Britain certainly isn't short of unusual or eccentric pursuits, but finding out about them can be tricky. Here, we've picked ten of our favourite weird and wonderful things to do across 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 (01392 832768, www.dartmoorletterboxing.org).
2. Be the Bognor Birdman
Each summer, men and their magnificent flying machines compete for a £30,000 prize by hurling themselves off a platform on Bognor pier; the furthest ‘flight’ over 100 metres wins the cash (www.birdman.org.uk). 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.
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 (www.rwyb.co.uk), 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). Santa Pod Raceway Airfield Road, Podington, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire NN29 7XA (01234 782828/www.santapod.co.uk).
4. See art in the dark
An environmental arts charity, the NVA (0141 332 9911, www.nva.org.uk) 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 outdoors, often at the dead of night, setting massive light and sound installations against some of Scotland’s most awesome landscapes. 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 from two to seven weeks and take place in the spring or summer; check the NVA’s website for details of forthcoming projects and ticket information.
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 £65; well worth trying before heading for the hills.
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, or zoom off on the Young Driver Experience – 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 Roman Way, Medway Valley Leisure Park, Strood, Kent ME2 2NU (0870 034 4437/www.diggerland.com).
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, winner for the last two years, 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. Be a zoo keeper
Following the lead of the keeper, the Keeper for A Day scheme at Bristol Zoo (£250, www.bristolzoo.org.uk) is a day of real work (you have to be over 16 and in good health to take part), 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 (www.zsl.org) there’s a fixed itinerary and you can’t choose the animals you want to work with; the same applies to Whipsnade (www.zsl.org/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 range from £160 for ‘introduction days’ to £250 for keeper-for-a-day.
The most requested sections at Chester Zoo (www.chesterzoo.org) 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 £200.
Sessions at Dudley Zoo (www.dudleyzoo.org.uk) run from 10am to 4pm and cost £150; 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 £95 and help to feed, clean and care for the animals on the farm.
Most zoos offer keeper schemes, so check with your nearest for details.
9. Gurn to win
This bizarre competition takes place every September in Cumbria at the decidedly offbeat Egremont Crab Fair (www.egremontcrabfair.org.uk). 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.
10. Stargaze in a forest
Covering 230 square miles, Kielder Forest (www.forestry.gov.uk) is the UK’s largest forest. At its heart lies Kielder Water, an immense man-made lake with 27 miles of shoreline. Home to England’s biggest colony of red squirrels, the unspoilt woodland is a beautiful place for a hike.
What’s more, it’s one of the least light-polluted areas in England: perfect for stargazing. You’re also just far enough north to (very occasionally) be treated to a Northern Lights show. Kielder Forest Star Camp (www.richarddarn.demon.co.uk/starcamp) runs two events a year, when you can camp out with up to 200 stargazers to train telescopes and binoculars on the heavens and look for meteors. Spring is a good time for viewing the Leo and Virgo constellations, while the best view of the Milky Way is in autumn.
Time Out guidebooks
Discover more great things to do with Time Out's '1000 things to do in Britain' book, available from www.timeout.com/shop at the discounted price of £8.44.