12 Wonderfully Eccentric British Traditions that Will Amuse and Amaze Foreign Visitors
We love a good tradition in the UK, and the more eccentric, the more heartily we seem to embrace it.
Our calendar is full of quirky events that demonstrate our love for absurd customs, and it feels as though the more we move towards a digital age, the more we cling to these reminders of a simpler time in our nation’s history. Some of the events on this list are hundreds of years old; others are more recent inventions in the spirit of older traditions. But they all have one thing in common: they’re part of our national – eccentric – identity. And we love them!
1. Guy Fawkes Night
“Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot;
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”
This little ditty marks the night of the year that could be said to best encapsulate nationwide British eccentricity: Guy Fawkes Night. Celebrated on the 5th of November each year, Guy Fawkes Night is also known as Bonfire Night, and it commemorates the night in 1605 when Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators planned to carry out the infamous Gunpowder Plot: a scheme to blow up the House of Lords. Fawkes was caught in the nick of time, and the country lit bonfires to celebrate the fact that King James had survived this dastardly assassination attempt. It became a national holiday enforced by law not long after, and one of the traditions that sprung up (nobody really knows when) was the burning of an effigy – a ‘Guy’ – on the bonfire. Children would make them and then parade them around their villages asking for a ‘penny for the guy’ (a custom that has now largely died out), and the guy would then go up in flames with the lighting of the bonfire after nightfall. These days, Bonfire Night parties happen all over the country both on Guy Fawkes Night itself and on the weekends either side of it. Firework displays have become the most common way of celebrating this occasion, though bonfires also remain popular.
The town of Ottery St Mary in Devon has its own take on Guy Fawkes Night celebrations, and they’re pretty hazardous. The term ‘tar barrel rolling’ doesn’t really provide an adequate explanation of what it involves, and makes it sound tamer than it is. What really happens is that flaming tar barrels are carried through the streets on the shoulders of those brave enough to take part (they’re known as “Barrel Rollers”, many of whom have passed down the honour of taking part through many generations), and the residents of Ottery St Mary are the only people in the country to think that this is a good idea. It’s not known exactly when the custom started, but it’s thought to be hundreds of years old and probably started around the time of the Gunpowder Plot. It fits in with a wider West Country tradition of torchlit processions, and, as if seventeen flaming barrels wasn’t enough, they also have a huge bonfire – the guy for which has been made by the same family since 1958.
3. The Lymm Duck Race
The Duck Race is the highlight of the year in the village of Lymm (near Warrington, Cheshire): a thousand yellow rubber ducks are launched into the water of Lymm Dingle (we’re not quite sure why it has this unusual name), racing each other in a gripping battle for the title of Lymm Duck Race winner. It’s all for charity, but the three lucky people whose ducks pass the finish line first will win cash prizes of up to £100.
4. Morris dancing
If there’s one tradition in the UK that harks back to ‘the olden days’ more than any other, it’s definitely Morris dancing. No village show or folk festival in the UK is complete without the presence of a band of Morris dancers. Picture a group of men or women, dressed in old-fashioned clothes, with bells jingling on their legs, holding sticks or handkerchiefs, and dancing rhythmically to simple, traditional music played on a fiddle or accordion, and you get the idea. In fact, that description probably doesn’t do it justice, so view this YouTube video for an example. Though the earliest known written mention of Morris dancing dates to 1448 (the record of a payment of seven shillings made to a group of Morris dancers by the Goldsmith’s Company, in London), it may have started much earlier than this. These days, six main styles of Morris dancing survive, and they’re named after the regions in which they originate, such as Border Morris and Cotswold Morris. It’s English historical eccentricity at its finest.
Although America now embraces Halloween with even more enthusiasm than we do, this annual occasion has its roots in Celtic harvest festivals. Christianised as All Hallows’ Eve, it’s widely thought to be linked with the Pagan festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. These days, it’s known as Halloween (or Hallowe’en, but nobody uses the apostrophe anymore), and it’s celebrated most commonly with the carving of pumpkins into scary faces, traditionally seen as spirits and goblins. These carved pumpkins are known as jack-o’-lanterns, and people put candles inside them so that they glow menacingly. People put these on their windowsills or at the end of their drives on Halloween night, a practice said to have originated to ward off evil spirits from the home.
Another common Halloween custom is ‘trick or treating’ – originally known as ‘guising’ – in which children dress up as witches, ghosts, vampires and such like, and knock on neighbours’ doors shouting “trick or treat”, in the hope of being given chocolate (the threat of a ‘trick’ – some form of mischief – is rarely carried out). Halloween is a night on which people love getting dressed up and also getting into the mood for scaring themselves, perhaps by telling ghost stories or watching horror films.
6. Cheese Rolling, Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire
Nobody is quite sure when the tradition of cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire started, but it’s definitely hundreds of years old, possibly even pre-Roman, and in its present form it is thought to have been going since the fifteenth century. A cheese is rolled down the hill, and competitors chase after it, trying to keep up with it and, theoretically, catch it. This inevitably leads to competitors tumbling over each other and sustaining injuries of one sort or another. Traditionally, a 9lb Double Gloucester was used. In recent years, health and safety fears have put the event in jeopardy, but the locals are so proud of their tradition that they have ensured that the event continues to go ahead.
7. Egremont Crab Fair – Gurning Competition
You’d be forgiven for visualising clawed crustaceans at the words “Crab Festival”, but this name actually refers to crab apples. The Egremont Crab Fair in Cumbria dates from 1267, when King Henry III granted the fair a Royal Charter; it’s one of the oldest fairs of any kind in the world. Its programme features a number of weird and wonderful English events – notably the Parade of the Apple Cart, which kicks off the proceedings – but topping them all is the world-famous Gurning competition. A common rural tradition, gurning competitions involve contestants attempting to distort their faces into the most revolting, bizarre expressions they possibly can. It’s a far cry from the natural beauty for which the Lake District region, in which this festival is located, is better known!
8. The World Stone Skimming Championships, Scotland
Slightly more worthwhile than gurning – but not by much – stone skimming involves throwing a flat stone in such a way that it bounces repeatedly off the surface of a body of water. Nowhere is this concept more widely embraced than on the Hebridean island of Easdale, home to the World Stone Skimming Championships. Started in 1983, the championships see 350 contestants using specially selected throwing stones made of Easdale slate, with the prize going to the person who can get their stone the furthest (with a minimum of three bounces).
9. Easter Egg hunts and the Easter Bunny
Easter in the UK is celebrated with the setting of Easter egg hunts, in which chocolate eggs are hidden, usually around the garden but sometimes in the house, for children to find. Children are led to believe that the eggs have been hidden by the Easter Bunny, a tradition that stems from at least the seventeenth century. One theory as to the origin of the Easter Bunny is that in the spring, around Easter time, hares behave oddly, leaping about in the fields and fighting, due to their mating rituals (hence the origin of the phrase “mad as a March hare”); at around the same time, lapwings lay their eggs in farmers’ fields. It’s thought that rural folk may have believed that the eggs were laid by the hares, which is where the idea of the Easter Bunny may have originated. The symbol of the egg was already a powerful one, representing the idea of rebirth; the Easter egg is meant to symbolise the empty tomb of Jesus, a reminder that he rose from the dead. For most, though, Easter has become simply an excuse to eat lots of chocolate.
10. World Nettle Eating Championship
Held in June each year, the Nettle Eating Contest takes place at the Bottle Inn in Marsham, Dorset. It was started off in the 1980s by two farmers, and was originally a competition to see whose stinging nettles were the longest. One of the farmers brought in a nettle measuring 15ft, and boasted that if anybody had a longer one, he’d eat his. You can probably guess what happened next; and thus, the World Nettle Eating Championship was born. Given that nettles have a sharp sting, we can’t imagine that the competition is much fun – but people come from as far afield as Canada to take part, and the 2010 winner managed to eat a staggering 74ft of nettles. Rather him than us…
11. World Conker Championships
From one bizarre set of championships to another: the World Conker Championships are held each October in Ashton, Northamptonshire. Started in 1965, but celebrating a practice much older than this (the first written mention of this traditional game is from 1820), the Conker Championships began after a group of fishermen decided to have a conker competition instead of going fishing, because the weather was too bad. Conkers are the nuts of the horse chestnut tree, beautiful gleaming brown things that fall from the tree and emerge from their spiny green case in the autumn. When hardened and attached to strings, they can be smashed with sufficient force from one’s opponent’s conker, which is the objective of the Conker Championships. Contestants compete for the title of “King Conker” and “Queen Conker”, and the spectacle draws in thousands of visitors each year.
12. May Day in Oxford
We end with the Oxford tradition of May Day festivities. On May Morning (1 May), people get up very early (or are still out from partying the night before) to hear the choir of Magdalen College, Oxford singing the Eucharist from the top of the Magdalen College tower at 6am. The bridge into town is closed, and in previous years revellers have jumped from the bridge into the river (a practice now banned for health and safety reasons). Also present are the mandatory Morris dancers and other musicians to entertain the gathered masses. This tradition has been going for at least 500 years. Because balls are often held at the university colleges the night before, some students may be present still in their ball gowns or white tie from the previous night; the May Morning celebrations are the perfect excuse to keep the frivolity going all night.
There were countless other bizarre English traditions and events we could have mentioned, but this list should have given you an insight into the kind of weirdness we like to celebrate here in the UK. Who knows what delightful eccentricity you’ll come across if you join us here in Oxford this summer…