingly popular worldwide, letterboxing is like orienteering with a treasure hunt thrown in. A pot (the ‘letterbox’) containing a stamp and a visitors’ book is hidden, and a map reference (or more cryptic clue) leads seekers to the spot. When they’ve found the pot, the letterboxer takes a copy of the stamp (rather like getting your passport stamped) and leaves their own personal print in the book.
Letterboxes are stashed away all over the country, but Dartmoor is where it all began. In 1854, James Perrott set up a small cairn with a glass jar inside it at Cranmere Pool; walkers would leave postcards or letters inside, which the next hiker to discover the box would then post. Reaching the early locations was, and still is, a significant achievement; these days boxes are all over the place (some even within ambling distance of car parks), and the allure of stamp collecting appears to have overtaken letterboxing’s mental and physical challenges for some people. Nonetheless, it’s still a fun excuse for a jolly good wander over the moors.
For more info, including galleries and a forum, head to www.dartmoorletterboxing.org.
2. Be the Bognor Birdman
Birdmen existed before Michael Keaton embarrassed himself on our cinema screens. Each summer, men and their magnificent flying machines compete in the International Birdman Series for a £30,000 prize by hurling themselves off a platform on Bognor pier; the furthest ‘flight’ exceeding 100 metres wins the cash. Many contestants take part as sponsored charity fundraisers, building elegant gliders and training all year round. Others knock up Wacky Races-style contraptions or make the leap dressed as Batman, flapping a bunch of balloons. Being Bognor, there’s also plenty of beach-based revelry, with funfair rides and children’s entertainment, plus anything from limbo-dancing under fiery poles to judo demonstrations taking place over the weekend. Demand is such that, since 2010, a second Birdman competition has been held a month later in Worthing.
3. Floor it in your banger
Ever idly wondered exactly how fast your humble hatchback could go if you really put your foot down? Find out at Run What Ya Brung, a regular fixture at Northamptonshire’s Santa Pod raceway. You can take any car you like along to the event, and race it over the quarter-mile drag strip – be it a souped-up Subaru or your gran’s Ford Fiesta (though best ask her first). Just turn up with your wheels, your license and £35 in your wallet.
Santa Pod Raceway Airfield Road, Podington, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire NN29 7XA (01234 782 828).
4. See art in the dark
An environmental arts charity, the NVA sets up large-scale art installations in some of Scotland’s quieter corners, with the aim of putting often-neglected spots back on the map. The hugely ambitious projects take place mostly outdoors, sometimes in abandoned buildings, often in the dead of night, setting massive light and sound installations against some of Scotland’s most awesome backdrops. The memorable 2005 installation The Storr: Unfolding Landscape, for example, invited attendees to climb the otherwordly rock formations at the Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye at midnight, while light displays flickered and shifted across the peaks, and experimental soundscapes drifted through the trees – weird, but undeniably wonderful. The events generally last several weeks and take place in the spring or summer; check the NVA’s website for details of forthcoming projects and ticket information. Readers abroad, take note: recent years have seen the collective expand into the likes of Germany, Japan and Italy.
5. Pan for gold
Lead was mined in the wilds of Wanlockhead, Dumfries, until the 1950s – but more precious metal also runs through its veins. There’s gold in them thar moors, and some of it is about as pure as it gets: 23 carats, to be precise. Fancy your prospects? It’s not just a case of getting tooled up with a pick-axe and pan; you need to know where to look, and digging, dipping and sifting all have their own special techniques. You’ll probably just unearth iron pyrite (fool’s gold), but if you strike it lucky you may find a few flakes or even a tiny nugget. It’s hard graft and the elements can be punishing, but it’s exciting stuff; practitioners do it more for the addictive rush of discovery than any real hope of financial reward (though some prospectors have found enough gold over the years to have rings made). The Museum of Lead Mining runs one-day panning courses at £85; well worth trying before heading for the hills.
Museum of Lead Mining Wanlockhead Biggar, Lanarkshire ML12 6UT (01659 74 387).
6. Ride a real digger
Budding Bob the Builders, Scrapheap Challenge fans and anyone who digs diggers and dumpers, take note: excavation heaven is here. Gouge enormous holes out of the ground (and fill them in again), drive construction machinery, race JCBs, or watch, bemused, as formation diggers dance to music. Kids can drive bulldozers and dumper trucks – if they’re not swinging in a giant JCB scoop or digging for buried treasure. There are also sites in Devon, Durham and Yorkshire.
Diggerland Medway Valley Leisure Park, Roman Way, Strood, Kent ME2 2NU (0870 227 7007).
7. Strum an air guitar
Born to be a rock ’n’ roll star but lacking the musical talent? Happily, a complete inability to play guitar is no bar to success at the UK Air Guitar Championship. Regional heats culminate in a hotly contested national final, allowing you to pit your imaginary axe skills against other would-be guitar legends. Judges give points for posture, the realism of your performance and audience reaction as you rock out to your favourite anthem. For the victor, glory awaits: Colin Fulker, who won three straight tournaments some years back, ended up on telly with his heroes Status Quo. As reigning champion, Colin had his song (Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke on the Water’) imposed upon him, but still blew the other hopefuls off stage. His advice? ‘Basically, do what you do when you’re at home in your underpants in front of the mirror, but on stage. And try to wear more clothes.’ To find your nearest heat, check out www.ukairguitar.com. Then crank it up to 11.
8. Gurn to win
This bizarre competition takes place every September in Cumbria at the decidedly offbeat Egremont Crab Fair. Competitors have to pull grotesque expressions, with their head stuck through a horse collar or ‘braffin’. The fair itself has been taking place since 1267; if the gurning gets too much for you, we strongly recommend the other main event, where intrepid locals attempt to shimmy up a 30-foot pole greased with lard in order to collect a leg of lamb at the top.
9. Stargaze in a forest
When, back in 2009, the Galloway Forest Park was awarded Dark Sky Park status by the fetchingly named International Dark-Sky Association, amateur astronomers across the nation rejoiced. With this status, the park joined an elite global group of reserves kept deliberately free of artificial light, in the interests of astronomical pursuits. If the list has expanded since then, Galloway retains a cachet as the original – and, according to many stargazers, best – such park in Britain. Encompassing 300 square miles of woodland across a remote stretch of south-west Scotland, by night it offers levels of obscurity almost on a par with a photographer’s dark room – making for the perfect environment in which to spot yer Big Dippers and Ursa Minors. The park is also home to the Scottish Dark Sky Observatory, which boasts a small planetarium, a whopping great telescope and a jam-packed programme of seminars and kid-friendly events.
For more information on visiting and stargazing in the park, head to the Forestry Commission’s official website.
10. Be a zoo keeper
Following the lead of the keeper, the Keeper for a Day scheme at Bristol Zoo (£250) is a day of real work (you have to be over 16 and in good health to take part – though there’s also a cheaper junior option), rather than a cushy behind-the-scenes tour. You could find yourself dealing with penguin poo, dishing out lunch to monkeys or shovelling soggy straw. The schemes are incredibly popular; some animal requests (primates in particular) are booked up a year in advance.
At London Zoo there’s a fixed itinerary and you can’t choose the animals you want to work with; the same applies to Whipsnade, London Zoo’s sprawling Bedfordshire outpost and home to larger animals, including Indian rhinos. At both sites, over-16s can experience a day of keeper talks and learn about how zoos are run, along with the usual mucking out, food preparation and feeding. Prices come in at a cool £280 in London and £295 in Whipsnade, with discounts available for members.
The most requested sections at Chester Zoo are the elephants and primates; over-18s can also opt for reptiles and amphibians, parrots and penguins, giraffes (which also includes camels and buffalo), rhinos (plus capybaras, zebras, deer and meerkats), bats and carnivores (tigers, lions, sea lions, bush dogs, kangaroos and, rather bizarrely, the children’s zoo); the price is currently £250.
Sessions at Dudley Zoo run from 10am to 4pm and cost £195, or £245 for a couple; the day is split in two halves and there’s the option of working in one or two sections. The minimum age is 14 (for chimps, giraffes and penguins) or 16 (for the big cats). Younger animal-lovers can be ‘Little Zoo Keepers’ (8-13 years) for £80 (discounts for groups) and help to feed, clean and care for the animals on the farm.