The ‘Lake District’ and Gurning.

‘Beauty and The Beast’, –  with another crazy English custom!

Gurning involves looking as ugly as possible – which is particularly bizarre because the tradition comes from one of the most beautiful regions of the British Isles:  ‘The Lake Distict’.   This region is 400 kms north-west of London and is dazzling in its display of natural colour and landscape throughout the year.  This blog post begins with a look at ‘The Lake District’, then finishes with a discussion of ‘gurning’.


The Lake District:

Tall, towering, verdant mountainsides obscuring sun and skies; rising high and casting heavy shadows. 

Dark, sombre peaks lost in dark, stormy clouds. 
Triumphant, rounded peaks emerging sunlit, then disappearing once more into rolling blankets of mist.  Lost for the day. 

Clear blue morning skies.                                                                                                               

Freshness in the dew and the hedgerow twitters.  
Freshness in the vaporous breaths of dawn dog-walkers and early-start trekkers.  

A lamb gambols gaily as mother studiously grazes.  

A farmer drives his tractor with clods of mud falling from the wheels.

A kettle on the hob whistles tea.

Crystal clear, pebble-bottomed lakes, placid and serene, fringed with reeds and grasses, reflecting slowly wandering clouds drifting across gently
rippling waters…   

Colours blend, rich and pastel, bold and sublime.

Form and shape inter-twine upon the lakeland canvas.

Deep, scree-lined lakes of  still refective waters, scooped out of stoney mountainsides, dropping fathomless into cold, unplummed depths.   Aqueous mirrors of harmonious surrounds.

Sheep dotted meadowlands laced with winding stone walls; crumbling and falling. Tree clumps standing bold on  horizons against darkening, reddening, sunset skies.

Purple heather; golden bracken; green gorse. Scattered drops of wild flowers speckling roadsides with yellows, mauves and violets. Great florid arrays of  colour over-flowing thatched cottage window boxes sitting pretty on white-washed walls.

 Pencil-grey lines of lanes leading up mountain passes; twisting and turning beside looping streams lying curled along marshy valley floors. Well-trampled paths meandering upwards across hillsides dotted with backpacks  that imperceptibly progress.

On high, a breathless stillness.  A haunting crow’s caw.

Higher still, a lone buzzard circles in silence.

Down below, voles and field mice prudently hide their heads.

A wild vastness stretches forward across hill and valley, lake and forest. A craggy cliff; a meandering river; a hill-top tarn. The flat, silver sheen of a shiny, shimmering lake.

A trickling brook gargles and burbles over stones and pebbles, jumping joyfully on its descent.  A rushing stream chases and dives over boulders in its headlong rush to be first.

Spongey, pine needle-floored forests; dim and dank.  Sweet, musty smells of sticky sap. Spears of sunlight pierce through the dense growth, jabbing forward as spikey luminous shafts. Contorted, silhoetted forms of twisted trunk and bending branch.

Cold winds whip the ears and blast the face.  Fierce gusts  push, buffet,  scream and howl. Rain falls, hard and relentless, pounding into puddles and flooding the lanes.

Ragged, shale-scattered, moonscape plateaus, devoid of life and death.   No place for man, who comes then soon departs.   Faint, spectral images flitter in and out of  view.  Ghostly apparitions passing through a shadowy abyss.

Sink into the soft, moss-quilted, long-bladed grass beside a motionless lake and doze to the purring of the motor-boat chugging.  Feel the glow of radiant sun sweeping across your face with the gentlest touch of a caressing breeze.  Dangle your feet in the water, which tingle with the chill, then relax to lapping licks around ankles and toes.

Breath in.  Breath out.

Breathe  in –

‘The Lakes’.


Lakeland images:

Thanks to:   



Gurning, however, is the opposite of such beauty.  It takes place at ‘the crab fayre’ (old English spelling) in the village of Egremont.  Apparently the fair has been taking place since the thirteenth century and began when the local ‘Lord of Egremont’,  Thomas de Multon (1247-1294), started giving away ‘crab apples’ to his serfs.  This became a yearly event which was given ‘Royal Charter’ by King Henry III in 1267.

Through the centuries the event has been reported by newspapers under various titles.  In 1852 it was described as Grinn for tobacco, in 1884 it was more colloquially known as Grinning for ‘bacca.   In the twentieth century it became Gurning through a braffin and is now known as the World Gurning Competition.

Gurning itseld is all about pulling grotesque faces through a horse collar known as a ‘braffin‘.  The verb ‘to gurn’ actually means to ‘snarl like a dog, look savage, and distort the countenance’.   The origin of gurning is obscure.  It is reported to have originated from the mockery of the village idiot – the townsfolk would throw a horse’s collar over him and make him pull funny faces in exchange for a few pints of ale.  Another stories include when a drunken farmer arrived home to find a most discontented wife, he shouted “stop gurning, woman!” and thrust a horse collar over her head. (read more)

Every year, gurning experts come together to compete for the world championship.  Men and women compete for this much covetted title.  Yes, it’s taken very seriously!  Four times winner Peter Jackson has even had teeth taken out to make his face even uglier!

So, watch below to see gurning in an old BBC documentary.

So – is gurning a sport?

One comment on “The ‘Lake District’ and Gurning.

  1. You put it right, Phil: England is a land of contrasts. Here, ugliness is giving the cue to the breathtaking beauty of the country, which you describe so well. Gurning is not a sport, but a funny game. We mustn’t forget, let alone mock, the poor ones who are really ugly (eg. Elephant Man), though. I’m sharing the article on Facebook, Phil.

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