The British are masters of the weird and wacky. From cheese rolling in Gloucestershire and fireball whirling in Scotland, to Morris Men dancing and banging sticks, or hobby horses terrorizing villages on May Day, there are wonderfully eccentric traditions all over the British Isles. Most have origins lost in antiquity. No one cares how they got going - the point is to have a good time.
Cheese-Rolling on Cooper's Hill in Gloucestershire may not sound dangerous but this annual event (which local authorities keep trying to ban) is no walk in the park. Once a year, as they have done for hundreds of years, daredevil young men and women hurl themselves down a hill so steep that it is impossible to remain standing, in pursuit of a seven or eight pound wheel of locally made Double Gloucester cheese. There is simply no way participants can come down Cooper's Hill on their feet. Spectators who get too close to the edge have been known to tumble over and join the race involuntarily. And the prize? The wheel of cheese, of course.
May is probably the sexiest month of the year in Britain. Before May Day became entangled with international Left Wing politics, throughout England it had always been a time to celebrate all things fertile, green and juicy. In the smaller villages of England, especially those of the south and southwest, it's still a time for letting one's hair down and celebrating the most primal forces of life. The month kicks off at dawn on May 1 in Cerne Abbas, a small village north of Dorchester in Dorset, when the Wessex Morris Men, along with various new agers, neopagans and other mystical types dance on the Cerne Abbas Giant, the UK's most suggestive landmark.
There's no denying that the Scots love to party through the night. When you combine those high spirits with the primitive northern impulse to light up the long nights and the ancient idea that fire purifies and chases away evil spirits and you end up with some of the best mid-winter celebrations in Europe. At one time, most Scottish towns celebrated the New Year with huge bonfires and torchlight processions. Most have now disappeared, but those that are left are real humdingers.
The Winter Solstice - the longest night of the year - marks the end of shortening days and, at last, the sun shines a little bit longer every day. Brighton celebrates the lengthening days with its own local twist on a typical Northern fire festival - The Burning of the Clocks. The event includes a themed parade with as many as 1,000 participants. The 2017 theme was simply "East" and saw children and adults parading with lanterns shaped as lotus flowers, available as kits purchased in local shops. After, the parate, the paper and willow lanterns are burned on the beach and there's a spectacular fireworks show.
Guy Fawkes, also called Bonfire Night, is a uniquely British festival that commemorates a historic attempt to blow up Parliament. It's combined with bonfire celebrations that reach back to the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. Though not a UK National Holiday Bonfire Night is a deep seated tradition and is marked by public and private fireworks displays and huge public bonfires all over the UK. In fact, many people say that November 5th, Bonfire Night, is the smokiest night in the realm.
The Summer Solstice at Stonehenge is a magical new age party - an ad hoc celebration that brings together neo-druids, neo-pagans and Wiccans with ordinary families, travelers and party people. For many the impulse to arrive at Stonehenge in time for the Solstice is a little like all those people drawn to the strange rock in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It's akin to a spiritual experience. Anyone who has witnessed the crowd become silent as the sky begins to brighten can attest to that. Interestingly, while the Summer Solstice is the when all the Druids come out to play, the latest research suggests the Winter Solstice was far more important here.
Up until the mid 19th century, children worked as chimney sweeps. When summer came they had a lot to celebrate as they could resume their trade. Today in Rochester, a Kentish town associated with Charles Dickens, The Sweeps Festival, a modern revival of an old tradition, commemorates those celebrations with three days of Morris Dancing in the streets.
Seven hundred years ago, Lady de Mowbray lost her silken hood to a gust of wind and various brave locals took off after it. In gratitude for the adventure, she created the celebration, named all the participants - The Fool, The Boggins and the Lord of the Hood, and gave all the participants a strip of land. At least that's the story of how the Haxey Hood, a rugby-like tussle between Haxey and Westwoodside in North Lincolnshire, got started. Sounds like a lot of fuss over a hat to me. Today crowds of gigantic men vie for possession of the hood in what looks like a precurser to Rubgy on mega steroids.
Shetland, part of Norway for at least 500 years, has a rich Viking heritage and one thing the Vikings seemed to do well was throw a wild party. Viking sagas are full of stories of raids and marauding, followed by lots of drinking and celebrating. Up Helly Aa is a 24 hour party that includes costumed Viking events throughout the day and culminates in a torchlight parade and the burning of a Viking long boat. The galley, that is sent to a flaming inferno at sea, may have taken local Up Helly Aa associations four months or more to build. At least 5,000 spectators come to watch more than 1,000 torch carrying "Vikings", in silver plates and helmets, with heavy axes and shields, march the galley around the town.
The Waen Rhydd Bog, near Llanwrtyd Wells, Britain's smallest town, is the scene of one of the country's most bizarre sporting events. Bog Snorkeling probably began as a way to get a bit of tourism attention for this tiny place. But now it has grown into an international event with world records recorded by the man from Guinness and everything. Anyone, 14 years or older can don a mask, snorkel and flippers and swim back and forth the length of a 60 foot channel cut in a peat bog. Any stroke is allowed but the snorkeler has to keep his or her head submerged in the muddy water and make way through the reeds and peat.They also do a Bog Triathlon.