Many of our ancient country customs have their origins in pagan festivals, and almost all came about as a result of our ancestors desire to ward off evil spirits, ensure a good harvest or celebrate the arrival of spring. If they could combine the solemnity of the occasion with a bout of eating, drinking and general merry-making, so much the better.
Religion and the Reformation caused some to be abandoned altogether, or, at least, adapted into a more acceptable guise. However, many others continue to thrive in their original form, and are frequently being joined by curious modern traditions, such as the Bonsall Hen Race (yes, really) in Derbyshire; the Nettle-Eating Contest at Marsham, Dorset; the British Lawn-Mower Racing Grand Prix of West Sussex; and the World Coal-Carrying Championships held at Gawthorpe, West Yorkshire, every Easter Monday.
Some of the more archaic practices have, over the years, been altered for reasons of safety; for instance, the children of Lanark are no longer allowed to beat each other around the head with cloth caps or to career wildly around the streets in search of rival gangs activities that were once the main feature of Whuppity Scoorie. Instead, they gather at the church of St Nicholas on March 1 and await the tolling of the 6pm bells, before waving paper balls around their heads, running three times around the church, and scrambling for coins thrown by members of the local council.
In days gone by, it was a much more rumbustious occasion, and is reckoned by some to commemorate times when miscreants were whipped (whupped, in local dialect) before being ducked (scoored) in the nearby River Clyde. Others believe that the custom is a relic of the days when making a lot of noise would frighten away evil spirits, thus preventing them from spoiling the forthcoming crops.Originating from a similar desire to ward off evil spirits, its amazing that the hazardous Tar Barrels festivities still occur every Bonfire Night at Ottery St Mary, Devon there surely has to be an element of madness in anyone voluntarily hoisting a lit barrel up onto their shoulders and careering off down the village streets.
Also potentially hazardous, but this time to the contestants rather than the onlookers, is the annual horse race held at Market Weighton in Yorkshire. Supposedly the oldest Flat race in England, the Kiplingcotes Derby dates back to 1519, and takes place on the third Thursday in March. Although the race began early in the 16th century, it was not until 1619 that a group of hunting gentlemen subscribed the sum of £365 to ensure that the Derby would continue every year part of the agreement stipulates that if a year were ever missed, then the race must stop forever. So it was that, despite heavy snowdrifts in 1947, a Mr Stephenson from Londes-borough Wold Farm walked and rode his horse along the course and, in 2001, Ken Holmes defied foot-and-mouth restrictions in order to keep this most prestigious East Yorkshire race alive.
This particular Derby is run over the most gruelling course imaginable and costs nothing to watch, so dont expect any similarities between it and its southern namesake. There is also the unusual anomaly that the rider of the horse coming in second sometimes gets a higher amount than the winner, due to the runner-up prize being made up of all the entrance fees.
And finally, be sure to complete a risk assessment before attending the cheese-rolling event held at Coopers Hill, Brockworth, Gloucestershire, at the end of May a Double Gloucester cheese coming towards you at full pelt, having just been released from the top of a hill, is definitely bad for your health. Is there method in this apparent madness? Well, yes, it would appear so, and it is, depending on whom you talk to, all to do with either springtime fertility or the granting of medieval grazing rights. Jeremy Hobson is author of Curious Country Customs (David & Charles, £9.99)
Straw Bear Festival
Weekend following January 6
A local farmer wears a costume made of straw that roughly resembles a bear, and joins a procession through the town. In the past, Straw Bear Tuesday also involved a rope being tied around the bear, before it was taken to dance in front of villagers houses. The tradition was revived into a full festival in the 1980s, and it now incorporates a plough in the procession, as well as music and molly dancing (a type of morris dancing peculiar to the Fens).
Goathland Plough Slot
Goathland, North Yorkshire
Saturday following January 6
To mark the end of the Christmas period for the agricultural community, this 150-year-old event involves long-sword dancers weaving their way through the streets before settling down to a huge roast dinner, speeches and awards. It used to be held on a Monday, but was moved to make way for modern working practices.
Wassailing the Apple Tree
Villagers begin arriving at the old apple tree by the Butchers Arms at sunset, and, at 7.30pm, a bonfire is lit. Mulled cider and toast are brought out as the wassailing song is sung or chanted, and the cider is sprinkled over the roots. The toast is dipped in the cider and placed in the branches of the tree.
Sunday closest to Candlemas
Apparently unique to the Church of St Mary in Blidworth, the origins of this ceremony go back 400 years. The male child born in the Blidworth parish nearest to Christmas Day is rocked in an ancient, flower-bedecked cradle. The child is then given a Bible and carried through the streets.
Blessing the Salmon Nets
Just before midnight on February 14, a blessing ceremony is held at the Pool of Pedwell. The ancient Pledwell Prayer is said and the boats put out at exactly midnight.
In the 13th century, Lady Mabella declared that the House of Tichborne would fall if the villagers were not given bread on Dole Day. The day became extremely rowdy and was stopped in 1796 but when part of Tichborne House fell down in 1803, it was revived.
Hare Pie Scramble and Bottle Kicking
Possibly medieval in origin, this involves a hare pie (actually made of beef) being blessed by the vicar before being distributed among the villagers. Three barrels are then rolled to the village boundaries over the course of the day.
World Coal-Carrying Championships
Begun in 1963, this day is now recognised by Guinness World Records. The main event is the mens championships held at the Royal Oak in Owl Lane. From here, the competitors carry 110lb of coal over a mile to the maypole on the village green.
Obby Oss Ceremony
The night before features a procession, when revellers call and sing to sleeping townfolk, urging them to join in. On May Day, the town and maypole are decorated with ribbons and flowers, and a man wearing a gruesome mask and giant skirt dances around the streets, trying to trap pretty girls under his costume.
The Randwick Wap, Stroud, Gloucestershire; Coopers Hill, Brockworth, Gloucestershire; Stilton, near Peterborough, Cambridgeshire
May Bank Holiday
There are many theories
about why this custom started or when, with each location having its variations. In Brockworth, the cheeses are rolled down a hill, with the person who catches them keeping them. Stiltons custom involves a cheese-rolling race around town, and in Randwick, a cheese is rolled around the church, with villagers welcome to take a bite.
On Oak Apple Day, the Garland King and his Lady Consort ride through the town accompanied by morris men and a band. A garland is presented to the King at 6pm, and the procession ends at the church.
The Bottle Inn, Marsham, Dorset
About June 18
Competitors are given 2ft-long nettle stalks, and the winner is the person with the longest length of empty stalk after one hour. It began after one man found a 16ft-long stalk and announced that if anyone could find a longer one, he would eat his.
Hepworth, West Yorkshire
Last Monday of June
In 1665, the plague arrived in Hepworth. A servant, unpacking a box from London, contracted the plague from the fleas in a dress, and spread it through the town. The feast, with morris dancing and brass bands, commemorates the end of the plague in the area.
Alport Castles Farm, Derbyshire
First Sunday in July
A group of Nonconformists met here in the 17th century to worship in secret. The service now involves a straw-covered floor, fruitcake and spring water, and unaccompanied hymns.
Kilburn, North Yorkshire
Begins on first Sunday after July 7
The four-day feast and fair ends with the mock Mayor and his Mayoress (actually a man in a dress) fining any locals for the silliest penalties they can come up with.
Third week of July
The tradition of rounding up swans for marking is medieval in origin. Today, the Queens Swan Marker, dressed in a scarlet uniform, uses six traditional rowing skiffs to herd the swans to shore, so that he and the Swan Uppers of the Vinters and Dyers can inspect and mark the birds.
Bonsall Hen Race
First Saturday in August
Any breed of hen can be entered into the race, which is run over a 65ft track. However, if no bird has finished the race within three minutes, the bird thats closest to the finish line is declared the winner.
South Queensferry, West Lothian
Second Friday in August
The Burryman is a man who is covered head to toe in wild burdock burrs, carrying two flower-covered sticks. Accompanied by assistants, he makes a nine-mile trek around town during the Ferry Fair to collect money and give out good luck. The procession pre-dates the fair, which started in 1687.
Abbots Bromley, Staffordshire
First Monday after the first Sunday after September 4 but on September 12 if the 4th is a Sunday. Perhaps Britains oldest country custom, the dance is likely to date back to the Stone Age. Six men, known as Deermen, carry reindeer antlers, accompanied by various figures, including a Fool and a musician. The revellers then stage mock battles throughout the village and Blithfield Hall, which is only open to the public on this day.
Egremont Crab Fair
and Gurning Championships
Third Saturday in September
First held in 1267, the Crab Fair has featured cock fighting and bull baiting, as well as the Parade of the Apple Cart, with crab apples being given to the lord of the manor. Now, it includes fancy-dress wheelbarrow races and gurning competitions (the art of pulling grotesque faces).
Gathering St Michaels Carrots
Sunday before September 29
Women and girls gather wild carrots using a special ritual of digging triangular holes with a three-pronged fork as they recite a verse. The carrots are tied together with red ribbons and given to visitors.
World Conker Championships
Second Sunday in October
Started in 1965 when a fishing expedition was called off, the championships now involve knockout rounds on eight small stages on the village green. The winner is placed on the Conker Throne and given a conker crown.
Last Friday in October
Richard I handed over the fisheries to Colchester in 1189, and the town has been associated with oysters ever since. For the feast, held at Moot Hall, councillors, guests and civic dignitaries have the first option on tickets, with 40 others being allocated tickets on a ballot system.
Tar Barrel Racing
Ottery St Mary, Devon
Originating in the 17th century, the race now involves pubs sponsoring a barrel each. Each barrel is soaked in tar for the weeks preceding the event, and then lit at 4pm on November 5. Barrels are rolled or carried up and down the streets until the flames have destroyed them, and the event culminates in a huge bonfire.
The Biggest Liar in the World Competition
Santon Bridge, Cumbria
Third week in November
Held annually at The Bridge Inn, this started in the 19th century, when one storytelling regular, Will Ritson, insisted that he never lied, but merely stretched the truth. Now, competitors have between two and five minutes to demonstrate their ability to lie. Curiously, politicians, clergy and members of the legal profession are barred from entry.
The Court Leet
Last week in November
In the four evenings before the final Friday in November, a group of Bread Weighers, Ale Tasters, Chimney Peepers, Scavengers and Leather Sealers gather outside the pubs to test local produce. If they find faults, fines are imposed usually in the form of alcohol. The court then gathers on the Friday at noon before gathering at the Black Bear pub for a meal paid for by the lord of the manor.
Tin Can Band
First Sunday after December 12
At the midnight hour, the Tin Can Band walks the streets of Broughton, making as much noise as possible, using pots, pans and dustbin lids, to frighten away evil spirits.
Tolling the Devils Knell
Dewsbury, West Yorkshire
On every Christmas Eve since the 13th century, the parish-church bell has been tolled once for each year of the Christian era. The ceremony now takes more than two hours.
Christmas Day Dip
Brighton, Sussex; Havre des Pas, Jersey; Bournemouth, Dorset; Polkerris, Cornwall; Porthcawl, Wales
Despite distinctly chilly water, hundreds of people take part in the Christmas Day dip many in fancy dress.
Mari Lwyd Mummers Play
To mark the passing of mid-
winter, a horse and attendants gather at a pre-agreed pub or house, and enter into a battle of words with the inhabitants to gain entry. Punch and Judy and the Merryman (musician) keep the horse in check, before the hosts relent and give a feast to all involved.