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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
World Worm-Charming Championships (last Sat; wwww.wormcharming.com). Worm-charming and other zany pastimes, at Willaston, Cheshire.
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.
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.
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).
England has gone music festival crazy. Every weekend from June to September now sees some kind of musical happening – and in July and August literally dozens of outdoor events take place simultaneously in parks, town centres, farms, beaches and disused airfields up and down the country, often drawing tens of thousands of people to camp out for a weekend of partying under (hopefully) sunny skies. Here are ten to choose from; check wwww.efestivals.co.uk for details of hundreds more.
Sunrise Celebration (early June; wwww.sunrisecelebration.com). Hippyish “festival of organic arts and culture”, held in Somerset as a prelude to summer.
Isle of Wight Festival (mid-June; wwww.isleofwightfestival.com). Three days of established rock and pop acts for thirty/forty-something groovers.
Glastonbury (late June; wwww.glastonburyfestivals.co.uk). Top-class musical line-up – nothing can dampen the trippy-hippy vibe.
Latitude (mid-July; wwww.latitudefestival.co.uk). Genteel, family-friendly fest, strong on the wider arts and comedy, in a gorgeous part of Suffolk.
Secret Garden (mid-July; wuk.secretgardenparty.com). A gorgeous lake and wacky art installations distinguish this genial Cambridgeshire hippie-fest.
WOMAD (late July; wwww.womad.org). Renowned three-day world music event at Charlton Park, outside Malmesbury, Wiltshire.
Global Gathering (late July; wwww.globalgathering.com). A weekend of top DJs and the odd crossover live act at Long Marston Airfield near Stratford-upon-Avon.
Cambridge Folk Festival (late July/early Aug; wwww.cambridgefolkfestival.co.uk). Mellow and unpretentious folk festival that’s still going strong almost five decades after it began.
Leeds Festival (late Aug; wwww.leedsfestival.com). Raucous weekend of rock, punk and indie acts, both new and established.
Bestival (early Sept; wwww.bestival.net). Quirky event on the Isle of Wight, featuring big names, wild electronica and fancy dress.