Throughout the centuries the hobby of smoking a pipe has steadily declined. However, the usage for pipe cleaners has increased largely because of the Kirby Muxloe Pipe Cleaner Festival.

A Pipe Cleaner is a strong metal wire covered in some material such as cotton, which can be easily bent into shapes or used to make sculptures.

At Kirby Muxloe this art form reaches its zenith on the 111th day of the year, which is almost always April 21st apart from in leap years. There are many different categories of pipe cleaner art. Competitors are allowed to colour their pipe cleaners before they begin their sculpture, but can’t change those colours once the sculpture is complete.

The animal art is the most popular class. Walruses and elephants tend to be the most popular exhibits with their tusks as do giraffes with their long necks. The different sections are based on the number of pipe cleaners used. The 100-pipe cleaner section tends to produce smaller animals such as snails and cats, though Jeff Graham’s “Very bony elephant” sculpture of 1983 was memorable for many reasons. The unlimited pipe cleaner class tends not to have too many entries though Sara Smith’s 1972 Blue Whale was chiefly memorable because it made the exhibition stand collapse under its weight. It was awarded the most life-like sculpture prize though the money that went with the prize was withheld to help pay for the damage.

The festival started in 1813 – the first competition was mainly sculptures of the human form. Sculptures by men that claimed to be self-portraits and had massive wedding tackle were disqualified unless the judge, Lady Bellingham, found evidence to the contrary. In 1820 her husband divorced her when she told him how she uncovered  this evidence and also that none of their six children were his.

Wilfrid Street holds the record for the person entering the competition for the most consecutive years, 62, and also for the least successful prize winner, zero. It’s thought that his snail sculptures, although accurate, show little imagination, especially as he enters the same ones every single year.

Basil Cuthbertson was the most successful entrant ever; he won at least one prize in 14 consecutive years. He specialized in spiders and other insects and his piece-de-resistance was the 1912 scarab beetle, which used 4,000 pipe cleaners and is now on display in the Cairo Museum.

This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker