A home for every hobby

From amateur dramatics to pigeon-fancying, from collecting gramophone needle tins to collecting Victorian cake decorations, from trumpeting the wedding march on a gun barrel to trying to beat the world record for custard pie throwing -- the range of unusual enthusiasms enjoyed in Britain today is wide.

Clubs, societies, and associations for hobbies and pursuits from the likely to the incredibly unlikely, abound here.

Crispian Henderson of CBD Research (Current British Directories Research) of London scanned his latest list and picked out such choice examples as:

300 members who ski by day and play chamber music by night.

* The Two Millimeter Scale Association -- which he felt probably has something to do with railways.

*The Fastest Draw Association -- about which nothing is known except its mention in the Times two years ago.

* The British Fast Draw Association -- possibly a rival faction.

* Cats in Industry -- an association designed to aid cats used in factories to control rodents. Has over one hundred members though it is not clear if these are human or feline. Mr. Henderson drew attention to the association's address as very apt: 154 Tomm Lane, Sheffield.

Mr. Henderson also mentioned the Association of Comics Enthusiasts; the International Baton Twirling Association, British division (over 2,000 members); and most mysterious of all, the Buttonhook Society.

This last mystery, however, was soon cleared up by Paul Moorehead, the club secretary. He lives in Cambridge and started the Buttonhook Society in the middle of last year. It already has 76 members, and 33 associated museums to its credit. His own collection of buttonhooks amounts to 645 -- though some members have over 2,000.

"No household between 1875 and 1915 could possibly function without at least one buttonhook," says Mr. Moorehead. Essentially the buttonhook was a tool for fastening the buttons on boots -- gentlemen's at first and later, ladies' -- and they come in all sorts of guises from the elaborately fashionable to the plain and utilitarian.

Collectors flood the nation. Take Fred Atkinson, for example, who collects farm machinery, gasworks, bandstands, railway stations, and coal mines. . . . Well, to be exact, here is a happy man who claims that his job is his hobby: he runs the North of England Open Air Museum, at Beamish, County Durham, and is indeed erecting a railway station (collected in pieces from all over the northeast) and also colliery buildings and machinery -- not to mention his plan for a complete market town to be reconstructed on the museum's 300-acre site in the next few years.

Collectors are everywhere. Collectors of bottles and antique tins, snakes and snakeskins, pianolas and ancient bicycles. There is even an individual who collects Thames mud -- but he shall be nameless for not being truly amateur: He sells it for profit. Some collectors remain little more than a rumor. "Oh, yes ," people say when you ask. "There's someone my son knows who collects letter boxes." Letter boxes?

A Glasgow antique dealer remembers a client who specializes exclusively in postcards of water wheels. Her husband remembers another who collects postmarks , nothing but postmarks.

Treasure hunters comb the countryside. Use of metal detectors has now become so popular in Britain that a campaign recently was begun to draw the public's attention to indiscriminate use of these devices. Some users, according to the Council for British Archaeology, pick up material at night, have it identified by museums, and then sell it to dealers. But the detector information group, which numbers enthusiasts at half a million, denies widespread irresponsibility.

Not all British hobbies are acquisitive, of course. Some involve making things -- weaving, spinning, potting, corn-dolly making. Some are to do with growing things. The northeast is home of two strange and specialist horticultural hobbies, prize leek growing, and prize gooseberry growing. In this nation of gardeners there is a wealth and diversity of clubs connected with plant life.

None could be more unusual than the Carnivorous Plant Society, started by John Watkins who works at Kew Gardens in London. Botanists, research assistants , the old and young the amateur and professional alike attend the monthly meetings and receive the journal and newsletter. Why are the 450-500 species of plant they study called "carnivorous" and not merely "insectivorous"? Because, says Mr. Watkins, some of them eat frogs and mice. Enthusiasts have joined the two-year-old club from all corners of the globe. Most, however, are British.

Some hobbies consist of watching and noting things. Alan Cain of Glasgow has an unusual hobby of this variety. "There are only 30 of us in Britain," he says , "and I'm the only one in Scotland." He records sightings of the most recently registered car number plates. He travels all over Scotland doing it. He doesn't collect the plates themselves, just the numbers. "Auto numerology" is the name of this particular game. This year marks the first British convention of auto numerologists in four years, at Taunton in Somerset.

Railway enthusiasts come out in droves on fine days. Some simply walk along disused tracks. Other photograph steam trains which chug obligingly from museum home to museum home at specified times and seasons. The ancient sound of these engines and the telltale sight of a white billow in the valley is pure nostalgia. It goes, apparently, to the enthusiasts' heads: They balance precariously on bridge parapets, cameras poised, insensible to danger.

Some hobbies have to do with writing things. When BBC radio held a short story contest a few months ago, it was swamped with 7,500 entries.

Some hobbies and clubs focus attention on a writer. The H.G. Wells Society, for instance. Or the Tolkein Society. Founded in 1969, it acts as a focal point for international interest in the author of "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Ring." The bulletin for members is called Amon Hen. There is also a journal. And a Tolkien Society libary. And two national meetings a year. The society's handout also notes that "Smials," or local groups, have been set up throughout the world.

Undoubtedly, the two most serious enthusiasms my researches uncovered are those of Martin Dee and Mike Fitzgerald.

Mr. Dee, a Gloucestershire farmer, has recently been featured on BBC radio and television. Not only does he play the "Wedding March" on a gun barrel, but also "Home on the Range" on a bullock's horn, "When the Saints Come Marching In" on a milking-machine, and (his star attraction) "Amazing Grace" on the whirling hosepipe.

His other wind instruments include a tubular chair, and a bicycle frame - which he described to me as "an old-fashioned sit-up-and-beg" type. He complains of the rust in these last two instruments, and has to blow them "quite hard." The hosepipe is eight feet long and as he blows he swings it round. "It sounds like a bagpipe band coming down the street."

Mr. Dee, whose blowing days started in 1949, also plays such boring instruments as the bugle and the nine-inch-Cotswold-hunting-horn, on which he claims to have just played the longest note ever, breaking his own previous (and unrecognized) world record. After two attempts, his third blast lasted for 55 1 /2 seconds -- one long, incredible note. He now awaits acknowledgement by the Guinness Book of Records. In the meantime he continues to blow for charity.

Mike Fitzgerald lives in Coxheath, Kent. He organizes "the World Custard Pie Championship," an annual event in his village.The first custard pie throwing to take place here was in June 1967, and each year more and more teams compete. Last year there were 40. "That's over 2,000 pies," says Mr. Fitzgerald.

competitors come from all over Britain and from as far afield as the United States, Holland, and Sweden. For some reason, the French show no interest. It is now five or six years since the world record in custard pie throwing was set by the Coxheath Birds team. "This," says Mr. Fitzgerald, "is because competition is more severe today."

The contest is scored on a point system -- six points for a direct hit (square on the face), three for a near miss, and so on. Judges are chosen from among those experienced in the art. The whole event is conducted, Mr. Fitzgerald assured me, efficiently and with the utmost seriousness. "Otherwise it isn't funny."

The custard isn't of custard. It is made of flour-sweepings and water. "But we don't reveal the exact proportions."

The dedicated pieman, a note on the handout observes, put aside 20 minutes daily "for strengthening his pie-arm."

Mr. Fitzgerald asked for a copy of this article. "Something for my children to remember me by," he said, "I try to keep all the cuttings."

Come to think of it, I'll also send a copy to the Custard Pie Appreciation Society -- which really exists -- at Manchester University. To do less would be churlish.

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