The Congham annual summer Fete is renowned for its Snail Racing. Over the years there have been entrants from all over and it is a firm fixture of the eccentric English calendar.
You can see more about Snail Racing and a report from 2016 and all previous years by visiting www.snailracing.net.
See a short video on YouTube click here.
In 2016 it was also covered by Japanese TV and this report was printed by "The Times" newspaper.
"As with all athletes, the secret to producing a champion lies in diet, training and breeding, explains John McKean.
“We place a PVC window at 45 degrees and then our trainee athletes climb up to the top. It does wonders for strengthening their leg muscles,” he says. “ We add a bit of weights resistance by tying a piece of Lego to a thread and attaching the other end to the athlete. Their diet consists of lettuce and they are all from our home-grown stud farm. One of our stud came third last year and we’re hoping for better this time, aren’t we Roo?” says McKean, 45.
Roo stretches out his neck, waves his tentacles in the air and starts to slither across his trainer’s hand in a blazing trail of glistening slime.
We are at the annual World Championship Snail Racing, held at Congham in Norfolk since the mid-1960s.
It is 2pm and snail master Neil Riseborough is lining up the 15 entrants for the first heat of the afternoon, at 20p a go. The winner from each heat will compete in the grand final for this year’s title. They will be up against last year’s defending champion, George.
“Who’s up for the first race?” bellows Riseborough. A heaving sea of hands waves snails at the grand master.
“Right, you first sir.”
A man hands over his snail.
“Uh-oh, this shell’s too wet to take its racing number.” Riseborough wipes the snail on the man’s pristine white shirt.
“That’s better.” Riseborough carefully presses an orange sticker with a number 1 on the snail’s back and places it on to a round table covered with a freshly laundered, damp, pure cotton cloth decorated with three coloured circles.
The snails start on the inner circle and the first head that crosses the red circle on the outer edge of the table wins the race.
“Only room for one more. Where’s your snail?” Riseborough asks a girl.
“I haven’t got one.”
Riseborough whips out a box shaped like a treasure trove and opens the lid to reveal a feast of common garden snails in all shapes, colours and sizes.
She picks out a pea-sized snail.
“He’s no good,” declares Riseborough and helps the girl to select one with more meat on it. He places it on the table with the other snails, many of whom have not waited for starter’s orders. One particularly determined sort is sliding speedily towards the edge of the table, neck outstretched with effort and determination. Riseborough plucks it up and places it back on the starting line.
“Ready, steady, slow!” he shouts. The first race has begun.
“Come on Speedy.”
“Go Turbo go.”
“You’ve no time to chat Doris,” cries Jillian Sizeland in despair. Doris has fetched up with a group of snails, their heads glued together in gossip.
“Come on you lot, shout. You’re like our football team, absolute rubbish,” yells Riseborough, who in his other life runs a local livery yard. He became snail master more than 25 years ago. “The organiser said he wanted someone eccentric and colourful and would I do it. I said ‘What you really mean is you’re after someone with a big gob’.”
As we watch the race a trainer explains: “Snails love the damp so the trick is to sprinkle your snail with water before the race so it is wide awake.”
Being alive also helps. Four snails have yet to budge from the starting line. A sense of direction is another must. One entrant races backwards while in the middle of the table a tower of snails topples over in slow motion.
“Is it the mating season then?” asks a male voice from the crowd.
“They’re just playing,” says Riseborough.
A snail within a tentacle of the finishing line becomes confused, U-turns and heads purposefully back to the start. Someone in the crowd groans.
A snail called Bolt wins the first heat, to the delight of owner Elliott Hurrell, 10. This is the first time Bolt has raced but Hurrell has had him in training. “I picked 30 snails from the local riverbank and held races in the garden to see who was the fastest,” he explains.
Riseborough spots Dale Thorne, owner of defending champion George. “Dale, how’s our champion George?”
“Dead,” replies Thorne.
“He died yesterday. We left my mum and dad looking after George while we went on holiday. When we came back he was dead,” explains Thorne, 32, a graphic designer from Gayton. “I don’t blame mum and dad. Not really.”
Thorne has selected more snails from his garden but has not had time to train them. Despite this, one of them, Queen Thistle, wins a heat.
“Better luck next time John,” says Riseborough as he hands back yet another stud dud to mega-trainer McKean, who when not training snails, runs Whitwell Hall country centre, a children’s educational charity.
So far, all of the entrants appear to be locally bred. Where does the “world” championships bit come in?
“Congham is very cosmopolitan. Residents come from all over but then start speaking in our local accent, that’s what’s fooled you,” explains Riseborough. He has mixed feelings about French entrants anyway. “There’s always the risk they’ll eat the winners.”
Three hours on, it’s the final heat.
“Come on Roo,” cries McKean desperately.
His pal Chris Wheeler, 47, who runs a marketing agency, is equally anxious.
“No, no, not that way, this way. For goodness sake Fire Starter, pay attention.” Wheeler runs round the ring waggling his hands at his snail, who has not yet twigged that to win she has to move forwards rather than sideways. “No, really, they do understand,” Wheeler says to a gaggle of children staring at him.
The final has arrived, and Roo is in it. McKean glances round, leans in close and whispers: “I’m going to rustle like a lettuce. I’ve heard it never fails.”
They’re off, and three minutes 25 seconds later Herbie 2 crosses the winning line first. Proud owner Colin Voss, 45, a software consultant from Histon, Cambridgeshire, says: “It’s Herbie’s first race. We keep him in our organic garden, so I think that’s helped. Herbie 1 had an accident during training and lost his shell, which left him feeling rather sluggish.”
Riseborough hands Voss his winner’s silver tankard stuffed with lettuce.
“That lettuce is specially grown,” announces Riseborough.
“By Aldi’s,” calls someone from the crowd.
McKean is planning for 2017. “Maybe two Lego bricks, one for each leg . . .”
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