Why Wales loves bog snorkelling

Published on: Monday, August 17, 2015
Why Wales loves bog snorkelling - feature


As part of a tradition dating back 30 years, Jack Palfrey goes snorkelling… in a bog.

“Hi. I’m Sue, two-minutes-twenty-seven. This is my husband Paul.”

“Three-o-five,” says Paul, with a sincere smile and a firm handshake.

“And this is Cathy” says Sue, gesturing to the woman wearing a pink bowler hat.

“She’s a three-ten.” Adds Sue with a raise of the eyebrow. “I know: you wouldn’t believe it at her age.”

The Bog Snorkelling Championships in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales have become so etched into the town’s consciousness that reciting your best time in the bog during an introduction is considered social etiquette.

It’s odd behaviour, but I barely notice. Instead I’m transfixed on the shimmering stripe of diluted slurry stretching out before me: 1.5m deep and 133m long. The gentle morning breeze, carrying the scent of sopping earth and regret, cuts through my wetsuit and dignity in equal measure.

By now I have so many questions I’m struggling to order them, though perhaps the most pressing revolve around my poor life choices. The Roman whispering reassurances in my left ear isn’t helping, but on some level, I appreciate his presence.

“Everyone swallows some,” he says authoritatively, his fancy dress armour looking well worn. “But the best ones only swallow a bit”.

Beyond the dew-dripping reeds on the left bank of the trench, I clock the small rabble of townsfolk who’ve come to witness the event, like medieval peasants flocking to an execution. Some had even made banners.

Sue, taking her stopwatch from her pocket, taps me gently on the shoulder.

“The clock starts as soon as you hit the water,” she says, gesturing her words. “Make sure your head stays under and breathe through the snorkel.”

“Is crying allowed?” I ask, nervously.

“Yes, but you have to stop swimming if your head’s out of the water,” she retorts.

“In you get then.”

So, like a lamb being prodded politely into the abattoir, in I get. My flipper-clad feet disappear into the boggy waters, kicking up mushroom clouds of gunge.

I’m lounging on a plush sofa near a crackling fire in the Neuadd Arms. A shaggy black border collie winds playfully between my legs while a pint of ale creates a wet ring on the wooden table in front of me.

Opposite, nursing his own ale, sits Gordon Green. I sip my drink patiently as I wait for him to finish flirting with the barmaid, who tussles her hair suggestively.

Though he is now 80 years old, Gordon exudes an aura of mischief that’s incredibly endearing. He appears content as he reclines in his chair, his white hair falling over his alcohol-reddened face.

The young barmaid is not the first visitor who has interrupted our conversation this evening: men, women and children, have all approached Gordon, seemingly just to say hi or to hand him a free pint.

There’s a reason for Gordon’s incredible popularity: he is the hallowed inventor of Bog Snorkelling and the mastermind behind the World Alternative Games, which makes him royalty in Llanwrtyd Wells.

Finally, the crowds disperse and Gordon turns to address me. As his wrinkled eyes fix on mine I note the undimmed excitement harboured there.

“So, what was I saying? Oh yes, how we came up with the idea for bog snorkelling.”

The concept of competitively swimming two lengths of a shallow trough of muddy water was born as a way of raising money for a local community centre in desperate need of repair.

“And because it was so successful, we just kept going with it,” he says with a wry smile.

The town, whose other reputable distinctions include a long-defunct medieval spa industry and a contentious claim to being the smallest town in Britain, quickly became famous for its zany sporting contests.

“And thus the biannual World Alternative Games were born,” adds Gordon.

Other intriguing events in the Games, the full list of which Gordon keeps with him on a long paper scroll, include the Man Vs Horse Marathon (a 34km race between long distance athletes and jockeys on horseback), the Real Ale Ramble (part trek, part beer festival) and of course, the weekend highlight, the World Bog Snorkelling Championships.

Gordon explains how competitors from across the world come to snorkel in the famous bog, and tells me about a former club swimmer, Kirsty Johnson, who set a new world record of one minute 22 seconds in 2014.

“She was half girl, half dolphin,” he says, with genuine awe.

As Gordon pauses to mentally recount the epic feat, I seize the chance to ask his thoughts about my own chances in the bog.

He looks me up and down then calls over to the bar.

“Two more here please.”

As my head momentarily rises from the festering water, I spy the white pole that signals the halfway point of the course. It’s just metres away, but unfortunately I’ll probably never reach it: the snorkel is stifling my oxygen intake, causing my legs, wildly flailing behind me, to burn relentlessly. There’s also a similar sensation in the pit of my stomach caused either by repeated ingestion of bog water or sheer embarrassment.

I consider quitting, getting out and retreating quietly away from the whole farcical event, when suddenly my arm collides with something solid: it’s the wooden pole, the halfway point.

As I stand to swivel for the return leg, reluctantly plunging my feet deep into the enveloping mire below, I hear the calls from the crowd. Rather than presumed laughter, the shouts are of enthusiasm and support.

I plunge my head back into the bog with renewed determination, ignoring the wretched stench and the steady stream of mud trickling into my snorkel.

It’s a long swim back to the start, but the crowd spurs me on. As my palm smacks triumphantly against the wood I stand and let out a cheer. Wiping the mud from my eyes, I collapse into the arms of the Roman. Sue places a silver blanket around me and a woman from the crowd pours a hot broth into my mouth. I feel refreshed and invigorated, and a little delirious.

“I know it must seem strange to you, but these silly events are important,” explains Cathy, three-ten, during the chilly walk back to the pub.

“They show you don’t always have to take yourself so seriously.”

Despite my initial cynicism, my bog baptism reawakened me to the unremitting joy in juvenility; the medicinal quality in maniacal activity.

And though the stench of the mud has long dissipated, and the expected sophistication has started to seep back in, the impact of the lesson lingers.

So much so that now, when people ask my name, I tell them it’s Jack; Jack two-minutes-ten.



The annual Bog Snorkelling Championships are held yearly in Llanwrtyd Wells on the August Bank Holiday weekend. The next event will take place on 30 August 2015. There is a £15 entry fee and competitors need to register seven days before the event. Spectating is free.

The Bog Snorkelling event also forms part of the larger World Alternative Games, which is made up of 35 quirky events and takes place bi-annually in Llanwrtyd Wells each August. The next games will start on 8 August 2016.

Both the bog snorkelling event and World Alternative Games are currently searching for sponsors and potential guest hosts.

Getting there
First Great Western trains depart from London Paddington to Swansea (journey time: 3 hours; fare: £46.10). From here, you can catch the scenic Heart of Wales railway line to Llanwrtyd Wells (journey time: 2 hours; fare: £10.90).

Where to stay
High View House (tel: +44 1591 610 563) is a quaint B&B near the centre of the town. It’s run by an elderly eccentric lady named Edna who is incredibly hospitable, though her insistence on making tea borders on forceful. All rooms are en-suite and parking spaces are available (fare: £35 per person, per night).

The Drovers Rest (+44 1591 610 264) is located in the centre of Llanwrtyd Wells and benefits from a much-loved on-site restaurant that serves tasty – and filling – breakfasts (from £30 per person, per night).

More information

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