The eccentric traditions of us Brits!

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Unusual ways to spend a day in Britain

The eccentric traditions of us Brits!


As a British expat, enjoying life in foreign parts, you will undoubtedly have an endless supply of fascinating and amusing stories for visiting friends about local customs and cultures in your chosen country – tomato fights, carrot festivals, bull runs, goat racing... the list could go on and on.  But do you ever reminisce about some of the oddities you left behind in good old Blighty when you left the shores for the last time? It’s certainly not just village crickets and crown green bowling!


For instance, unless you made a special pilgrimage to Lincolnshire at the beginning of January, sadly you will have missed this year’s Haxey Hood Game.


Every January, the parish of Haxey, near Epworth, goes a little crazy for the day. They play a mad game called the Haxey Hood and have been practicing this ancient tradition since the 14th Century. In fact, it is believed to be the oldest local tradition in England. 


To the spectator, this event is like a rugby scuffle - this is called the sway - in which a leather tube, representing the hood, is pushed to one of four pubs where it remains until the following year's game. It is a tradition that dates back to the 14th century when Lady de Mowbray, wife of landowner John De Mowbray, was out riding one day and her silk riding hood was blown away. Thirteen farm workers in the field rushed to help and chased the hood all over the field. It was finally caught by one of the farm workers, but being too shy to hand it back to the lady, he gave it to one of the others to hand back to her. She was so impressed by this act of chivalry that she donated 13 acres of land on condition that the chase for the hood would be re-enacted each year. This re-enactment over the centuries has become known as "The Haxey Hood"... and a great excuse for celebrating in the year’s chosen pub!


Cornish Hurling...


Hurling is one of the oldest forms of ball game in the UK and still takes place at St Ives in Cornwall on the first Monday after 3rd February. The game is rather like rugby and the ball is made from apple-wood encased in sterling silver and weighs about 15 ounces

Hurling the Silver Ball is one of Cornwall's oldest customs dating back at least a thousand years. Of unknown origin, the game involves much physical rough and tumble as each side - traditionally the 'countrymen' and 'townsmen' of a particular parish - tries to keep possession of the cricket ball-sized ball. These days, Cornish Hurling has all but disappeared, although it is still played once a year in St Ives and St Columb Major, near Newquay.


Husky Racing...


Back in Lincolnshire for a minute, where in the middle of February at Grimsthorpe Castle, spectators can enjoy an annual Husky Race. The park land surrounding this medieval pile, built for a visit by Henry VIII in 1541, hosts 400 dogs competing along a timed route, pulling sleds and their owners.


Pancake Racing...


We all enjoy a pancake on Shrove Tuesday each February, but in Olney in Buckinghamshire, the locals take it al very seriously!

The unique Olney Pancake Race literally stops traffic as energetic local ladies in traditional housewife attire, run through the streets of the town. The 415-yard dash is run from The Bull Hotel in the Market Place to the parish church of St. Peter & St Paul in Church Lane. The race is started by the church warden at 11.55am using a large bronze ‘Pancake Bell.’ Pancakes are tossed at the start of the race and the winner is required to toss her pancake again at the finish. At the end of the race, the runners and townsfolk go into the parish church for the great Shriving Service.


The race has been run since around 1445, and since 1950, the contest has been an international event between Olney and the town of Liberal, Kansas in America. The race is run on a timed basis and the winner is declared after times are compared through a transatlantic telephone call from Liberal to Olney.


Moonraking Festival...


Also to brighten up the traditionally gloomy month of February is Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival Of Lanterns and Legends in West Yorkshire.


The Moonraking Festival is based on a village tale about two 19th century smugglers who were collecting barrels of the illegal ‘moonshine’ drink from the canal. The smugglers hid the barrels and told the police they were trying to rake the moon’s reflection out of the canal. Thinking they were fools, the police let the smugglers go and the ‘moonraking’ legend was born. The highlight of the festival is a long procession of 2,500 villagers, many bearing colourful lanterns made of willow sticks and tissue paper, accompanied by jazz, carnival and brass bands. A firework display completes the event.


Pooh Sticks...


Did you know that on the 25th March the World Pooh Sticks Championships take place in Little Wittenham, near Abingdon in Oxfordshire?


When Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin first dropped a handful of sticks from a bridge into a stream and rushed to the other side to see which came under first, who would have imagined this would start an annual tradition? This year, the 26th Annual World Pooh Sticks Championships is set to attract around 2000 people. Individuals and teams of six compete in a knock-out style competition, dropping different coloured sticks from each of the two bridges over the local river.


Royal Bun Throwing...


Just up the road at Abingdon Cricket Club, April witnesses the Royal Bun Throwing Championships.


The three hundred year old ceremony of Bun-Throwing is a tradition much-loved by the people of Abingdon, a Thameside market town just south of Oxford. The ceremony is only held when the Town Council decrees that there is a significant Royal Event to celebrate, so the last one took place on the afternoon of the Royal Wedding. Councillors in full ceremonial robes lob over a thousand specially baked buns from the roof of the County Hall to the waiting crowds below. During Easter celebrations in the town, the council is allowing town’s folk to demonstrate their skills! Two winners will be chosen who show the ability to lob their buns further than anyone else, and their prize is the unique opportunity to join the councillors on the roof at the next Royal Bun Throwing, taking place during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations, on 3rd June.


World Marbles Championships...

Marbles have been played in and around Tinsley Green, near Crawley, West Sussex, for many hundreds of years, and this is where the World Marbles Championships are held each Good Friday! The tradition is said to date back to the time of Good Queen Bess when two men from Surrey and Sussex competed for the hand of a maiden from Tinsley, which is just on the border of the two counties. After being judged equal in all the major sports of the time, such as archery and wrestling, one of them came up with the game of marbles and the tradition has continued ever since.


The World Marble Championships date back to the 1930s. Some 20 teams from around world take part, including teams from Canada, the USA and Germany. The game is played in a six-foot-diameter ring which is dusted with fine sand and set up in a local pub car park. Some 49 marbles are then placed in the ring. There are six players in a team and each member has four marbles. The winner is the first team to knock 25 marbles out of the ring.


World Coal-Carrying Contest...


The World Coal Carrying Contest is a test of stamina and muscle. It is held every Easter Monday and lifts the village of Gawthorpe, near Ossett in West Yorkshire, out of obscurity and into the headlines. The race involves men carrying 50kg of coal over an uphill course, close to a mile long, starting at the Royal Oak in Owl Lane, and finishing at the Maypole on the village green. The ladies’ race follows the same route as the men’s – but ladies carry 20 kg of coal. The current world record holder is said to be David Jones of Meltham with a time of 4 mins 6 secs. The World Coal Carrying Contest dates back to 1963 when a local coal merchant and the president of the Maypole Committee were enjoying a pint together. A friend burst into the pub and bet that he could race them with a bag of coal on their backs. Not to let a good idea go to waste, the secretary of the Maypole Committee who was listening to the challenge, decided to set the race for Easter Monday.


Bottle Kicking & Hare Pie Scramble...


On Easter Monday every year, villagers from Hallaton and Medbourne in Leicestershire, battle against each other to get possession of a small wooden keg, referred to as the ‘bottle’, and carry it over their finish line.

In 1770, the Rector of Hallaton was allotted a piece of land on condition that he provided two hare pies, two dozen loaves of bread and a quantity of ale, which had to be scrambled for in public. The custom still survives today. On Easter Monday, a hare pie is baked, using a 20-inch square tin, and is paraded in a procession through Hallaton village from the Fox Inn to St Michael’s Church. Slices are cut up, blessed and distributed at St Michael’s Church gates by the rector. Immediately behind the pie in the procession are the bottles that are used for the Bottle Kicking match. The ‘bottles’ are actually three small wooden kegs. Two contain beer and the remaining one is coloured red and white. The Bottle Kicking Parade moves through the village to the top of Hare Pie bank where the Bottle Kicking match takes place. The competitors kick and man-handle the three barrels in an attempt to get them across respective boundaries. The goals are two streams a mile apart, and the aim is to kick two of the three bottles across the team’s respective stream. It is a tough contest with the teams having to get the barrels across numerous hedges, lanes, ditches and even barbed wire to reach their touchlines.


Ely’s Eel Day...


This slithery celebration brings to life the city's eel traditions with eel tasting, folklore and historical entertainment and displays. The Cambridgeshire city of Ely is famous for its eels – once part of the local staple diet. These watery creatures are commemorated in May with a day of activities. The festival starts with a procession through the city headed up by Ellie the Eel – a giant version of the snake-like creature, created by local school children. Activities include eel tasting, folk music, pottery making workshops, music and dancing, Viking re-enactments, historical displays, games, craft and food stalls. And, of course - there will be the highly contested eel throwing competition.



Stilton Cheese Rolling Championships...


For something a bit different at the beginning of May, cheer on teams as they roll their wooden cheeses down the High Street in Stilton, nr. Peterborough. It celebrates the strong connection with the village and the creamy cheese. Cheese Rolling has become an annual event in Stilton and every May Day hundreds of villagers and visitors make their way to the main street to watch the teams battling for the honour of being called the 'Stilton Cheese Rolling Champions'.


More Cheese Rolling...

A passion for cheese is a must for this annual event, which involves daredevils hurling themselves down the steep, grassy slopes of Coopers Hill, near Gloucester, in pursuit of Double Gloucester cheeses. There are downhill races throughout the afternoon both for men and for women. The race starts with the master of ceremonies rolling a 4kg Double Gloucester cheese down the hill. Dozens of competitors run, roll and somersault down the hill after it. It’s impossible not to fall over due to the rough uneven slope with a 1 in 2 gradient. The winners take home the cheeses as well as a few cuts and bruises.

The event is very popular with international competitors, and nothing deters them – hot, cold, wind, wet or any other combination of British weather – in fact it all adds to the sense of spectacle. Hundreds of people gather to watch this unique event, which dates back to medieval times. Common theories about the origin of cheese rolling include the idea that it began as a pan festival celebrating the onset of summer, while others maintain the festival is related to ancient fertility rights and hopes for a successful harvest.





World Nurdling Championships...


Every late May bank holiday The Jackson Stops Inn at Stretton, Cumbria, plays host to the World Nurdling Championships, where contestants hurl 13 old pennies into a hole drilled into the seat of an oaken settle. The traditional game of Nurdling dates back to the Middle Ages. The current 'Best Tosser' is local, Don Bentley.


Cotswold Shin-Kicking...


The Cotswold Olimpicks were started by a local barrister Captain Robert Dover in 1612 at Dover's Hill, above Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire.  The annual event attracts thousands of spectators and features some well-known countryside games such as tug-of-war, obstacle races and wrestling... as well as a few bizarre ones - the highlight being shin-kicking. The shin-kicking competition involves two contestants who first fill their trouser legs with straw to help reduce the pain. The players then hold arms and kick each other using steel toe-capped boots until one of the contestants is so bruised that he cannot stand the pain and gives in. The festivities close with a huge bonfire and firework display, followed by a torchlight procession to the town square of Chipping Campden where Morris dancing and other entertainment takes place. The Cotswold Olimpicks will be 400 years old when London hosts the 2012 Olympics.




Going way back to June, 1976, the World Toe Wrestling Championship started at a pub in Wetton, Derbyshire. The locals of 'Ye Olde Royal Oak Inn' thought it would be a great idea to hold a toe wrestling competition, where the contestants lock their big toes together, and attempt to force their opponent's foot to the ground. The organisers have big intentions for the sport, and applied in 1997 for its inclusion in the Olympic Games. Unfortunately for crazy sports fans it was not accepted.  This year, the Bentley Brook Inn near Ashbourne, hosts the Ben & Jerry's World Toe Wrestling Championship - a feast of foot foolery, bad wrestling outfits and toeriffically treacherous puns. All proceeds from the event will go to the Derbyshire charity, When You Wish Upon a Star.


A Devonshire Hunt...

If you’re in Devon over the Spring Bank Holiday in May, head to the village of Combe Martin, and one of the region’s oldest and oddest customs. Over four days, allegorical characters search for the Earl of Rone, finally finding him on the Monday night. He is then paraded through the streets sitting backwards on a donkey, ‘shot’, knocked off his mount and finally thrown into the sea. Nice folk, these Devonshire-ites!!

Wool Sack Racing...

Gloucestershire’s Tetbury Wool Sack Race on June 4th is a gruelling competition run between two pubs in Tetbury – The Crown Inn and the Royal Oak. The race has been given world record status and involves competitors running in pairs and fours up steep Gumstool Hill through the village of Tetbury, carrying a large sack of wool. Men carry a 60lb sack on their backs and women carry a 35lb sack. The gradient in parts is 1 in 4, so it’s heavy going for even the fittest competitor.  The event attracts puzzled spectators from across the world and raises money for local charities. The race reflects the history of the area, when many of the Cotswold towns, were noted for their wool. It’s thought the race originally started when local drovers - egged on by drink and wanting to impress the ladies - raced each other uphill with heavy woolsacks.


World Egg Throwing Competition...


To finish off our review of the first half of the year, we end with the World Egg Throwing Competition which takes place on June 24th between Boston and Grantham in Lincolnshire.

Contestants have to construct a gravity-powered egg-hurling device to launch an egg to a waiting team member. To achieve points, the team member must either catch the egg unbroken or get struck by the egg. As the egg can be travelling at speeds of up to 120 mph, this is particularly tricky =- and dangerous - and relies upon a lob technique to reduce velocity. Distances to be achieved start at 30 meters but can be extended up to 150 in the final knock-out competition. 

Another activity that takes place on the day is Russian Egg Roulette where two participants select from five hard boiled eggs and one raw egg - and they have to smash them on to their own foreheads. 


Next time we will be examining the more eccentric British activities and customs which take placed during the final six months of the year... including the Lawnmower World Championships, the World Pea-Shooting Championships, and the Boxing Day Flour and Soot Massacre.  Never heard of it?  Then join us again soon to discover more!


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