10 Vital Components of a Traditional British Summer
Traditions are wonderful things, but they are often much newer than we realise.
The great Oxford tradition of wearing a carnation to symbolise how far a student is through their exams (a white carnation for the first, red for the last, pink for any in between) is only about a generation old. Most British Christmas traditions, such as eating turkey or having a Christmas tree, date only from Victorian times. The TV listings magazine, the Radio Times, described the Doctor Who Christmas special of 2006 as ‘traditional’, despite the fact that Doctor Who had only broadcast a Christmas special twice before – and one of those times was in 1965.
Some of the traditions listed here do have roots that stretch deep into the past. Others have appeared more recently, but cemented themselves firmly into British culture. Students attending Oxford Royale Summer Schools summer school courses will, of course, get the chance to experience many of these traditions for themselves.
This is the quintessential summer activity at both Oxford and Cambridge University. As soon as the sun starts to shine and students finish their exams, the Cherwell and the Cam fill up with people taking to the water and having a go at steering a punt.
Both rivers are shallow enough that they warm up quickly in the summer, so even the occasional unfortunate who falls in is usually more startled than miserable. Falling in is usually the result of someone trying to hold on to the pole when it gets stuck in the riverbed, so that they stay put while the punt continues moving – a situation that is easily enough avoided by remembering to let go of the pole.
Once you get reasonably skilled at punting (and some people get good enough to race), it’s a wonderful, tranquil way to explore the river, drifting along in a way that is much calmer than a rowboat and vastly more civilised than a pedalo. It’s hardly surprising that it’s the thing that visitors to Oxford and Cambridge most often want to try out – and it’s an integral part of our summer school activities programme too.
The tradition of a picnic dates from at least the Middle Ages, when gentlemen out hunting would pause for a lavish meal outdoors. By the late 18th century, the idea of going out for a picnic – without the context of already being out for a hunt or other activity – was gaining traction among people from all classes of society. Picnics nowadays can still be quite decadent (as Fortnum and Mason’s range of ready prepared picnic hampers shows) but a hastily assembled sandwich, some crisps and lemonade is perhaps truer to how this tradition works out in modern Britain.
One of the unusual things about Britain is that it is almost entirely lacking in any dangerous animals at all. Wolves may have become extinct in the UK as early as the 16th century, and while the UK does boast a grand total of one species of venomous snake, the adder, only about 100 people are bitten by adders every year and there have only been 14 recorded deaths from adders since 1876. This means that the worst things likely to trouble you on a picnic in the countryside are ants or perhaps a particularly bold swan – which might explain why British people are so enthusiastic about the idea of picnics even though our weather seldom justifies it.
3. Eton Mess and other traditional desserts
British food has a bad reputation around the world (once deserved; no longer justified), but one aspect of British food has been rightly celebrated: desserts. From the rhubarb tarts of autumn to flaming Christmas puddings to thin pancakes at the start of Lent, desserts are one area we’ve always been good at. And in summer, desserts come into their own. One traditional dessert is Eton mess, which is served to the pupils of Eton on their traditional cricket match against their rivals at Harrow.
Eton mess is deliciously simple (and simply delicious). It consists of meringues, cream and some kind of summer fruit, usually strawberries, mashed together into a sort of sugary, creamy, pinkish sludge. It takes around two minutes to make and can be assembled by a toddler. A more challenging traditional dessert is trifle, which is a layered dessert with custard, fruit, light sponge cake and cream. Other, similarly wonderful desserts include gooseberry fool, lemon posset and syllabub.
Wander through any British town or village on the first sunny day of any given year and you might be forgiven for wondering if there is a seriously underreported arson problem gripping the UK as clouds of smoke waft through the air and there is a strong smell of burning wherever you go.
But it’s not, in fact, the result of excessive enthusiasm for candles or wildfires or anything else – it’s the British mania for barbecues (what Americans would call a cookout) as soon as the sun is shining. And if the sun isn’t actually shining, but it’s June and we feel like it really ought to be, we will probably have a barbecue anyway. Grumbling about the rain putting out the fire is all part of the tradition. A barbecue might include sausages, chicken or vegetable skewers with halloumi, as the tradition is mostly trying to cook something outdoors that would clearly be more sensibly cooked indoors; what’s been cooked is less important.
Barbecues are also an occasion when you realise quite how densely populated the UK is. Britain is the 53rd most densely populated country or dependency in the world, a ranking that drops considerably once city-states and small islands such as Tuvalu are discounted. Despite this, British people in general prefer to live in houses, rather than flats – and much of the reason for this is quite possibly the culture of having a barbecue in the back garden on the very small handful of days that will allow it – no matter how cramped that will be.
5. Strawberries and cream
Arguably, strawberries and cream could have been included under point 3 about traditional desserts. But they’re so vital to a proper British summer that they deserve a point of their own. From the early days of April, gleaming, perfectly formed but oversized strawberries start appearing on supermarket shelves, having completed a Phileas Fogg-esque journey to get there. In late May when suddenly they are joined by smaller and distinctly less gleaming counterparts from polytunnels in the British Isles – packaging blazing with national flags – which last until around October. We eat colossal quantities of the things.
The cream part is an unusual British food preference, too. Large swathes of the world finds the British habit of pouring on unwhipped cream to be downright odd. Then there’s the debate about whether it should always be single cream, or if double cream is just the right amount of decadence for a proper summer treat.
Otherwise known as the All-England Lawn Tennis Championships, Wimbledon is one of those sporting events where the entire country decides, for the duration of two weeks, that they do actually care about tennis (see also the Olympics, where we discover a fascination with rowing, dressage and cycling – or to put it another way, the events where we actually stand a chance of getting a medal or two). Unfortunately, we’re not particularly good at tennis: while Andy Murray won Wimbledon in 2013 and 2016, he was the first British man to do so since Fred Perry in 1936. (British women had done slightly better, with a victory in 1977).
There are a host of traditions associated with Wimbledon, such as strawberries and cream (yes, again) being served to people there and usually being eaten by people watching at home as well. Players are required to dress entirely in white. If the Queen or the Prince of Wales are watching from the Royal Box, players are asked to bow or curtsy to them on entering or leaving Centre Court. Of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, Wimbledon is the only one still played on grass.
7. Visits to the seaside
Of the four nations of the United Kingdom, England has the sunniest weather and the least rain. Yet in the warmest month of the year in England – July – the average maximum temperature is 20.9 degrees centigrade, and there are on average 9 days of rain.
The traditional British seaside holiday, then, isn’t so much about sunbathing in the baking heat than eating ice cream in warmish temperatures and hoping to avoid drizzle. Beaches in the UK are usually active sorts of places, with stalls, games, donkey rides, and people running shrieking into and out of the sea; it’s a bit too cold to stay still. Some of the odder traditions of the British seaside, such as Punch-and-Judy shows, have mostly vanished unmourned. Others, like building sandcastles and sticks of rock (boiled sugar that has been dyed with a pattern such as the name of a resort and formed into the shape of a stick) are alive and well.
8. Street parties
A street party is a British tradition that dates back to 1919, when they were held to celebrate the Peace Treaty after the First World War. Since then, they’ve followed the same pattern: a road is closed for a day or an afternoon, and residents of a particular street bring out tables, chairs and party-themed tablecloths. Bunting is strung between the lampposts. There are drinks, cakes and whatever potluck food the residents feel like providing. These kinds of parties have traditionally been held on major national days of celebration, particularly in connection with the Royal Family – coronations, weddings and jubilees have all led to street parties. The tradition was particularly lively in 2012, when the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee coincided with the Olympics being held in London and it seemed like Union Jack bunting was on sale in every Tesco.
The idea of a street party is associated in many people’s minds with the kind of old-fashioned neighbourliness they imagine existed in the 1950s and exists no longer, but in fact street parties are thriving. The government have even provided guidance on how to go about setting one up.
9. The Edinburgh Festival
The Edinburgh Festival is a slightly misleading term. August in Edinburgh is a time of countless festivals of various different sizes: the “Edinburgh Festival” is usually used to refer to one of the two biggest, either the Edinburgh International Festival or the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
The Edinburgh International Festival is a grand, traditional affair focusing on classical music, theatre, opera and dance, attracting performers and visitors from all over the world to its array of outstanding performances.
The Edinburgh Fringe Festival has similarly worldwide appeal, but a much more alternative vibe. No selection committee chooses its thousands of shows, and it showcases a vast variety of performing arts. The quality of any given show can be world-class or appalling; very few break even; and performing at the Fringe can be gruelling with so many other acts to compete with. But it’s also considered a vital opportunity for up-and-coming performers to network and gain exposure, and its anarchic approach creates a unique opportunity for performers who might struggle to find a niche elsewhere.
10. The Silly Season
Summer is traditionally the time when British newspapers go a little nuts in trying to find news stories. Parliament goes on holiday for about two and a half months, so short of a crisis, political news is normally minimal. Circulation drops, because so many people have gone on holiday. So in a bid to hold on to some of their readership – not to mention to have something to fill blank pages with – newspapers will print stories that at other times of year would have garnered rather less attention.
Popular kinds of news stories during this period include obsessive analysis of the holiday destinations of politicians – sometimes seen as evidence of dubious connections (such as Tony Blair’s holiday with Silvio Berlusconi) but more often used to analyse the character of the politician in question, such as David Cameron’s trips to Cornwall. Animal stories are also always a good option, whether that’s killer chipmunks, deadly bees, or reports of sharks seen off the British coast.
What else do you think is an essential part of a British summer? Share it in the comments!