We Brits are a bit of an odd bunch – we like to roll cheese down hills and dance around with bells, sticks and handkerchiefs. In fact, a lot of our modern culture is awash with a myriad of myths, legends and bizarre traditions that date back hundreds of years. But where did they all originate and why do we still celebrate them?
Cheese-rolling in Gloucester
With records of cheese-rolling in Gloucestershire, South West England, dating back hundreds of years, the annual tradition is still a world-famous event. Why the locals first decided to roll a cheese down an extremely steep hill all those years ago is highly debated. Some believe it was a requirement to maintain grazing rights on the common, whereas others suggest it stems from a pagan ritual of rolling objects down hills to encourage a successful harvest.
Jack in the Green, Hastings
If you visit any May Day procession in Britain, don’t be alarmed if you see someone covered head to toe in foliage – that’s Jack in the Green. The custom began in the 16th century, when procession-goers became more and more competitive with making garlands for the parade – so much so that they started to cover an entire man in greenery. Hastings, on England’s south coast, has an entire annual festival dedicated to Jack in the Green.
Pancake races, Buckinghamshire
On Shrove Tuesday, people across the UK tuck into pancakes, and the residents of Olney in Buckinghamshire gear up for their annual pancake race. The race-goers run through the town whilst also flipping a cooked pancake in a frying pan as they go. The story goes that this started in 1445 after a wife who was cooking pancakes heard the church bells shriving (indicating parishioners were expected in church) and rushed out with the frying pan still in her hand.
Ottery Tar Barrels, Devon
Every 5 November the people of Ottery in Devon set barrels of tar alight and carry them on their shoulders through the packed streets of the town. The reasons behind this daring tradition, which has been taking place for hundreds of years, are disputed. It’s most likely to be connected to the gunpowder plot of 1605 but may have been a way to warn against the Spanish Armada.
Lady Godiva, Midlands
According to legend, Lady Godiva rode naked through the city of Coventry on horseback, with only her long hair to cover her modesty, as a way to convince her husband to lower the taxes for the people of the town. Although, as with most legends, her story has had its historical accuracy questioned, the love for the tale of Lady Godiva’s generosity has remained.
King Arthur and Excalibur
The legend of King Arthur is one of the most famous in Britain, with many stories of bravery and romance featuring in his character. Although his existence is debated, his tales live on in British folklore. Probably the most famous is the tale of the sword and the stone, which sees Arthur pull the sword of Excalibur from a stone and, in doing so, reveals himself as the rightful King of England. Some believe the London Stone is in fact, the stone that Arthur drew his sword from, and you can see it for yourself at the Museum of London(link is external).
With their bells, sticks, swords and all-important handkerchiefs, there’s something distinctly English about Morris dancing. The traditional folk dance is thought to have originated in the early 15th century and derived from a Druidic fertility dance. The dance remains popular, with many believing that it has magical powers to ward off evil and bring good luck. Throughout the years, different regions of the UK have developed their own styles and nuances of Morris dancing – whether that’s the wearing of clogs in the North West or the use of short sticks and feathers in the Borders.
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