British charm lures wild worms from lair


LONDON -- It is amazing the things that can seize the imagination of the British, trigger their fine collective madness and precipitate one of their long, deep plunges into the absurd.

Worms, for instance. Particularly the Blackawton Red, a game worm if ever there was one.

Last week, about 444 of them surrendered to the charms of about 140 people, who traveled from all over the country to the village of Blackawton in the hills of Devon.

The people came to watch or take part in the Ninth Annual Worm Charming Championship, a charity affair to benefit the Leonard Cheshire Foundation, which helps the disabled here and in 48 other countries.

Sadly, again, the festivities were marred by reports of cheating.

Blackawton is not a big place. "Two pubs, two shops, a vineyard and a brewery, about 500 people" is how Mark Gibson describes it. But already, it is to worms what Capistrano is to swallows.

"We're on the map," Mr. Gibson said with great pride, though he owns that he has never heard of Capistrano. He runs the Normandy Arms, the official headquarters for the championship event.

"This is where, after an arduous day of worm charming competition, people come to slake their thirst," he said. The Blackawton Brewery has even created a special festival ale for the occasion, called Wiggly X.

The man in charge of the affair is David Kelland. He is the Abner Doubleday of worm charming, if truly it can be considered a sport. It may be more an art. Whatever it is, its rules are fixed and rigidly enforced. Referees are vigilant.

"We have to be careful," Mr. Gibson said. "We have to keep an eye on them [the participants]. Sometimes one worm can become two."

Here's how it works:

Each team is made up of three people -- a charmer, a catcher and a counter. This year there were 46 teams, though no entries from abroad, as was the case last year when the Netherlands team walked off with the trophy.

With 12 square feet of land to work on, each team tries to entice as many worms to the surface as it can during a 15-minute period. Team members can do anything they want to effect this, except turn over the soil or sprinkle the ground with any fluid they will not themselves drink.

They sing, dance, play drums and more refined instruments, like bagpipes; they chant their own invented incantations, whatever they think might appeal to a worm. The worms come forth according to the skill and allure of the team, or in search of the elixir that the team has concocted and sprinkled on the earth above.

This year's winner was a local man, an unemployed offshore oil worker named Julian Barnes, who brought up 53 worms. Mr. Barnes, reached by telephone, was asked how he felt about his triumph. "Shocked. Amazed. Happy," he said, "though I have gotten a few funny looks from people."

But, he added, "I've gotten a few pints, too."

He also got a trophy. "My name's on it," said the champion. So are those of his teammates, Emily Smee and Nick Adams. Ms. Smee was the counter, Mr. Adams the charmer.

"I'm the puller," Mr. Barnes said.

Collectively, they are known as the Worm Picker Licker Dickers of Blackawton.

As for the future, Mr. Barnes hopes it holds more of the same. "I expect to compete next year," he said, "to defend the title."

Unlike many other rural people, often taciturn, Mr. Barnes was forthcoming. He even disclosed the formula that helped draw his 53 worms to the surface.

"Two pints of Wiggle X, one can of Guinness and five gallons of home brew." The worms emerged happily into the fresh air.

After the competition, they were carefully returned to their respective holes. That's very important.

"All the worms have to come up alive," Mr. Gibson said rather sternly. "Then they have to be returned to the holes they've come from. It's in the rules.

"We're basically sportsmen here," he added, suggesting that not everybody entered into the fair-play spirit of the competition.

In fact, last year some entrants were caught sprinkling mixtures containing dish-washing liquid over their patches, which has the effect of making the worms itch and crawl to the surface for relief. Hence, the rule put into place this year that all contestants must imbibe the formulas that they use.

It was a test that Mr. Barnes had no trouble meeting.

Mr. Kelland tends to be forgiving. Reports that illegal substances were used again this year he ascribed to simple "misunderstanding of the rules" by some contestants.

"In September, we're going worldwide with it," he said grandly. "We're taking the next big step, and every Cheshire Home in every country will have a worm charming day."

Mr. Kelland's dreams are even more grand: "This could be an Olympic sport."

And what talents are required for success?

"Great patience, a light touch and a keen eye."

Is this English eccentricity, he is asked. Like train watching? Crop circles?

"I certainly think so," he replied. "But I've got a respectable job."

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