Four English folk traditions that are still going strong. A few weeks ago, my Bangladeshi friend, yet to venture beyond London, asked me where in England he might encounter ìyoung people who still wear traditional costumes. I couldn.t suppress the giggle this vision provoked; the rowdy, Nike-wearing kids I grew up with, forced to wear jingly folk costume, trying to sneak a Marlboro down the alley behind our rural fish & chip shop.
Luckily for him, I was raised by Morris-dancing, medieval history enthusiasts, & spent my early career working with historical reenactors. So I had some alternative suggestions:
Perhaps the best-known English tradition is also one of the eeriest. Imagine a group of unsmiling men, covered in ribbons, ponderously jumping about & flicking each other with hankies.
Not so jolly, is it, when you picture that. It’s even worse watching your dad do it at the school fete, surrounded by incredulous classmates. Such hooting derision may eventually cause the decline of Morris dancing, but you can still witness this tradition throughout the English countryside on May Day, Whitsun & during August.
There’s a whole English subculture spending its spare time garbed head-to-toe in chain mail, often bellowing, with swords. It may sound absurd but, aside from being tremendous fun, living history is a very practical way to explore & perpetuate tradition.
From famous battles to pig-rearing, I learned a lot about my ancestors (and my peers) by attempting things without modern equipment. With the medievalists, I also learned about mead – rich honey wine thatís guaranteed to get you (me, at least) dancing round the hay bales.
Here is a list of public living history events for you to visit.
My grandma lives down the road from Cooper’s Hill, in Gloucestershire. Every spring bank holiday, for the last 200 years, people have gathered here to hurtle pell-mell down its steep, lumpy hillside, chasing a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese that reaches speeds of 70mph. Since I value my ankles, I’m afraid I’ve only ever spectated.
Burning the Clocks
Much as I love the historical stuff, it’s easy to see why some rituals are abandoned as their meaning grows obscure. Perhaps that’s why my favourite English tradition is actually a new one.
I lived in Brighton (only an hour from London by train) for several years. Its lovely, creative population has established a new winter solstice celebration which is spectacular. My tendency for constant irreverence is always thoroughly humbled by the effort made by the participants, who create huge, beautiful paper lanterns, which are carried to the beach & burnt to welcome the lengthening days.
Tip: I still have rural family, ready to collect me from the railway station. If you’re on holiday here, you’ll probably find it simplest to drive, especially if you have children. Cheap car hire is abundant across the UK – you can easily collect your vehicle at the airport & leave it elsewhere, if necessary.