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Bizarre Britain: The age-old traditions Britons still hold dear

From worm-charming to bun-throwing bouts – it may be nearly 2021 but Britain’s bizarre traditions remain as important as ever.  

More than 10,000 Britons usually take part in eccentric festivals and competitions every year – with up to 60 events across 35 counties.

Covid-19 may have brought a temporary halt to many but here we take a look at some of the weirdest traditions from yesteryear that will hopefully bounce back in 2021.

Tar Barrel – Ottery St Mary, Devon:

The Tar Barrel Festival is thought to date back to 1605 around the time of the gunpowder plot.

But there are various other alternative suggestions to its origins including for the fumigation of cottages as well as acting as a warning of the approach of the Spanish armada.  

Either way the tradition is still continued annually in the event that sees participants carry full sized tar barrels that have been set alight on their shoulders.

Seventeen barrels, weighing approximately 30 kilograms each, are soaked in water weeks prior to the event on November 5.

They are then set alight on the night of the event outside a series of pubs and are hoisted on to people’s backs and shoulders when fully ablaze.

They then parade through the streets as thousands of spectators watch on.

There are also rounds for women and children that feature lighter barrels. 

The Tar Barrel festival is thought to date back to 1605 around the time of the gunpowder plot

Seventeen barrels, weighing approximately 30 kilograms each, are soaked in water weeks prior to the event on November 5

They are then set alight on the night of the event outside a series of pubs and are hoisted on to people's backs and shoulders when fully ablaze

Seventeen barrels, weighing approximately 30 kilograms each, are soaked in water weeks prior to the event on November 5. They are then set alight on the night of the event outside a series of pubs and are hoisted on to people’s backs and shoulders when fully ablaze

Bun Throwing – Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxford

The tradition of bun throwing is thought to be a tradition that dates back 400 years. 

The event is held when the Town Council votes to mark a royal occasion.

Recently there have been three bun throwing events – one in 2011 for Prince William and Kate’s Royal Wedding, one for the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee and the other in 2016 for her 90th birthday. 

Councillors wearing full ceremonial robes climb to the top of the County Hall and throw more than 4,000 currant buns out into the crowds in the market place below.

The buns are specially baked for the occasion and have a crown design on the top.

Due to the population in the town alone reaching more than 36,000 the buns are often fought for, hoarded and preserved by local families and visitors. 

The County Hall Museum also has a selection of buns from previous years.

Councillors wearing full ceremonial robes climb to the top of the County Hall and throw more than 4,000 currant buns out into the crowds in the market place below

Councillors wearing full ceremonial robes climb to the top of the County Hall and throw more than 4,000 currant buns out into the crowds in the market place below

The buns are specially baked for the occasion and have a crown design on the top

The County Hall Museum also has a selection of buns from previous years

The buns are specially baked for the occasion and have a crown design on the top and the County Hall Museum also has a selection of buns from previous years

Blackening – North-east of Scotland: 

The act of blackening is a tradition that dates back to more than 30 years ago when it began as a cleansing ritual to prepare women for marriage. 

In the 1980s it was instead called feet-washing and would be undertaken to show that the participant still wanted to go through with their upcoming nuptials. 

The woman’s feet would be blackened with chimney soot before then being cleansed when washed in water. 

Now the tradition is used in a much more extreme form particularly in the north-east of Scotland.

Engaged couples are now ‘kidnapped’ by their friends and family before being covered in everything from thick, sticky syrup to fish guts and dog food.

The tradition is used in the hope of bringing good luck to the couple.  

Worm Charming – Willaston, Cheshire:

The annual World Worm Charming Championships began in 1980 in a a local school yard.

The basic idea is to create vibrations to get worms to rise above the surface of the earth in an allocated three-foot by three-foot square.

Most ‘wormers’ employ the use of stob – a kind of wooden stake – to coax the worms out of the ground as importing worms from outside and digging are against the rules.

Prizes are awarded for the single heaviest specimen and the largest quantity of worms. 

The tradition is actually practiced by some as a profession who source worms to provide bait for fishing. 

But during the competition all worms are returned to the ground at the end of the day under the cover of night so that they are not snatched by passing birds. 

The current world record for worm charming is held by Miss and Mr Smith who won the championship in 2009 with 567 worms.

The annual World Worm Charming Championships began in 1980 in a a local school yard. The basic idea is to create vibrations to get worms to rise above the surface of the earth in an allocated three-foot by three-foot square

The annual World Worm Charming Championships began in 1980 in a a local school yard. The basic idea is to create vibrations to get worms to rise above the surface of the earth in an allocated three-foot by three-foot square

Prizes are awarded for the single heaviest specimen and the largest quantity of worms

Prizes are awarded for the single heaviest specimen and the largest quantity of worms

Most 'wormers' employ the use of stob - a kind of wooden stake - to coax the worms out of the ground as importing worms from outside and digging are against the rules

Most ‘wormers’ employ the use of stob – a kind of wooden stake – to coax the worms out of the ground as importing worms from outside and digging are against the rules

Weighing the Mayor – High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire:

The Mayor of High Wycombe is always weighed upon taking office as well as during the handover ceremony to the next incumbent.  

The custom dates from the late 19th-century and sees the Mayor, as well as all the other officials and dignitaries, seated on a large set of brass scales set up in the centre of the town. 

If he or she has lost weight during their term in office then the crowd will cheer in the knowledge that they have been working hard during this period.

But if they have gained weight they are subject to some light-hearted booing given the implication that they have done so at the taxpayer’s expense.

In previous years they would be pelted with rotten fruit if this was the case but this is no longer practiced. 

The Mayor of High Wycombe is always weighed upon taking office as well as during the handover ceremony to the next incumbent. Pictured: The new Mayor of High Wycombe being weighed in 1929

The Mayor of High Wycombe is always weighed upon taking office as well as during the handover ceremony to the next incumbent. Pictured: The new Mayor of High Wycombe being weighed in 1929

In previous years they would be pelted with rotten fruit if this was the case but this is no longer practiced

In previous years they would be pelted with rotten fruit if this was the case but this is no longer practiced

Bog Snorkelling – Waen Rhydd Bog, Wales:

The World Bog Snorkelling Championship takes place at Waen Rhydd bog on the outskirts of the UK’s smallest town Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales. 

Entrants are required to swim two consecutive lengths of the murky water wearing flippers and a snorkel but many also don fancy dress. 

Recognisable swimming strokes are banned from the event, which has now entered into its 34th year.

It has been described by travel guide publisher Lonely Planet as one of the top 50 ‘must do’ events around the world.

Last year the competition was won by Secondary school art teacher Neil Rutter, of Swindon, Wiltshire, who retained his title for a third year running.

The World Bog Snorkelling Championship takes place at Waen Rhydd bog on the outskirts of the UK's smallest town Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales

The World Bog Snorkelling Championship takes place at Waen Rhydd bog on the outskirts of the UK’s smallest town Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales

Last year the competition was won by Secondary school art teacher Neil Rutter, of Swindon, Wiltshire, who retained his title for a third year running

Last year the competition was won by Secondary school art teacher Neil Rutter, of Swindon, Wiltshire, who retained his title for a third year running

Entrants are required to swim two consecutive lengths of the murky water wearing flippers and a snorkel as the competition enters its 34th year

Entrants are required to swim two consecutive lengths of the murky water wearing flippers and a snorkel as the competition enters its 34th year

World Gurning Championships – Egremont, Cumbria:

Egremont Crab Fair was established in 1267 and was only interrupted by war, which makes it one of the oldest in the world. 

And the annual festival is home to the World Gurning Championship which in itself attracts more than 50 competitors.

The championships are divided into male, female and children categories.

There are strict rules too which include a ban on make-up despite the manipulation of false-teeth being allowed for those who have them. 

Last year the winner of the male competition was Tommy Mattinson who has now won a grand total of 17 times.

There are other events held at the Crab Fair that include Cumberland wrestling, Wheelbarrow racing, pipe smoking and climbing the greasy pole.

The festival is home to the World Gurning Championship which in itself attracts more than 50 competitors who are divided into male, female and children categories

The festival is home to the World Gurning Championship which in itself attracts more than 50 competitors who are divided into male, female and children categories

There are strict rules too which include a ban on make-up

But the manipulation of false-teeth for those who have them is allowed

There are strict rules too which include a ban on make-up despite the manipulation of false-teeth being allowed for those who have them

Wife Carrying Race – Dorking, Surrey: 

The 380-metre race is a dash with a difference.

The wife carrying event proves that the tradition of carrying a partner over the threshold is still thriving. 

Dozens of couples who take part in the annual event in Surrey adopt what organisers call the ‘Estonian hold’ position, which involves the person being carried hanging upside down on the carrier’s back with their thighs dangling onto their chest.

The pairs have to clamber over hay bales, go up and down hills and endure buckets  of water being chucked directly at them.

Organisers claim to be keeping alive a tradition that originated with the Vikings in 793AD and persisted for around 300 years.

Wife carrying races also continue to be popular in Finland and America. 

Dozens of couples who take part in the annual 380-metre event in Surrey adopt what organisers call the 'Estonian hold' position

Dozens of couples who take part in the annual 380-metre event in Surrey adopt what organisers call the ‘Estonian hold’ position

The pairs have to clamber over hay bales, go up and down hills and endure buckets of water being chucked directly at them

The pairs have to clamber over hay bales, go up and down hills and endure buckets of water being chucked directly at them

Cheese Rolling – Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire

Brave competitors sprint, trip and tumble down Cooper’s Hill in an attempt to win the 8lb Double Gloucester.

The cheese is chased 200 yards down the 1:2 gradient as part of the unusual event that has been celebrated for centuries.

It is thought to have its roots in a heathen festival that celebrated the return of spring.

In 2009 the competition became so popular that it had to be cancelled after more than 15,000 people turned up as spectators to watch which posed a health and safety risk. 

Since then it has been held unofficially with the police keeping a watchful eye. 

Brave competitors sprint, trip and tumble down Cooper's Hill in an attempt to win the 8lb Double Gloucester

Brave competitors sprint, trip and tumble down Cooper’s Hill in an attempt to win the 8lb Double Gloucester

The cheese is chased 200 yards down the 1:2 gradient as part of the unusual event that has been celebrated for centuries

The cheese is chased 200 yards down the 1:2 gradient as part of the unusual event that has been celebrated for centuries

Since 2010 the event has been held unofficially with the police keeping a watchful eye

Since 2010 the event has been held unofficially with the police keeping a watchful eye

Nettle Eating Contest – Marshwood, Dorset:

The internationally renowned event sees participants embark on non-stop chewing for one hour. 

The winner is whoever can strip the most nettle stalks clean within the time frame.

Competitors have to endure itching lips, a swollen tongue, a mouth stained black by the nettles’ high iron content, and burning hands from the plants’ sting.

If a participant is sick during the contest then it results in automatic disqualification. 

It is a tradition that stretches back more than 30 years after a local man offered to eat his own 15-foot nettle stalk if anyone could beat its size. 

The nettle-eating record currently stands at a phenomenal 104ft. 

The internationally renowned event sees participants embark on non-stop chewing for one hour

The internationally renowned event sees participants embark on non-stop chewing for one hour

Competitors have to endure itching lips, a swollen tongue, a mouth stained black by the nettles' high iron content, and burning hands from the plants' sting

Competitors have to endure itching lips, a swollen tongue, a mouth stained black by the nettles’ high iron content, and burning hands from the plants’ sting


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