Ever thought about trying your hand at a spot of bog snorkeling? Or chasing a cheese down a ridiculously steep hill? Probably not! Nonetheless, all across the UK every year, Brits gather to do just that. There are heaps of other decidedly strange festivals, events and celebrations too, all with the ability to leave country visitors agape with equal measures of bemusement and delight.
This, in short, is the British at their most bizarre; where the quirky and the sometimes inexplicable abound, keeping alive traditions which in many cases are so ancient their roots are buried in the mists of time.
When you next head to the UK be sure to check out one of these wonderfully wacky events and experience something you will almost certainly have never seen anything quite like before.
The Hobby Horse of Padstow
Every May Day the seaside resort town of Padstow in Cornwall turns kaleidoscope-colored as every available building and lamp-post is bedecked in ribbons, flowers and bunting. Maypole dancers twirl and duck through their steps, keeping alive a fertility ritual as old as time as May begins and the warm days of summer approach.
As delightful as this all is though it doesn’t merit it a place on our list of the UK’s weird and wonderful festivals. What does however is the ‘Hobby Horse’ which gambles around the streets for hours in search of maidens to entrap with a sweep of his black cape.
Festival first-timers will be forgiven for noticing that the masked pursuer’s carnival costume appears to have little in common with a horse beyond a head and a tail but no-one ever said folklore has to be logical. Singers and musicians on drums and accordions pave the way for the odd-looking animal’s arrival and its band of acolytes known as ‘teasers’ in a ritual so ancient no-one is really sure where it all began.
So, is the capture by the horse a good or bad thing? Well that entirely depends on your perspective. Padstow folk believe all those enfolded by the Hobby Horse’s cape will be either married or pregnant before the year is out.
Unlike most of the centuries-old entries in this selection of UK people at their most bizarre, the World Bog Snorkelling Championship is something of a new kid on the block.
It was born purely from a desire to raise the profile of the tiny and formerly obscure Welsh town of Llanwrtyd Wells. Today, just over 30 years later, its bog snorkeling event attracts competitors and spectators from all over the world, thus achieving the attention it set out to hook.
So – here’s how it works. Contestants don mask, snorkel, flippers and all kinds of wacky costumes and then attempt to travel the length of a rotting plant-filled 60 yard long bog in the shortest time possible. In case you’re wondering – the current world record stands at 1 minute 18.82 seconds.
Spectators – occasionally mud-splattered – cheer their support while also no doubt thinking how much more sane they are to be standing watching rather than paying for the privilege to submerge themselves in mud and ooze.
In 2005 the organizers decided things weren’t quite extreme enough and so added a mountain bike event in which snorkel-wearing contestants weight both bike and themselves to ride along the same trench.
Gurning is another of the decidedly bonkers British events which will require a little explanation for the uninitiated. With their head sticking out of a horse collar, contestants run through a series of hard-core face gymnastics where the truly adept demonstrate the art of touching the tip of the tongue on the bridge of the nose (and yes – you read that right).
The World Gurning Championships are staged at Cumbria’s Egremont Crab Fair annually, the winner decided by the loudest cheers of the crowd. If you’re thinking that those less-blessed in the natural beauty department have an unfair advantage think again – this is all taken into account.
Where did it all begin? Nobody really knows but one thing is for certain this is truly old. Thankfully we live in more enlightened times but it is thought gurning’s roots stretch back to the non-politically correct olden days when tormenting the village ‘idiot’ was considered an acceptable way to keep yourself amused.
The Flaming Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary
If our list of the bizarre had to have an extreme sport category St Ottery’s highly dramatic flaming tar barrels would win it hands down.
All of the counties which make up the West Country of England have long-standing traditions of winter torchlight processions and rolling flame-spewing barrels through the streets. Many of these are thought to date from around the 1600s and after Guy Fawkes failed plot to blow up the British houses of parliament.
However, at some point in history now lost to memory, the folk of St Ottery in Devon decided rolling the barrels was a little boring and opted for hefting it onto their shoulders and carrying it instead.
In an age where anything which mixes crowds and danger has been all but stamped out it is nothing short of a miracle that this tradition has survived at all. Also adding seriously to the wow element is the fact that the barrel carriers don’t don industrial-standard fireproof protection but simply go with a hood, towels and hessian gloves which incorporate wire.
Fancy your chances of hefting a flaming 70 pound barrel and showing your prowess? Sorry – no chance. The privilege of running with fire pouring out of a barrel right next to your head is one reserved for Ottery residents only and decided according to a strict hierarchy.
While the annual cheese-rolling down Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire can’t beat the spectacular flaming tar barrels event for pure jaw-dropping theatrical drama it nevertheless easily earns a place in the hazardous category.
As you are no doubt one of the majority who might struggle to put cheese and danger in the same sentence this ages-old tradition perhaps needs some explaining. Cheese-rolling involves chasing down a hill after a big round of cheese and trying to catch it before it reaches the bottom. The hill part is what adds the peril to the picture; Cooper’s Hill is so steep that in parts it is less hill and more cliff.
In reality the race is less about catching the Double Gloucester cheese than trying to prevent a spectacular series of human flight phases. These inevitably end once gravity kicks in with multiple and bone-crunching encounters with solid ground, each bounce accompanied by a chorus of sympathetic oohs and aaahs from spectators.
Injuries are a normal part of it all and even watching the event comes with an element of risk. An 8lb heft of cheese traveling at anything up to 70mph becomes a perilous missile if it ricochets off course.
21st century kill joys have tried to ban the event but so far the hard core ‘cheesers’ have always come out victorious and so preserved a tradition of many centuries standing. Ironically, the more publicity the event receives because of the injuries, the more would-be cheese-chasers arrive from various corners of the planet to try their luck.
The Cotswold Olympick Games
Every year, around late May or early June thousands of would-be competitors and spectators make their way to a hillside near the small market town of Chipping Camden to take part in the Cotswold Olympick Games. Surrounded by gorgeous countryside, this is a ritual which has been going on for more than 400 years.
What lies in store though is nothing as ordinary as javelin throwing or 100m sprints. Here instead the official events include dwile flunking and jousting while the venue is also the stage for the Shin Kicking World Championships.
Shin-kicking might sound a little eccentric but is actually a form of wrestling in which competitors stuff their socks and pants with straw to avoid the worst of the bruises. Success comes as much from having a higher pain threshold as it does from skill and agility. Dwile flunking however is most definitely a demonstration of Brits at their battiest. It involves two teams, dancing and a cloth soaked in beer which is perhaps all you need to know.
There are a handful of more recognizable sport events too such as the ‘King of the Hill’ – a kind of pentathlon – but otherwise you can expect piano-smashing, Morris dancing and all kinds of goings on involving wheelbarrows, water and hay bales.