10 things about Britain’s most eccentric events
Many of Britain’s plethora of peculiar events reflect a desire for nostalgia and some are taken very seriously indeed…
1. Up Helly Aa
In Lerwick, Shetland, on the last Tuesday in January every year, Europe’s largest fire festival lights up. A tradition that originated in the 1880s, Up Helly Aa day involves a torch-lit procession around the town in themed costumes, culminating in the burning of a Viking longship or galley. This is followed by hours of performing and dancing throughout the town. The event now happens all over Shetland and is currently celebrated at ten locations.
2. The Flaming Tar Barrels
The residents of the Devon town of Ottery St Mary have decided that sparklers and fireworks on bonfire night aren’t nearly exciting enough. Instead, risk-taking residents hoist 30-kilogram barrels of burning tar onto their shoulders and sprint down the hilly streets in a blaze of sparks. This event is thought to be a relic of an age-old tradition, begun in the 17th century, where the barrels may have been used to fumigate shops. Or it may have its roots even further back, as part of long-lost pagan fire rituals. Either way, the townsfolk jealously guard the event and running the tar barrels has become a much-loved tradition.
3. Morris Dancing
Before the English Civil War, the working peasantry took part in Morris dances, especially at Whitsun. Wander through an English country fete at Easter time today and chances are you’ll still bump in to some of these traditional yet unfailingly amusing jangling dancers.
4. The Great British Duck Race
You might think that a quarter of a million blue plastic ducks clogging the Thames at Mosely Lock near Hampton Court is an unusual sight, but while this annual charity event is the biggest of its kind, we Brits are just nuts about duck races. Take the venerable Shaldon Regatta in Devon, which runs for the last nine days of August every year. The regatta is one of the oldest in Britain, dating back to 1817, and has become something of an institution loved by locals and Grockles (holidaymakers) alike. Aside from the rowing and beach sports the event includes a tug of war, pillow fights, a treasure hunt and another duck race, where hundreds of the little bath-time favourites bob in a yellow swath along the Teign Estuary.
The Cheese Rolling at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire is not a complicated premise – entrants line up at the top of an extremely steep hill and proceed to hurl themselves down after a bouncing eight-pound Double Gloucester cheese. The winner is the first to reach the bottom. The event has won quite a following and crowds of thousands turn up to watch the crazy cheese chasers.
Hocktide was a medieval English festival generally celebrated on the second Tuesday after Easter, where the men of the village would tie up the women and demand a kiss for their liberation. The women would get their own back the next day by returning the favour, although they cleverly demanded money in exchange for their release which would go to Parish funds. It is suggested that the tradition celebrates the massacre of the Danes in the 11th century by King Ethelred the Unready. The practice was banned under King Henry VIII but re-introduced by Elizabeth I in 1575 and now Hungerford in Berkshire may be the only place that still practices the tradition, though in a modified form.
7. Great Christmas Pudding Race
If you’re picturing hundreds of tubby little Christmas puddings suddenly sprouting legs and racing for their lives, you couldn’t be further from the truth. The traditional Christmas pudding does form the centrepiece of this madcap event on the first or second Sunday in December, but it is balanced on a tray while human competitors in fancy dress run around a specially constructed course in London’s Covent Garden. You might think keeping a pudding on a tray sounds far easier than an egg on a spoon, but when confronted with foam jets, inflatable slides and balloons full of flour, many a mini pudding never makes it to the finish line.
8. Padstow Obby
Obby Oss? That’s hobby horse to you and me. In Padstow, Cornwall, a traditional ‘Obby ‘Oss day is held annually on May Day, which dates back to the Celtic Beltane, the day celebrating the coming of summer. There is extensive documentary evidence of British community May Day celebrations in the 16th century and earlier, although the earliest mention of the Obby Oss at Padstow dates from 1803. The town is dressed with greenery, flowers, flags and a maypole and the climax of the festivities arrives when two groups of dancers progress through the town, one of each team dressed up as a horse. Accompanied by drums and accordions, each ‘oss is adorned by a gruesome mask and black frame-hung cape under which they try to catch young maidens as they pass through the town.
9. Olney Pancake Race
Tradition has it that pancakes became standard fare on Shrove Tuesday in order to use up the last of the eggs, which were forbidden during Lent. Well that’s sensible enough, but the female residents of Olney in Buckinghamshire have found a different use for their pancakes, holding what is though to be the world’s oldest pancake race. Only open to the women of the town, who dress up in headscarves and aprons, the race’s competitors must make their own pancake and demonstrate their tossing prowess before sprinting in a most unladylike fashion along a 415-yard course through the town. Why? It’s flipping good fun.
10. World Pooh Sticks Championships
If you don’t remember from reading Winnie the Pooh as a child, the excellent concept of Pooh Sticks simply involves dropping sticks (or fir cones in the book) off a bridge and watching them emerge on the other side. Aside from the hours of fun that can be had at this pursuit, true Pooh Stick aficionados can head to Days Lock in Oxfordshire on the last Sunday in March for the true test of their Pooh Stick mettle at the world’s top Pooh Sticks event.
Find some weird and wonderful facts about the London Olympics in Issue 4, Volume 80 of BRITAIN magazine, out 7 June.