Britain has always tended towards the bonkers. This eccentric isle harbours all manner of strange customs and weird rites if you know where to find them. Here's five of our favourite unusual activities; share your own below.
Five eccentric and uniquely British experiences
The Chap Olympiad
Those who didn’t excel in the athletic arts back when they were in short trousers may wilt at the idea, but the Chap Olympiad offers a refreshing concept: a day of cheerful non-athleticism in full period get-up.
Put on by The Chap magazine and nostalgia party organizers Bourne & Hollingsworth, the Olympiad encourages vintage-style dressing up, taking sartorial inspiration from Victoriana up to the 1940s. On to the games themselves. Umbrella Jousting provides an early highlight: your chariot is an old bike; your sword a trusty black brolly; your only protection a newspaper shield (the FT naturally), and your wits. Then there’s the Three-Trousered Limbo: two athletes climb into an enormous pair of three-legged tweeds, race off with a silly walk, then attempt to limbo their way under a gradually lowered pole. Now the Cucumber Sandwich Discus begins, and it’s all eyes on how far the mighty snack lands from the plate. It’s a tense time.
With our Olympic heroes behaving with the formal civility of yesteryear, it’s safe to say that this is far from your average British festival.
The Chap Olympiad takes place annually at Bedford Square in Bloomsbury, London WC1. See for further details.
The Summer Solstice at Stonehenge
Stonehenge is mind-boggling. Both its great age and the feat of human endeavour evidently involved in its construction are awesome to consider. But this colossal structure is never more astonishing than on the summer and winter solstices, when it is perfectly aligned to the points of sunrise and sunset.
Archeologists are still unsure why Stonehenge was built. Theories abound and conflict. It could have been an astronomical calculator, or a place for ritual sacrifice, a royal palace or even a UFO landing site – but for modern-day Druids who follow the Celtic Pagan systems of faith, Stonehenge is not only a mysterious site to marvel at, but a living, functioning temple. They, along with thousands of others, visit annually to witness sunrise on the longest day of the year, a significant date in the Pagan calendar.
The Summer Solstice is a mass gathering. If the sun is out, around 30,000 people grab the rare opportunity to experience the view from inside the henge. Cars and camper vans line up in thousands in a nearby field and the festival feeling kicks in. Druids in their traditional white robes and headdresses stride down the muddy lane towards the site alongside mystified tourists, families with enchanted youngsters, musicians, performance artists and a handful of cider-fuelled Wiltshire teenagers there for the all-night party.
Inside the circle it is madness, crammed with bodies. Some are naked, clambering up onto the formations to dance and sing; some chant and meditate; others hug the cold sandstone. But most just stare in wonder at the ancient edifice around them.
See for more information.
Morris Dancing on the Isle of Wight
Daft though their hankie-waving, bell-jingling antics may seem, England’s morris dancers – all 14,000 of them – enjoy their many traditions so thoroughly that they’re not bothered by the occasional chortle or sneer. Their routines may be eccentric, but they’re always delivered with a generous dollop of good humour, since morris men are above all a jovial lot. It must be the regular exercise, convivial company and post-performance pints of real ale.
If you reckon you’ve got what it takes to be a morris man (or woman, since you ask), you could sign up for a class at Britain’s first school of folk culture, the Carnival Learning Centre in Ryde. Why Ryde? Because the Isle of Wight is a hotbed of morris madness, with no less than six active troupes – or sides, a they’re known in the biz. Don’t worry, you don’t have to be over 60 – all ages are welcome.
Morris is a new departure for CLC which until recently specialized in global traditions such as African drumming and samba dancing. Waving the flag for English folk dance is Brian Reeves from the Men of Wight, with a repertoire of favourites such as Balance the Straw and Broad Cupid. He’ll soon have you strapping on your baldrick (that’s your sash) and bells, stomping your feet and clomping your stick with glee.
The Carnival Learning Centre, Westridge, Brading Rd, Ryde, Isle of Wight runs morris dancing classes on Thursday mornings between February and April (£4 per two-hour session).
The Cotswolds Olimpicks
Dover’s Hill, just outside the Gloucestershire market town of Chipping Campden, is archetypal rural England, a pretty hillock of National Trust-owned land that each spring echoes to the sound of birdsong – and to the crack of bone on bone as men in white coats try to kick each other in the shins.
Madcap as it may sound, whacking someone on the lower leg constitutes a serious sport in these parts, and shin-kicking is the marquee event at the annual Cotswolds Olimpicks, held on this hill since the early seventeenth century.
Early competitions featured the long-gone games of singlestick, backswords and tumbling, and while today’s events change frequenly. As well as shin-kicking, they've included spurning the barre, akin to tossing the caber, and dwile flonking, which isn’t really akin to anything, unless there are other games out there that revolve around trying to hit people with a beer-soaked cloth whilst dancing about.
The Cotswold Olimpicks () kick off at 7.30pm on the Friday after the late May Bank Holiday.
Shetland’s Viking ritual
Anybody who scorns films such as The Wicker Man as being fiction of the most fanciful variety needs to head to the capital of windswept Shetland in January. There may not be Christopher Lee marshalling a human sacrifice here, but most of the other ingredients of a pagan ritual are in place: fire, costumed revellers and a large intake of alcohol.
Up Helly Aa is a yearly tribute to Shetland’s close geographical and historical connection to Scandinavia – Shetland was the property of Norway for over five hundred years – though the festival itself is a decidedly more recent invention. Developed in the 1870s from earlier winter festivities, which often involved rolling flaming tar barrels, locals came up with a novel plan to channel passions for fire and drinking into something positive, and the rituals and celebrations of Up Helly Aa were established.
Up Helly Aa has been thriving ever since. So on an invariably bitter cold night in January, Britain’s most northerly town comes alive with locals bedecked in sheepskins, Viking helmets, shields, chain mail and axes. Incredibly, a 30ft-long replica Viking long boat, which takes local craftsmen over four months to build, is carried aloft through the narrow streets amid a cacophony of marching bands, whistles and a heck of a lot of shouting.
Out of the 5000-strong crowd more than 800 men, led by the Guizer Jarl, the leader of the main squad (there are 45 squads in total), carry flaming torches which are thrown onto the boat at the designated “torching point”. As the boat slowly crumbles to a cinder the festival continues with theatre performances, singing and dancing.
Up Helly Aa, Lerwick, Shetland . Takes place on the last Tuesday of January.
Book through Rough Guides’ trusted travel partners