morris dancers

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Celebrating weird and wonderful customs

Flights of fancy in a freewheeling year of British quirkiness

We know other countries think the British are odd, and that can seem a reasonable conclusion. Grown men dress up in ribbons and wield pig bladders, they fling wellies, wrestle in gravy, race with wives or chase cheeses down a hill.

Here are a selection of the curious and downright bizarre customs followed around the UK annually.

Cheese rolling

When? 

Late May bank holiday

Photographs do not do justice to just how steep Cooper’s Hill is, say those who have run or rolled down it. The gradient of one in two in Gloucestershire is rough, uneven and concave in parts.

Competitors who chase an 8lb cheese down it say the best tactic is to stay on your feet for as long as possible, because injuries – broken bones and dislocations – have been common. The winner is the first to cross the finish line.

A catcher stands at the bottom of the hill, as anyone still running will need a hand to stop. The winner has to charge back up the punishing slope, cheese in hand.

History

Records from the early 19th century show cheese rolling was already well established; in the past it was part of the annual Cooper’s Hill wake or festival. When wartime rationing meant cheese was scarce, competitors chased a wooden round, packed with a tiny piece of cheese, to keep the tradition alive.

Morris dancing

When?

Spring holidays across England

Men don breeches, braces, hats and bells, and controversially even black up for this folksy dance with medieval origins. While morris dancing is popular around the Cotswolds and the North West, its hop and skip reaches most rural parts of England in May.
There are six styles across the country, and dancers twirl handkerchiefs, wooden swords or even rattle bones. The morris “fool” is sometimes dressed as a woman, and though morris dancing is traditionally men only, there are groups that include women. All activities include local ales.

History

In the 15th century, morris dancing was a courtly affair and is said to have had Moorish or Spanish origins. Once banned by Oliver Cromwell, morris dancing grew to become a popular rural springtime festival to welcome the change of seasons. While the Industrial Revolution dented its popularity, it was revived in the early 20th century.

The hunting of the Earl of Rone

When?

Late May bank holiday

More villagers return to the north Devon village of Combe Martin for this knees-up than they do for Christmas, say the organisers. Over four days, villagers dress as grenadiers and “hunt” for the historical figure the Earl of Rone, looking carefully in every pub they come across. Once banned in the 19th century after a participant broke his neck, the tradition was revived in the 1970s. Once found, the luckless earl is paraded through the streets sitting backwards on a donkey, “shot” and thrown into the sea.

History

In the early 15th century the Earl of Tyrone fled Ireland and apparently was shipwrecked near a north Devon cove. Hiding in the woods and living off ship’s biscuits, he was captured by Grenadiers from Barnstaple – or so the legend goes. Historical documents show the earl made it to Spain, where he eventually died. But this does not stop Combe Martin celebrating.

Bognor Birdman

When?

Late summer to early autumn

Birdmen launch themselves off the pier at Bognor Regis at high tide to see who flies the furthest and stays up the longest. Organisers say thousands turned out in 2016 to watch the 20-odd entrants. With prize money of up to £1,000 on offer, some entrants take it more seriously than others.

History

The first Birdman Rally (as it was known) was held in nearby Selsey in 1971, with a prize for anyone who could fly 50 yards. Over the years, costumes and contraptions have ranged from the eccentric to the hi-tech – there has been a Scooby Doo and a Buzz Lightyear – and German entrants had a winning run in the Nineties.
Storms damaged part of Bognor’s pier in the 1990s, and the event moved to Worthing in 2008 amid fears for the health of the Victorian structure. But organisers say that the event is firmly back in the genteel holiday resort on the south coast of England.