Wales: 'I love bog snorkelling because it saved my life'

Julia Galvin
Julia Galvin was second in her first championships in 1999, a year after being in hospital unable to walk

It's dark, dirty and more like an I'm A Celebrity Bushtucker Trial - but the World Bog Snorkelling Championships inspired one woman to walk again.

Yes, you heard me. It's a real event and gave Julia Galvin a goal to go from hospital bed to bog trench in a year.

People from around the world compete in a 120-yard snorkel in a muddy bog that's a Lonely Planet's top 50 must-do experience - and it's on this weekend.

Julia said the snorkelling festival in mid Wales "saved my life".

She was laid up in hospital unable to walk, aged 25, with a back problem and sciatica down both legs, needing a walking frame to get around and taking 16 tablets a day to ease her pain.

"My life wasn't really worth living and I was going have surgery on my back but doctors said I was on too many tablets to operate," Julia recalled.

"A friend of mine gave me the Guinness Book of Records and I saw this guy coming out of a bog in Wales.

"I live in a bog in Ireland and I was always warned against the dangers of a bog - so that picture opened my eyes and I wanted to do it."

Competitors from as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, USA, China and South Africa have descended on Llanwrtyd Wells over the August Bank Holiday weekend since 1986.

What is bog snorkelling?

Anyone can have a go at the world title as long as they turn up in Powys with flippers, mask, a snorkel, the £20 entry fee and the hope they can stop world record holder Neil Rutter win a fifth successive crown over 120 yards.

Sian Andrews takes part in the Rude Health World Bogsnorkelling Championships at Waen Rhydd peat bog in Llanwrtyd Wells
Bog snorkelers cannot use conventional swimming strokes as the emphasis is on flipper power - but doggy paddle is allowed

Julia's inspiration came from the mud of mid Wales where the "whacky" showpiece had become a bucket list event for alternative thrill-seekers.

"I'd never swum before but I needed to swim to help my recovery and competing in Wales was my goal for getting better and I've not looked back since - it changed my life," said the supply teacher from the Republic of Ireland.

What's the best bog snorkelling strategy?

"It's a really strange experience, everything is dark and cold and you can't go too fast - you have to pace yourself. The trench is only 3ft deep and about 3ft wide so you can't really sink far.

Julia Galvin
Julia practices in her own bog on her 50 acres of land is Listowel in County Kerry, Republic of Ireland

"Breathe easy, go nice and slow and enjoy the experience."

A bogathon has been added to the two-day event this year - a 60 yard bog snorkel, two-mile cross-country bike ride and one mile cross-country run.

Comedians Paddy McGuinness and Rory McGrath have joined top former sportsmen Gareth Thomas and Donovan Bailey in the Welsh bog as the event has attracted a string of celebrities - including BBC weatherman Derek Brockway.

"It was the hardest thing I've done in my life," said Derek, a keen walker, runner and squash player.

Derek Brockway
Fancy dress is encouraged at the World Bog Snorkelling Championship and they all dressed up to cheer on BBC weatherman Derek Brockway

"I crawled through the water because I didn't have enough energy - but the crowd cheered me on and the atmosphere inspired me to finish."

Where did bog snorkelling start?

Bog snorkelling began in Llanwrtyd Wells in 1976, 10 years before the first world championship. It's not just put Wales' smallest town - once the UK's smallest - on the map, but on stamps too.

The snorkelling is on a Site of Special Scientific Interest at the Waen Rhydd bog - home to protected species like newts, frogs, various plants and the odd otter.

It is a sheep field for the rest of the year, with the bog snorkelling trenches fenced off.

Julia now snorkels around the world but feels Llanwrtyd Wells - where six world records have been broken, including Rutter's current 1 minute and 18.81 second time from 2018 - is to bog snorkelling what Wimbledon is to tennis.

"If it wasn't for Wales I wouldn't be alive," she said, holding back tears.

"When I come here it feels like I'm home, it has a special place in my heart. Wales is the mecca of bog snorkelling."

Why did the bog snorkelling start?

The event and "sister" tournaments like Man v Horse and Stone Skimming Championships were dreamt up in a local pub by businesspeople hoping to attract more visitors to their rural former Victorian spa town.

"Llanwrtyd Wells was built around the waters and people used to come here for their holidays," said Llanwrtyd mayor Sarah Jones.

Staff at Caffi Sosban
Lindsey says as well as putting their small town on the map, the bog snorkelling does help keep businesses like her café "going'

"That declined with people taking foreign holidays so the idea behind these events were to give a reason for people to come to Llanwrtyd."

Now about 200 people volunteer - the equivalent of a quarter of the town's population - at the various quirky events throughout the year as organisers try to help local business survive.

"They are massively important for us as it draws so many people here who would probably never know we're here otherwise," said Lindsey Greenough, who runs Caffi Sosban on the town square.

Lindsey said her shop could be packed with "people queuing down the road" on event days, while the shop and garage Charlotte Christie runs sells more of her produce not just to visitors but to guest houses and hotels catering for the increased tourists.

Charlotte and her shop staff
Charlotte (left) says tourists going to the alternative events give her shop and garage a financial boost to help them through the winter

"There's definitely an increased footfall on event weekends," said Charlotte of Llanwrtyd Wells Auto Services.

"It echoes how it would have felt during the Victorian spa days when the hotels would have been full, streets bustling and shops heaving - it's nice to see new faces in town."

Why is peat so important?

An unintended impact of the bog snorkelling championship is helping raise awareness of one of the most effective weapons against climate change.

Peatlands are a natural carbon sink, absorbing carbon dioxide and burying it in the soil. In Europe alone, they store about five times more carbon than forests.

What makes a real bog?

Bogs are a wetland of soft, spongy ground consisting mainly of partially decayed plant matter called peat. Peatland makes up an estimated 10% of the UK, more than 11,000 square miles.

A competitor takes part in the World Bog Snorkelling Championships at Waen Rhydd peat bog in Llanwrtyd Wells
Competitors do two lengths of the Waen Rhydd bog, on the edge of Llanwrtyd Wells which is one of 50 raised bogs in Wales

Peatland covers just 4% of Wales, but environment watchdog Natural Resources Wales said it retains 30% of its land-based carbon.

Damaged peatland actually harms the environment as it releases greenhouse gases.

As much as 90% of Wales' peatland is damaged, and the Welsh Government has tripled its targets to repair it.