Cheese rolling? Gravy wrestling? We uncover some strange customs that reveal Brits are a rather eccentric bunch.
In towns and villages up and down the country, people gather together to revel in peculiar pastimes that can leave visitors who stumble across them feeling rather perplexed. Or, you'll more likely be delighted to see the quirky side of British life on display throughout the year.
Spring—Cheese Rolling and Vikings
Although meteorological spring begins in March, in Scotland’s Shetland Islands its arrival is marked on the last Tuesday in January. During Up Helly Aa (29 Jan), the townsfolk of Lerwick celebrate the end of Yuletide festivities and honour their Norse roots by donning armour and eccentric costumes, before marching by torchlight through the town’s streets. The procession culminates in the burning of a spectacular Viking longship (the ‘Galley’).
An even more quirky parade is the basis for an Easter Monday event that allegedly dates back to Roman times. The Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking (22 Apr) sees a scramble for a piece of pie that has been blessed by the local vicar. Next, an unruly scrum formed by residents of the Leicestershire villages of Hallaton and Medbourne battle to get three barrels across two streams, by any means possible. Head there to watch the entertainment, which usually takes about five hours to complete.
Foodstuffs also underpin the Olney Pancake Race in Buckinghamshire (5 Mar), a showcase of biscuit-hurling prowess called the Dorset Knob Throwing at Kingston Maurward College near Dorchester (5 May), and the bone-crunching Cheese Rolling capers on Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire (27 May). Only in Britain would people risk life and limb to chase after cheese—a hefty lump of Double Gloucester weighing in at 3.6kg.
Summer—Bog Snorkelling and Snail Racing
Chasing after things in the name of fun isn’t confined to Gloucestershire. In Wales, witness human endurance pitted against horsepower, across a gruelling 35km course in Llanwrtyd Wells (also home to the World Bog Snorkelling Championships on 25 Aug) at the Man versus Horse Marathon (8 Jun). Or head north to Tywyn to see competitors run across the countryside as they attempt to beat a steam train to the finish line (Race the Train; 17 Aug).
Far more sedate are the snails that slug it out at the World Snail Racing Championships (20 Jul) in Congham, Norfolk. They are all trying to beat Archie, the 1995 champion, whose winning time of two minutes is mentioned in the book of Guinness World Records. Not to be outdone, worms get their moment of glory when ‘wormers’ try to coax as many of them from the earth as possible in the World Worm Charming Championships (Jun). Head to the primary school in Willaston, Cheshire, to watch all the slithery action.
Autumn—Porridge Making & Gurning
A change in temperature doesn’t put paid to strange goings-on, with September heralding oddities such as Cumbria’s Egremont Crab Fair (21 Sep). Established in 1276, the fair celebrates the crab apple harvest (not the crustacean!) and includes the quirky World Gurning Championships; the sight of contests pulling grotesque faces through a horse collar is quite something to behold.
To enjoy tournaments that require more skill, the World Conker Championships in Southwick, Northamptonshire (13 Oct), and the World Stone Skimming Championships at Easdale Island in Scotland (29 Sep), are events worth seeing. Another Scottish-based contest is the culinary-themed Golden Spurtle. This porridge-making cook-off attracts global competitors, created 25 years ago by Roger Reed to promote his hometown of Carrbridge.
Winter—Flaming Tar and Lying
This tribute to the weird and the wonderful wouldn’t be complete without the World’s Biggest Liar Competition. Will Ritson, a 19th-century publican, was known for outlandish tales. Now, every November, a battle of fibs is held in his honour at The Bridge Inn in the Lake District. Would-be Pinocchios have five minutes to impress a panel of judges with their lies.
It's a whole lot less dangerous than witnessing the curious sight on Bonfire Night (5 Nov) of flaming tar barrels being carried through the Devonshire town of Ottery St Mary, a tradition some believe honours the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Only in Britain.