England Emphasizes Sporting Opportunities

With less than two years to go until the Olympic and Paralympic Games hit London, England is recreating itself as a sport destination. Are you thinking cricket and rugby? Try surfing and underwater hockey, or even shin-kicking and pancake races. (We're not making this up. No, really; we couldn't if we tried.) Here are some thoroughly British sporting suggestions from VisitEngland:
On the southwest tip of England, Cornwall is one of Europe's top surfing destinations, with more than a dozen beaches that cater to surfing novices and pros alike. Cornwall is easily accessible by train from London and has some of the country’s mildest weather, letting surfers ride the waves year-round. Beginners can attend one of the many surfing schools or take a private lesson while more experienced surfers can challenge themselves to an extra strenuous workout riding the waves with a variety of reef and beach breaks scattered along both the north and south coasts. For especially adventurous surfers, kite surfing - a fusion of windsurfing, surfing, wake boarding and power kiting, has become a mainstay with Cornwall’s beach crowd.
At the time of the 2012 Games, England be will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of its Olympic roots – Robert Dover’s ‘Cotswolds Olympicks.’ Started by a local barrister, Captain Robert Dover, the world’s inaugural ‘Olimpick Games’ were staged on a Cotswold hillside in 1612. Today the annual event, held at the start of June, attracts thousands of spectators as ‘athletes’ partake in country-side games such as obstacle courses and tug-of-war, in addition to unique sporting competitions such as shin-kicking. (See? We told you!) The Olympicks conclude with a bonfire and firework display followed by a torch-lit procession to the town square, where celebratory dancing and entertainment takes place.
Historical sidenote: England's contribution to the modern Olympic movement can also be traced back to Much Wenlock, a tiny market town in nearby Shropshire, which boasts a small museum and a tourist trail around the town where the world's biggest sport festival began. It was in Much Wenlock, in 1850, that Dr. William Penny Brookes first established the basis for an 'Olympian Society,' which, in turn, laid the foundation for the modern Olympic Games. Born in Much Wenlock, Dr. Brookes was concerned by the lack of educational opportunities for the working classes in the town and set about creating an 'Olympian Class' for "the promotion of moral, physical and intellectual improvement"—inspired, it is believed, by Robert Dover's Cotswolds Olympicks.
While Olympic track stars may be preparing to sprint towards a gold medal in 2012, lively women are preparing to run through the streets of Olney donning traditional housewife apparel, including a skirt, apron and scarf, for the Olney Pancake Race in Buckinghamshire. The 415-yard dash is held every Shrove Tuesday when women toss pancakes then run through the town streets before tossing the pancakes again at the finish line. Once the race has finished the town celebrates with a Shriving Service at the local Parish Church where official prizes are presented. The race, which began in 1445, became an international event in 1950 when the U.S town of Liberal, KS, joined the festivities to compete against Olney. The participant with the shortest time is declared the winner, determined during a phone call between the two cities.
Bodyflight Bedford in the east of England is the world’s largest indoor skydiving facility, giving visitors the opportunity to experience jumping out of a plane—but within the safety of a large wind tunnel with wind speeds of up to 180mph, which support the body in mid air. Classes are available to suite every experience level from complete beginner to professional. Visitors wanting to try BASE jumping without jumping off a building or bridge can safely imitate the experience at Vertigo, Bodyflight’s thrilling simulated BASE jump. Jumpers are attached to a bungee cord as they climb 125 feet to the top of the wind tunnel tower where they can enjoy the beautiful views of Bedfordshire, before safely “BASE” jumping to the ground. For those preferring water sports, Bodyflight Bedford’s FlowHouse facility offers flowboarding - a mix between surfing, skateboarding and wakeboarding.
Underwater hockey, also known as Octopush, was started in the early 1950s as a way to do aquatic aerobic exercise without simply swimming laps. Teams of up to 10 players, each wearing a mask, snorkel and fins as well as a water polo hat, use a small stick to push the puck toward the opposing team’s goal. Similar to tag wrestling, the game requires players to take turns surfacing for breaths of air while working together to push the puck into their opponent’s goal to score. Underwater hockey teams are located throughout England with several leagues including the North East Regional Octopush Club.
Believed to be England’s oldest traditional tussle, The Haxey Hood game, held at the start of each new year on January 6, takes place in the unassuming village of Haxey in Lincolnshire. The Haxey Hood is a reenactment of a chivalrous act that occurred during the 14th Century as tradition is told, when Lady de Mowbray, wife of landowner John de Mowbray, was riding one day when her silk riding hood blew off and was blown across the field. Thirteen farm workers hurried across the field chasing the hood until one of the workers finally caught the hood and returned it to Lady de Mowbray. So impressed that her hood was returned, she donated 13 acres of land, a parcel for each of the workers who ran after her hood, with the condition that the chase would be reenacted each year. Resembling a rugby scuffle, “The Haxey Hood” has been played for over 700 years and involves the “Hood,” a long leather cylinder, being thrown into the air to launch the proceedings before participants attempt to sway the hood out of the field, through the streets and back to their favorite pub, where it remains until the next year’s game.
For over 150 years, since 1852, Grasmere Sports has been one of the most popular and largest traditional events to be held in the Lake District, with main events including Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling, fell running and hound trails. Judged not only on their wrestling ability but also “costume,” Cumberland wrestlers are encouraged to wear very decorative attire to determine the “best dressed” wrestlers, which must have their initials built into the design. The hound trails is a competition featuring trained hounds that race after the scent of aniseed over the fells, and in recent years mountain bike races have been held. Festivities also include events, crafts and antiques stands as well as plenty of refreshments.  
Designed to make the game of polo more accessible, since it is played on a bicycle instead of a horse, Bicycle Polo has been played in England for over a century and was a demonstration sport in the 1908 Olympics held in London. The game is traditionally played on a rectangular grass field, but in the past few years, “Hardcourt Bike Polo” has become increasingly popular, played on a hard surface such as a tennis court or street hockey rink. Both Bicycle and Hardcourt Bike Polo can be found throughout England, with Sheffield, South Yorkshire, being a recent addition.
The oldest single sculling race in the world, the Doggett’s Coat and Badge Race, is held every July on the River Thames, from London Bridge to Cadogan Pier in Chelsea. Attracting thousands of spectators, it is the oldest organized race in English history, started in 1715 by Irish actor and comedian Thomas Doggett in honor of King George I’s accession to the throne.
For more information about visiting England, check out www.VisitEngland.com.