Many of the showpiece events marketed to tourists – Trooping the Colour, the Lord Mayor’s Show and the like – say little about contemporary England and nothing about the country’s regional folk history. For a more instructive idea of what makes the English tick, you’d do better to sniff out some grassroots, local-led festivities – a wacky village celebration, for instance, or London’s exuberant Notting Hill Carnival.
Most major towns and cities host public festivals, some dating back centuries, others more recent inventions, but everywhere there’s a general willingness both to revive the traditional and to experiment with the new – from medieval jousting through to the performing arts. The events calendar below picks out some of the best; for detailed local listings contact tourist offices.
London Parade (Jan 1; wwww.londonparade .co.uk). Floats, marching bands, clowns, cheerleaders and classic cars wend their way through the centre of London.
Chinese New Year (on or near Feb 3, 2011; Jan 23, 2012; Feb 10, 2013; wwww.londonchinatown.org). Processions, fireworks and festivities in the country’s two main Chinatowns in London and Manchester.
Shrove Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras/“Fat Tuesday”; March 8, 2011; Feb 21, 2012; Feb 12, 2013). The last day before Lent, also known as “Pancake Day”: it’s traditional to eat pancakes and, famously in Olney, Buckinghamshire (wwww.visitolney.com), to race with them. Ashbourne in Derbyshire (wwww.ashbourne-town.com) hosts the world’s oldest, largest, longest, maddest game of “Shrovetide Football”.
British & World Marbles Championship (Good Friday; wwww.britishmarbles.org.uk). Held at Tinsley Green in Sussex.
Bacup Nutters Dance (Easter Saturday; wwww .coconutters.co.uk). Blacked-up clog dancers mark the town boundaries of Bacup in Lancashire.
Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle-Kicking (Easter Monday). Chaotic village bottle-kicking contest at Hallaton, Leicestershire.
World Coal-Carrying Championship (Easter Monday; wwww.gawthorpe.ndo.co.uk). Competitors lug 50kg of coal through Gawthorpe village in West Yorkshire.
St George’s Day (April 23; wwww .stgeorgesholiday.com). Also, by happy chance, the birthday of William Shakespeare – and the Queen’s birthday falls two days earlier, on April 21. Traditional St George’s Day events include Morris dancing at Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire, Yate in Gloucestershire and elsewhere, as well as full-blown street festivals in Birmingham, Leicester, Manchester and London, where the Globe Theatre (wwww.shakespeares-globe.org) hosts a day of Shakespeare events. Also reckon on parades, folk dancing and celebrations at Stratford-upon-Avon (wwww.shakespearesbirthday.org.uk).
Padstow Obby Oss (May 1; wwww.padstow .com). Processions, music and dancing in Padstow, Cornwall; the name is dialect for “hobby horse”.
Helston Furry Dance (May 8). A courtly procession and dance through the Cornish town by men in top hats and women in formal dresses.
Glyndebourne Opera Festival (mid-May to end Aug; wwww.glyndebourne.com). One of England’s classiest arts events, in East Sussex.
Cheese Rolling (last Mon in May; wwww.cheese -rolling.co.uk). Mass pursuit of a cheese wheel down Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire – one of the weirdest knees-ups in England.
Chelsea Flower Show (late May; wwww.rhs .org.uk). Essential event for England’s green-fingered legions, at Chelsea in London.
Hay Festival (late May; wwww.hayfestival.com). The nation’s bookish types descend on Hay, on the Welsh border, for this literary shindig.
Bath Music Festival (end May to early June; wwww.bathmusicfest.org.uk). Arts jamboree, with a concurrent fringe festival.
Aldeburgh Festival (June; wwww.aldeburgh .co.uk). Suffolk jamboree of classical music, established by Benjamin Britten.
Beating Retreat (early June; wwww .guardsbeatingretreat.com) A colourful ceremony of pageantry and military music on Horse Guards Parade in London.
Strawberry Fair (1st Sat; wwww.strawberry-fair .org.uk). Free festival of music, arts and crafts in Cambridge.
Appleby Horse Fair (2nd week; wwww .applebyfair.org). Appleby in Cumbria hosts England’s landmark annual gypsy gathering.
Trooping the Colour (2nd Sat; wwww.royal.gov .uk). Massed bands, equestrian pageantry, gun salutes and fly-pasts on Horse Guards Parade, London.
World Worm-Charming Championships (last Sat; wwww.wormcharming.com). Worm-charming and other zany pastimes, at Willaston, Cheshire.
Pride London (early July; wwww.pridelondon .org). Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rally followed by a parade and music events. In 2012 London hosts WorldPride.
Rushbearing Festival (1st Sat; wwww .amblesideonline.co.uk). Symbolic procession of crosses and garlands at Ambleside in the Lake District, dating back centuries.
Hobby Horse Festival (1st week; wwww .hobbyhorsefestival.co.uk). Quirky shindig in Banbury, Oxfordshire, with costumed parades, folk dancing and lots of hobby horses.
York Early Music Festival (mid-July; wwww .ncem.co.uk). The country’s premier festival of medieval and Renaissance music.
Great Yorkshire Show (2nd week; wwww .greatyorkshireshow.com). England’s largest region celebrates its heritage, culture and cuisine at Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
The Proms (mid-July to mid-Sept; wwww.bbc .co.uk/proms). Top-flight international classical music festival in London, with very cheap standing tickets.
Swan Upping (3rd week; wwww.royal.gov.uk). Ceremonial counting of the swan population on the upper stretches of the River Thames, dating back to the twelfth century. At Windsor, all the oarsmen stand to attention in their boats and salute the Queen.
Cambridge Folk Festival (last week; wwww .cambridgefolkfestival.co.uk). Biggest event of its kind in England, with lots more than just folk music.
Whitstable Oyster Festival (late July; wwww .whitstableoysterfestival.com). A congenial mixing of oysters, Champagne, Guinness, parades and music.
Brighton Pride (1st week; wwww.brightonpride .org). A week of events celebrating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender culture, culminating in a huge carnival parade.
Cowes Week (1st week; wwww.cowesweek .co.uk). Sailing extravaganza in the Isle of Wight, with partying and star-studded entertainment.
Sidmouth Folk Week (1st week; wwww .sidmouthfolkweek.co.uk). Folk and roots performers in this Devon town, plus theatre and dance.
Whitby Folk Week (last week; wwww.whitbyfolk .co.uk). Traditional folk music, morris and sword dancing, storytelling and more.
Grasmere Sports and Show (last Sun; wwww .grasmeresportsandshow.co.uk). Wrestling, fell-running, ferret-racing and other curious Lake District pastimes.
Notting Hill Carnival (last Sun & Mon; wwww .thenottinghillcarnival.com). Vivacious Caribbean-style costumed celebration in the streets of west London, also including everything from Punjabi drummers to Brazilian salsa, plus music, food and floats.
Leeds West Indian Carnival (last Mon; wwww .leedscarnival.co.uk). England’s oldest carnival, featuring processions, dancing and barbecues.
Blackpool Illuminations (early Sept to early Nov; wwww.blackpool-illuminations.net). Five miles of extravagantly kitsch light displays on the Blackpool seafront.
Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (early Sept; wwww.abbotsbromley.com). Vaguely pagan mass dance in mock-medieval costume – one of the most famous of England’s ancient customs, at Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire.
St Ives September Festival (mid-Sept; wwww .stivesseptemberfestival.co.uk). Eclectic Cornish festival of art, poetry, literature, jazz, folk, rock and world music.
Heritage Open Days (mid-Sept; wwww .heritageopendays.org.uk). A once-a-year opportunity to peek inside hundreds of buildings that don’t normally open their doors to the public. For London-specific events see “Open House London” (wwww.open-city.org.uk).
World Conker Championship (2nd Sun; wwww .worldconkerchampionships.com). Thousands flock to Ashton, Northamptonshire, to watch modern-day gladiators fight for glory armed only with a conker and twelve inches of string.
State Opening of Parliament (late Oct; wwww .royal.gov.uk). The Queen arrives at Westminster in a fancy coach with much pageantry to give a speech and officially open Parliament. Also takes place whenever a new government is sworn in after an election.
Halloween (Oct 31). All Hallows’ Eve – and Samhain, last day of the Celtic calendar. Now swamped by commercialized US-style costumes and trick-or-treating, although druidic ceremonies survive at a few sites (the Rollright Stones, for example; wwww.rollrightstones.co.uk).
London to Brighton Veteran Car Run (1st Sun; wwww.lbvcr.com). Ancient machines cough and splutter their way 57 miles down the A23.
Bonfire Night (Nov 5). Fireworks and bonfires held in communities all round the country to commemorate the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 – most notably at York (wwww.yorkmaze.com), Ottery St Mary in Devon (wwww.otterytarbarrels.co.uk), and Lewes in East Sussex (wwww.bonco.org.uk).
Lord Mayor’s Show (2nd Sat; wwww .lordmayorsshow.org). Held annually in the City of London since 1215, and featuring a daytime cavalcade and night-time fireworks to mark the inauguration of the new Lord Mayor.
New Year’s Eve (Dec 31). The biggest celebration takes place in London (wwww.london.gov.uk /newyearseve), with a fireworks display over the Thames and thousands of inebriates in Trafalgar Square, but there are huge parties in city centres nationwide. In Allendale village, Northumberland, locals turn up with trays of burning tar on their heads to parade round a large communal bonfire.