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.
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!
University Goat Race
When: On the day of the University Boat Race Nearest station: London Waterloo
The charming east London tradition offers a chance to enjoy a rather gentler competition between Oxford and Cambridge Universities – thanks to a pair of pygmy goats. Undertaking a somewhat nonchalant trot in pursuit of a bucket of slops, the University Goat Race brings together fans of the caprine in a “goat-related nonsense mini-festival”, with plenty of beer, Goat-e-oke, Goatry slams and more on offer.
Taking place at Spitalfields City Farm on the same day as the boat race, funds go toward keeping the animals happy and healthy (including Hamish & Hugo the racing goats).
The Bottle Inn has a long history, having been founded as an ale house in 1585. These days, however, it’s known for the World Nettle Eating Championships.
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!
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 Lithunia and Estonia in the past).
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 a perfect way to get there in an eco-friendly way.
Wessex Morris Men at the Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset
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.
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 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.