Inside England's Annual Toe Wrestling Championship

Baseball may be America's favorite summer pastime, but across the pond, a unique, no-hands sport reigns supreme—and we're not talking about soccer.

Toe wrestling—yes, toe wrestling—is such a popular pastime in Northern England that there's an entire championship centered on this sport every summer. Since its inception in 1976, the Toe Wrestling Championship has taken the Derbyshire community near Manchester by storm.

The sport got its start when a group of friends at the Ye Olde Royal Oak Inn lamented England's lack of dominance in athletics—they wanted a sport where Brits could reign supreme, and somehow, toe wrestling became the chosen activity. (Ripley’s, however, notes that a Canadian visitor won the third annual championship, putting an early damper on the British preeminence of the sport.)

After 40 years and many toe tangos, the sport of toe wrestling continues to gain traction, even if the International Olympic Committee has refused to accept it as an official Olympic sport. Though it might not be a competition on the global stage, toe wrestling definitely attracts interest from around the world. Wendy Livingstone, general manager and events coordinator for Toe Wrestling Championship venue Bentley Brook Inn, notes she gets interest from various international media. In fact, one U.S. film company is shooting a mockup of the competition this summer with long-time champion Alan "Nasty" Nash.

Nash, known for his intimidating "strong man" physique and even more intimidating big toes, has made quite a name for himself in the toe wrestling space. According to ESPN—which profiled him in 2011—Nash won the title on his first try in 1994. Since then, he's won a dozen titles, including perhaps his most triumphant event in 1997 when he broke four toes in the semifinals, then popped them back in and took home the gold. The toe wrestling titles also led Nash to a stint on this year's Britain’s Got Talent show for his attempt to regain the title of "Most eggs crushed with the toes in one minute." (Spoiler: He succeeded.)

HOW TO TOE WRESTLE

Toe wrestling is a competition between two participants. With their bare feet in a square ring, opponents sit on the floor, lock their big toes, and then battle in an arm-wrestle style to wrangle the other’s foot to the sideboard of the designated wrestling area. The art of toe wrestling is more skill than strength; opponents are required to keep non-competing feet in the air with hands flat on the ground.

It’s a best-of-three competition that typically lasts one hour, and fear not: Toe hygiene is a priority. Nurses inspect all toes for fungus and hidden weapons prior to competition. Livingstone says they see about 10 to 30 participants annually. Winners move on through the bracket until the leaders go toe-to-toe in the final tournament.

TOE WRESTLING STRATEGY

To win at toe wrestling, Livingstone recommends developing those toe muscles however you can.

"The champion, Nasty Nash, invented his own 'toe exerciser' to make his toes the strongest!" she tells Mental Floss. (His exerciser essentially looks like a mini resistance band that he uses across his flexed big toes.)

But even Nash knows strength can only get him so far. He pairs strong toes with extreme intimidation to take home the victory.

"My technique ... is to hurt the first person that comes into the ring with me; hurt them bad and terrify everyone else," Nash told Reuters.

Speaking of injuries, the Toe Wrestling Championship is not for the frail. Livingstone notes in the past, toes have been broken (Nash broke nine as of 2012) and she’s seen a few strained ankles. It also takes a toll on the back, so she advises those with back or spine issues to stay in the crowd.

TEST YOUR TOE WRESTLING TALENTS

Chomping at the bit to lock toes with a stranger? You're in luck. Participants can enter up until the day of for the August 19 Toe Wrestling Championship. There are two divisions: male and female. For those seeking pre-tournament prep, the Royal Oak Inn (the birthplace of toe wrestling) in Ashbourne, England, has a Toe Wrestling Charity Fundraising Event on July 15. Nash will be in attendance, and kids are also invited to put a toe in the ring with the 2017 Kids Championship.

The Legend—and Truth—of Silverpilen, Stockholm's Spooky Ghost Train

iStock.com/Willowpix
iStock.com/Willowpix

Public transportation is a marvel of modern technology and a boon to city life. But if you’ve ever stood on a subway platform for a half an hour, you know there are caveats. For the people of Stockholm, you can add “haunted” and “will teleport you to another dimension” to the list of potential train complaints.

The Swedish legend of Silverpilen (or "Silver Arrow") goes back to the 1960s, when the Stockholm Metro purchased eight trains made out of aluminum. The material was standard enough for the time, but most Stockholm Metro cars were painted green. The transit authorities decided to leave these bare, which made them stand out from the rest of the cars. That wasn't the only thing that made the trains seem unusual: the interiors were laid out a little differently, and were missing the usual graffiti and advertisements. Soon, a legend was born: for Stockholm's commuters, any component of public infrastructure so pure—so unblemished—must have been a ghost.

An aluminum train said to be Stockholm's Silver Arrow
Stockholm's Silver Arrow
Maad Dogg 97, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Of course, any good ghost train needs a ghost train station. According to legend, the train’s destination was an equally unsettling, totally abandoned station known as Kymlinge. In Stockholm there’s a saying that loosely translates to: "Only the dead get off at Kymlinge." As the corresponding story goes, once you board the Silver Arrow, you never get off. Not because you get murdered, but because the train gets stuck in some kind of time loop and rides on for eternity.

In another version of the legend, the train does stop eventually, but only once a year. At that point, all the passengers have been on the train for so long that they appear to be among the undead, and are unleashed on the city in some kind of scenario out of The Walking Dead.

The truth of Silverpilen, and Kymlinge, is perhaps more interesting: The city of Stockholm was running the stripped-down train as a test. If the public didn't seem bothered by the bare-bones trains, the local transportation agency figured they would be free to construct a cheaper fleet.

But the people of Sweden thought the Silver Arrow—a nickname that seems to have popped up soon after the trains were introduced—looked derelict, and frankly downright dystopian. The creepiness factor was such that even if the train was running and relatively empty compared to a grimy, old, familiar green train, Stockholm locals avoided it. So while the metro used the trains as backups during rush hour for several decades, they were never very popular.

As for Kymlinge, construction on the station began just a few years after the so-called Silver Arrow started running. It was never finished, because the expected demand for the station, tied to a nearby redevelopment project, never arrived. The bare look of the station must have reminded people of Silverpilen—or people just figured if you come across an abandoned, half-finished subway station, and you already have a creepy ghost train, you’re going to pair them up.


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What’s so wonderful about the story of Silverpilen is that, unlike many urban legends, all the major pieces are real: there really is a silver train and a never-finished abandoned subway station. In fact, the cars of the Silver Arrow train weren’t decommissioned until the 1990s. Despite the fact that the train hasn’t been seen on the tracks for generations, the legend has been passed down, and younger generations of Swedes still whisper about its ghostly presence.

And there's still at least one place the out-of-service cars can be seen: at the Stockholm Police Academy. They’re used to train rookie cops on how to deal with in-process crimes on metro trains—though we're guessing that training does not include ghostbusting.

A version of this piece originally appeared on the Let Me Google That podcast.

The Truth Behind Italy's Abandoned 'Ghost Mansion'

YouTube/Atlas Obscura
YouTube/Atlas Obscura

The forests east of Lake Como, Italy, are home to a foreboding ruin. Some call it the Casa Delle Streghe (House of Witches), or the Red House, after the patches of rust-colored paint that still coat parts of the exterior. Its most common nickname, however, is the Ghost Mansion.

Since its construction in the 1850s, the mansion—officially known as the Villa De Vecchi—has reportedly been the site of a string of tragedies, including the murder of the family of the Italian count who built it, as well as the count's suicide. It's also said that everyone's favorite occultist, Aleister Crowley, visited in the 1920s, leading to a succession of satanic rituals and orgies. By the 1960s, the mansion was abandoned, and since then both nature and vandals have helped the house fall into dangerous decay. The only permanent residents are said to be a small army of ghosts, who especially love to play the mansion's piano at night—even though it's long since been smashed to bits.

The intrepid explorers of Atlas Obscura recently visited the mansion and interviewed Giuseppe Negri, whose grandfather and great-grandfather were gardeners there. See what he thinks of the legends, and the reality behind the mansion, in the video below.

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