From Hogmanay in Edinburgh to Bonfire Night in Lewes, Britain is home to a whole range of excellent festivals and events throughout the year. If you’re planning a visit anytime soon we recommend you build you trip around one of these memorable parties.
Notting Hill Carnival in London
Carnival Sunday morning and in streets eerily emptied of cars, sound-system guys, still bleary-eyed from the excesses of last night’s warm-up parties, wire up their towering stacks of speakers, while fragrant smoke wafts from the stalls of early-bird jerk chicken chefs. And then a bass line trembles through the morning air, and the trains begin to disgorge crowds of revellers, dressed to impress and brandishing their whistles and horns. Some head straight for the sound systems, spending the entire day moving from one to the other and stopping wherever the music takes them. Streets lined by mansion blocks become canyons of sound, and all you can see is a moving sea of people, jumping and blowing whistles as wave after wave of music ripples through the air.
But the backbone of Carnival is mas, the parade of costumed bands that winds its way through the centre of the event. Crowds line up along the route, and Ladbroke Grove becomes a seething throng of floats and flags, sequins and feathers, as the mas (masquerade) bands cruise along, their revellers dancing up a storm to the tunes bouncing from the music trucks. And for the next two days, the only thing that matters is the delicious, anarchic freedom of dancing on the London streets.
Notting Hill Carnival takes place on the Sunday and Monday of the August bank holiday weekend.
Hogmanay in Edinburgh
From the cascade of fireworks tipping over the castle rock to uninhibited displays of stranger-kissing as midnight chimes and the sight of the classical pillars of the Royal Scottish Academy being transformed into a giant urinal, Edinburgh consistently throws the world’s most memorable New Year’s Eve party. And it’s a party on a grand scale, with around 80,000 people from around the world joining in.
The evening starts with a candlelit concert in St Giles Cathedral, the hulking medieval church on the Royal Mile. From then on the tempo rises, with a massive street party on Princes Street and a boisterous ceilidh in the Princes Street Gardens, followed by a large-scale concert. At midnight, the fireworks kick off, and from Calton Hill to Salisbury Crags, from the new town to the old town, from the pubs and from the castle esplanade, the whole city looks skywards and celebrates. Auld Lang Syne is belted out, and any last shreds of Presbyterian reserve are abandoned, as people bound around hugging and kissing each other.
Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is now a ticketed event, so book ahead at www.edinburghshogmanay.com.
Diwali in Leicester
The biggest celebration of Diwali outside India takes place in Leicester, one of the UK’s most diverse cities. Every autumn, tens of thousands of people – including followers of the Sikh and Jain religions, who also celebrate Diwali – crowd onto Belgrave Road in the heart of the city’s Indian community to take part in the “festival of lights”.
The celebrations start with the switch-on of the Diwali lights: after music, dancing and speeches (in English, Hindi and Gujarati) from local dignitaries, a noisy countdown starts, climaxing at 7.30pm with the switch-on of around 6500 multicoloured lights, an explosion of confetti and a cacophony of cheers. Eventually the crowd works its way down the road – dubbed the “Golden Mile” – to the nearby Cossington Street recreation ground where an extremely loud firework display ensues.
For more information visit www.goleicestershire.com.
Robin Hood Festival in Sherwood Forest
For the first week of August each year, in celebration of Nottinghamshire’s legendary outlaw, Sherwood Forest is transported back to the thirteenth century. Over a quarter of a century, the Robin Hood Festival has grown into a pop-up village of sorts, with stalls and attractions spread across about a square half-mile of woodland that can be circumnavigated comfortably in an hour or so.
The itinerary changes a little every day but archery lessons are always on offer for a small fee, and most days host high-octane jousting and rather vicious skirmishing between Robin Hood and the evil Sheriff’s men in the shade of the Major Oak, a gargantuan tree said to be over 800 years old, which attracts many visitors in its own right. The festival is a paradise for little boys and girls who have always dreamed of being Robin Hood or Maid Marian. Green felt caps, bows and arrows and garlands of flowers are ubiquitous fancy-dress props, and every day there are opportunities for children to join in theatrical re-enactments of the Robin Hood story, to the hilarity of their parents.
Robin Hood Festival, Edwinstowe, Nottinghamshire (www.nottinghamshire.gov.uk/robinhoodfestival)
Pride in Brighton
Let’s be clear about one thing, fun-lovers: the summertime Pride in Brighton and Hove festival is not the grandest of affairs. Yes, there’s a sequin-sprinkled parade, but don’t roll up expecting miles of elaborate floats and glitzy, Rio-style dance troupes. It’s all much more down to earth than that – think gangs of friends and colleagues in thrown-together fancy dress, waving in time to cheesy pop or giggling their way through sketchy dance routines. And, yes, there’s an all-afternoon dance party in the city’s biggest park – but this isn’t Ibiza.
The one thing which Pride in Brighton and Hove has in spades is inclusiveness. Unlike Sydney, whose more militant lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups have been known to spit fire at the thought of non-LGBT revellers muscling in on their Mardi Gras, Brighton is happy for anybody and everybody to join the party. You don’t have to dress up, but if you’d like your photo to grace the galleries that pop up all over the web straight after the event, you most definitely should.
The main events of the Pride in Brighton and Hove summer festival (www.brightonpride.org) are on a Saturday in early July
The Edinburgh Festival is, strictly speaking, about five festivals. There’s the Book Festival, home to top authors and commentators and set in leafy Charlotte Square; the International Festival, which hosts lush, clever productions of the high arts; the Art Festival, which gathers together special exhibitions and regular galleries; and the Fringe, which is what most people mean when they talk airily of the Festival, bulging with all manner of comedy, theatre and music from pros and amateurs. The glory and terror of the Fringe – which, inevitably, has an unofficial fringe of its own – is that no one decides who becomes a part of it, performers just pay to be included in the programme. You can see students tackle Hamlet or Bouncers for a few quid, watch brilliantly clever or enormously stupid stand-up, check out splendid new work from daring playwrights or stand in a big top and watch a circus reinvent itself.
It’s possible to have a fabulous time and see no shows at all, heading instead from temporary bar to venerable pub, nattering with the performers, punters and hangers-on that come here like moths to a month-long flame. But better to feel the heat of the action, wading through the drunks and the dross in the hope of spotting that rare and wonderful beast: genius making a name for itself.
Obby Oss, Cornwall
One of the most distinctive May Day festivals in the country, Obby Oss (dialect for hobby horse) is a traditional community celebration that’s been on Padstow’s calendar for centuries.
In a unique ritual generally believed to be some sort of ancient Celtic fertility rite – May Day itself has its origins in the Celtic festival of Beltane – two Osses, monstrous, masked effigies with huge, hooped skirts, are paraded through the streets to the accompaniment of song, accordions and drums. It’s best not to get too hung up on the meaning behind it all, and instead grab a pint and a pasty and get swept away in the festive ambience. Indeed it’s impossible not to get swept away in the tangle of bunting-bedecked streets crammed with revellers.
For general information see www.padstow.com.
Chinese New Year, Liverpool
With the oldest Chinese community in Europe, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and one of the largest in number as well, Liverpool makes an obvious destination to celebrate Chinese New Year without hopping on a plane to Shanghai. The focal point for the celebrations is the city’s magnificent Chinese arch on Nelson Street. Fifty feet tall, it was shipped piece by piece from Shanghai in 2000. With beautifully intricate decorations, including two hundred dragons, it has been positioned in accordance with feng shui principles to bring good luck to the community.
The party starts early in the morning of the first day of the New Year, the date of which changes each year, with stunning lion, unicorn and dragon dances, fireworks galore in a daytime display on St George’s Square, t’ai chi demonstrations and at least 18,000 carnival-goers who bring the centre of Liverpool to a standstill. The lion in particular is not to be missed – its red colouring is believed to bring good luck, hence the prevalence of red in all the decorations. This is a great opportunity to get acquainted with some of the spectacular Chinese street food which is made to commemorate the beginning of a new year.
For information on the events organized see www.visitliverpool.com.
Fowey and Polruan regattas
The week-long calendar kicks off with a carnival that sets the tone for good-humoured silliness. Enthusiastic pub crews, families in themed costumes and semi-professional brass bands all parade noisily down the packed, narrow high street. A local girl, decked in the hydrangeas that flourish in Cornwall in August, is crowned Queen of the Carnival, and the day culminates in partying on the quays and a firework display that fills the estuary with light, noise and smoke.
It’s this estuary, above all, that makes Fowey magic. The little town is scraped along the side of a miniature fjord that’s a fantastic amphitheatre. When bands play or guns go off to announce races, the noises swirl and bounce around. When the big yachts sail in from Falmouth, or the gig boats race, oars swinging madly, or the torchlight boat procession passes on the last night, the boats all parade in full view along the waterfront.
If wholesome homeliness is the draw, consider also visiting the little-known regatta at Polruan, Fowey’s villagey neighbour, which lies a two-minute ferry ride across the water. There’s hymn- and shanty-singing, a sand-castle competition, a tombola in aid of the lifeboat, and a race of bouncing balls along the tiny street that cascades down the hill towards the harbour. It’s like Britain in the 1950s – and none the worse for it.
Fowey Regatta (www.foweyroyalregatta.co.uk) is usually held on the third full week of August.
Bonfire Night in Lewes
If you feel uneasy in crowds, freaked out by fire, scared of the dark or, worst of all, somewhat unsettled by sudden, ear-splitting explosions, don’t even think about coming here – but if you love noise, smoke and fireworks, you’ll be blown away. The town’s seven Bonfire Societies raise funds all year, just to send it all up in smoke. Their Bonfire Boys parade through the streets carrying blazing torches and flaming crosses to the steady beat of drums. Some drag barrels of smouldering tar, others parade huge satirical effigies of public figures, destined to be incinerated at the end of the night. Stirring speeches are read, bangers ricochet across the bonfire sites and, at the climax of proceedings, hundreds of rockets fill the sky.
Lewes’ Bonfire Society parades take place on the night of November 5; for details, see www.lewesbonfirecouncil.org.uk.