They say that the devil makes work for idle hands – and hobbies appear to have been invented to prevent the English masses from getting up to mischief in their spare time. George Orwell described his country as a nation of inveterate stamp-collectors, pigeon-fanciers and amateur carpenters, and Boris Johnson certainly confirmed the stereotype when he talked about his own quaintly eccentric hobby.

“I like to paint," he said on TalkRadio when asked what he does to relax. "Or I make things. I have a thing where I make models of buses. I get old, I don’t know, wooden crates, and I paint them. It’s a box that’s been used to contain two wine bottles, right, and it will have a dividing thing. And I turn it into a bus.”

Warming to his theme, he added: “I paint the passengers enjoying themselves on the wonderful bus, low-carbon of the kind that we brought to the streets of London, reducing C02, reducing nitrous oxide, reducing pollution."

Following that interview, some commentators pondered what might be written on the sides of all those carefully-crafted, replica buses; others dismissed Johnson's pastime as fictitious whimsy, just like his promise of a £350m bounty for the NHS if Britain voted for Brexit.

But not everyone was so sceptical. On BBC Radio 4's Today programme, etiquette expert Mary Killen, who's a friend of the Johnson family, said she'd seen some of Boris's artworks and he is actually “rather a good artist”. And who knows, she may be right. The MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip has talked before about his fondness for painting Camembert boxes and whisky bottles, so perhaps the public transport variation is merely an embellishment designed to showcase his green credentials and track record as London mayor.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Johnson's pastime is "decidedly odd", agreed political biographer Sir Anthony Seldon on the same programme – confirming that should Johnson win the Tory leadership contest he'd become the first prime minister ever to list model buses-making as a pastime. “I don't know what that says about him but it's unusual,” said Seldon, before reeling off the stated recreational pursuits of previous premiers including MacMillan and Major (cricket), Chamberlain and Disraeli (trees) and Gladstone and Heath (music).

Then again, what is a prospective prime minister to do when it comes to declaring their leisure interests? As Killen pointed out: "Everything is suspect now. If you were to say [your hobby was] fencing they would say why are they aggressive? If you said chess – why are they scheming? Really the only safe ones are walking, gardening or art."

Politicians aren't alone in fretting over which hobbies to include in their CV. Recruitment consultants recommend mentioning only those that involve transferable skills. According to careers website Fish4Jobs, employers are impressed by amateur dramatics (which demonstrate confidence, creativity and public speaking), sports (team work and multi-tasking) or volunteering. "If your hobbies don’t add any value to your personal qualities and are completely unrelated to the job you’re applying for, don’t waste the space," the website warns.

In his book, Tinker Dabble Doodle Try, American psychiatrist Dr Srini Pillay writes that pursuing creative and active pastimes helps make people more successful and Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, points out that innovative people usually have very wide-ranging hobbies and are therefore constantly obtaining fresh perspectives.

The pursuit of leisure has a long history and the word “hobby” is thought to derive from the 16th-century term, "hobbyhorse", which means a wooden equine toy. According to Wikipedia, "hobbies were originally described as pursuits that others thought somewhat childish or trivial". Which is perhaps not surprising. As recently as the early 19th century, the average working Scot was putting in around 15 hours labour a day so the notion of frittering away "spare time" on pointless pursuits must have seemed ludicrous indeed.

However, as wages increased along with leisure hours, instructional guides to everything from gardening to stamp collecting, needlecrafts to amateur ornithology began to proliferate – partly, it's been speculated, as a kind of recreational opium of the masses. And today, antiquarian bookshops are filled with charming old how-to manuals on hobbies that have long gone out of fashion. Who, these days, would want to embroider a tray cloth? Does anyone still fancy pigeons? And will stamp-collecting survive the decline of the traditional post?

Who knows? But as those activities have waned in popularity, others have blossomed and it's not only the English who are, in Orwell's words, "addict[ed] to hobbies and spare-time occupations".

According to a 2015 Saga magazine survey, the average Scot now spends £1100 a year on their hobbies and our favourites are walking or hiking (practised by 38% of us), gardening (35%), swimming (19%), photography (16%) and sewing and knitting (15%).

So far as we know, the UK only has one bus-building politician, and with a no-deal Brexit looming, we might soon wish he'd spent more of his spare time fiddling around with old wine crates. You know what they say about idle hands.

Rich pickings

Collecting dates back at least to Roman times, with Caesar Augustus renowned for accumulating coins. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, there was a somewhat disturbing craze among Europeans for collecting shrunken human heads procured from Latin America, but for the most part, amateur naturalists restricted themselves to the animal kingdom. Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill both collected butterflies in their youth though had given up the hobby before becoming PM. Rare specimens used to sell at auction for hundreds of pounds and at one time there were specialist butterfly farms and dealers. Lepidopterology began to decline in the 1960s and although it is not illegal, today the best place to see those once-precious cases of dead insects is in the Natural History Museum.

Taking wild birds' eggs from their nests then "blowing" them so they could be displayed was popular for decades and according to the RSPB website, enthusiasts would sometimes rob a mother bird of her entire clutch then return after she laid again for the next lot. Although it's been illegal to remove eggs from nests since 1954, a few determined collectors still do it.

Philately, or stamp collecting, is thought to have begun in the late 18th century and remained popular for 200 years but is now in decline. The collecting bug continues, particularly among the rich and famous and while Tony Blair and Nicole Kidman favour coins, others prefer more unusual artefacts. Angelina Jolie covets daggers, Johnny Depp buys limited-edition Barbie dolls and Tom Hanks acquires vintage typewriters. In a 2013 New York Times article, Hanks wrote: "There is no reason to own hundreds of old typewriters other than the sin of misguided avarice (guilty!)." Apparently he likes the sound they make.

Creative arts

Paul McCartney, George W Bush and Anthony Hopkins are all keen amateur artists and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell is known for her Van Gogh-inspired self-portraits, one of which featured on the cover of her album Turbulent Indigo.

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is a great reader, who once said she was particularly fondness for Christopher Brookmyre novels. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reputedly likes to photograph manhole covers. "Some of them are quite artistic," he once said. "I know this sounds a little bit zany." Outgoing PM Theresa May enjoys cooking and spends “quite a lot of time” leafing through her 150-strong cookbook collection, while her predecessor, David Cameron, is a karaoke fan who reportedly performed The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night by The Beatles at the birthday party of Blur bassist and cheese-maker Alex James.

The great outdoors

Liam Neeson is a keen fly fisherman, Leonardo DiCaprio keeps bees, Kate Moss does synchronised swimming and David Beckham is into fencing, which he's reported to have played with Tom Cruise and Will Smith in Cruise's Hollywood home. Walking is one of the activities most often cited by politicians and Ruth Davidson is said to enjoy hillwalking as well as kickboxing. Gerry Adams apparently prefers trampolining. “Yeah, I do it naked,” the former Sinn Fein leader once told an interviewer. “I don’t do it with great expertise, just the joy of it – the dog does it with me. It saves me taking him for a walk. We just go out and bounce for a while.” He could have been joking, of course.


Forget model buses: Rod Stewart is a model railway enthusiast, and has a huge, 1,500 square foot set designed to look like post-war New York City. Other stars prefer life-sized vehicles: Rowan Atkinson's car collection is said to have included a McLaren F1 and an Aston Martin DB2; Blur musician turned farmer Alex James drives tractors; Harrison Ford has a private pilot licence to fly planes and helicopters and Martin Clunes owns several Clydesdale horses.


Knitting and sewing were once essential crafts, practised by anyone who used fishing nets or had a family to clothe. Among the leisured classes, however, crafts such as embroidery and sampler-making were nurtured among young girls, perhaps as a way to keep them quietly occupied. Victorian and Edwardian craft books are full of instructions on how to make linens such as tray cloths and "duchess sets", which are now all but obsolete as can be seen from all those painstakingly stitched handiworks which turn up, unused, in charity shops. Crafts such as knitting, dressmaking and cross-stitch are, however, enjoying a renaissance and celebrities including Meryl Streep, Uma Thurman, Kristen Stewart and the late Robin Williams have all been renowned for knowing how to k1 p1 k2tog.