Lyme Regis, Dorset.

The Times July 29, 2006

Town told to drop the dead fish contest
By Will Pavia

(Above) A contestant swings a dead conger eel at another participant in the conger cuddling event. (Below) The hilarious Monty Python scene where characters slap each other with dead fish is similar to the traditional conger cuddling event

THERE was outrage and sadness in a Dorset fishing town yesterday as locals mourned the death of a cherished tradition, killed off after complaints from animal rights activists.

Since time immemorial, or at least since 1974, the denizens of Lyme Regis have gathered on the harbour to indulge in the traditional sport of the conger: a game of skill and balance involving a dead eel.

In the annual finale to the town’s Lifeboat Week, nine players or “conger cuddlers”, would mount wooden blocks arrayed in a triangular formation. An opposing team of nine would take turns to swing a dead conger, suspended from a rope, and try to knock their opponents from their perches as if they were human skittles, the crowd assisting with carefully aimed buckets of sea water.

It was, by common consent, the most fun one could have with a dead fish.

Last night the finest conger cuddlers in the world should have been gathering at the quayside to compete before a crowd of thousands. Teams of firemen, powerboat racers, fishermen — all were preparing to take their chances against the swinging eel in a tournament that raises about £3,000 for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution). This year, however, an anonymous animal rights activist has scuppered the event after writing to the RNLI, complaining that the event was “disrespectful” to dead animals and threatening to film it and use the footage for a nationwide campaign against conger cuddling.

Rob Michael, chairman of the Lyme Regis Lifeboat Guild, was advised by the RNLI to abandon the conger cuddling. “The RNLI is not prepared to be involved in an event that may be seen by some as a barbaric throwback,” he said.

Ken Whetlor, the Mayor of Lyme Regis, pointed out that the conger eels used werecaught accidentally in fisherman’s nets and frozen for the event. “The writer of that letter is a gutless troublemaker with nothing better to do than stop people enjoying an innocent event that helps to raise money to save lives,” he said.

For Richard Fox, 66, a retired publican, local historian, and former world champion town crier, the demise of the sport he helped to found is little short of tragic. “One person creates a fuss over a dead fish and destroys the enjoyment of a large amount of people who do this every year,” he said.

Mr Fox bestowed the game on a grateful town when he arrived from Somerset, where farmhands play a game called mangel dangling — a similar time-honoured sport involving a mangel-wurzel, a large root vegetable. He sought to translate that tradition into Dorset fishing culture. He told The Times: “The conger is an extremely slippery fish. The chaps try to grab hold of it to try to stay on their stand.”

Hence the cuddle, although, should you try this at home, he advises that one should crouch as the fish strikes, maintaining a low centre of gravity.

Mr Fox has little hope that the sport might flourish in secret. “The problem is that you need a big space,” he said. “It’s not like street fighting.”

So Lyme Regis is left to cast about for a new ritual. “In Bermuda, our twin town, they still practise ducking. That’s far worse,” Mr Fox said, before adding, thoughtfully: “Though there are a few women round here I could think of for that.”