Tar barrels at Ottery St Mary

The South West's quirky bucket list

In this article, you'll learn the following:

Britain’s traditions are as varied as its landscape and go back as far as prehistoric times. From solstices at Stonehenge dating back thousands of years to the chasing goats across the downs of the Isle of Wight, you’ll find plenty to do that’s a step away from the norm with our quirky bucket list.

Wife Carrying Race in Dorking

Wife-carriers racing
Racers at the annual UK Wife Carrying Championship | Credit: Alexander Darlington

When: February/March

Nearest stationDorking

Part of the UK Trionium, the UK Wife Carrying Championships take place in Dorking each year at The Nower. A qualifier for the World Wife Carrying Championships, this anarchic event features 30 runners being fighting their way across 400 metres of Dorking countryside while being drenched with water by enthusiastic spectators.

Considered one of the toughest short races in the UK – contestants carrying a minimum of 50kg over the 400 metre course – it’s not for the faint of heart, but new entrants are welcome from all over the UK (and further afield, with entrants coming from Lithuania and Estonia in the past).

Wessex Morris Men at the Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset

The Wessex Morris Men at a dance
Wessex Morris Men troop at a dance

When: May

Nearest stationDorchester South

Morris dancing is one of those traditions that’s recognised around the world as English. Bells on the legs, handkerchiefs and sticks as a team of up to nine people (traditionally men) undertaking some of England’s oldest folk dancing.

Equally famous is the Cerne Abbas giant – with its mysterious origin theories from Celtic god to Romano-British depiction of Hercules, through to being a parody of Oliver Cromwell created in the 17th century! Recent research has cast further light on the giant, with it now believed to date from between 700 and 1100CE.

May Day brings these two English icons together as the Wessex Morris Men undertake their annual “fertility dance”, taking place above the giant as part of traditional West Country celebrations.

Nettle Eating Competition in Marshwood

Nettle eaters at the annual Nettle Eating Competition
Nettle eaters at the annual Nettle Eating Competition | Credit: Chris Andrews

When: Summer

Nearest stationAxminster

The Bottle Inn had a long history, having been founded as an ale house in 1585 and known for the World Nettle Eating Championships until it closed. But the World Nettle Eating Competition has found a new home at the Dorset Nectar Cider Farm.

Competitors come from as far afield as Australia to guzzle down leaves from the stinging nettle in a competition founded in 1986 – where two neighbouring farmers attempted to settle a dispute about who had the tallest nettles, one declaring “I’ll eat any nettle of yours that’s longer than mine.”

Nowadays, thousands of people gather each year to take part in this charity event that’s about as eccentric as it comes – with the record being some 80 feet of nettles eaten in an hour!

Summer and Winter Solstice

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge
Celebrators at the Summer Solstice, Stonehenge

When: June and December
Nearest stationSalisbury

Stonehenge is one of the world’s most famous prehistoric monuments, and the summer and winter solstices are still celebrated at the stones to this day.

The monument itself is aligned to the sun so that the sunrise on the summer solstice rises to the left of the heel stone each year, and 20,000 people attend each year in the summer and winter to observe this remarkable event themselves. The summer event is almost a mini-festival itself, with plenty of casual entertainment from samba bands and drummers mingling with white-cloaked druids chanting to welcome in the sun on the longest day of the year.

Regular buses run from the railway station on the days around the solstice, making the train to Stonehenge a perfect way to get there in an eco-friendly way.

Goat Herding with the National Trust

Old English Goats on the Ventnor Downs
Old English Goats on the Ventnor Downs

When: September/October

Nearest stationShanklin

The Isle of Wight’s population of Old English goats were brought over to the island in 1993, acting as a biological defence against the holm oak trees planted around Ventnor Downs by the Victorians. Their love of woody vegetation and tough nature means they’re well suited to a life on the steep windswept slopes of the downs.

Having been brought to the island by the National Trust, the goats are kept healthy thanks to a team of volunteers who brave the autumn weather, brambles and gorse to help round them up for an annual health check – and helpers are always wanted, as the goats can prove themselves particularly elusive.

The Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary

Carrying a flaming tar barrel at Ottery St Mary
Carrying a flaming tar barrel at Ottery St Mary | Credit: Damian Todd

When: Early November

Nearest stationFeniton

No-one is quite sure of the origin of rolling flaming barrels through the streets of Ottery St Mary. It’s believed to have started after the gunpowder plot of 1605, but it’s also been attributed to being a method of warning of the approach of the Spanish armada – or simple fumigation of the cottages of the town.

Initially part of an old West Country tradition, at some stage rolling the barrels was thought rather too tame – and the tradition of running through the streets with a lighted tar barrel on your back was born.

Nowadays you’ll find nearly 100 people taking on the run, raising thousands of pounds for local charities, as well as a tableaux parade (another history West Country custom), fairground and a bonfire standing 35 feet high!

Tempted to explore some of the region’s unique culture? Take a look at some of the incredible landscapes you can see, or some of the region’s unique culinary history. Buying your tickets online is easy – and there are some great ways to save money on your tickets when you set up a cheap ticket alert.

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