Behind The Blue Door

Afternoon Tea | October 22, 2015 |

It’s fete:

Reviving the quirkiest English traditions



‘I find only freedom in the realms of eccentricity’ David Bowie

If there’s any truth to the late icon’s comment, we should certainly be celebrating our English sense of liberty.

The country is packed with odd fêtes, festivals and shenanigans but we’ve unearthed our favourite local beanos – most worthy of a thousand modern-day health and safety scoldings.

So from the wonderful, wacky and downright weird, we bring you our top four. Warning: do not try these at home.


Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels, Devon


Image source: Google (licensed for reuse)

Anyone privy to the spectacle of Ottery St Mary’s ‘rollers’ carrying flame-lit tar barrels down winding streets can testify that this is one eye-opening tradition.

Its history is unclear but probably dates back to the gunpowder plot of 1605 – although the fumigation of cottages and a heads-up to the approach of the Spanish armada have been mooted too.

This event draws around 10,000 spectators for a reason: it’s a flirt with danger of the kind usually banned by the health and safety officials.

Seventeen huge wooden barrels are filled with tar and and carried at speed on the shoulders of men (and occasionally women) from the local area. Spectacle enough, you might say. Now set the barrels are on fire and encourage general chaos.

Is there a winner? Where are they heading? Does anyone care?

When to go: The event usually takes place on the nearest Saturday to 5th November, but check the website.

Shin-kicking at the Cotswold Olimpicks, Chipping Campden, Cotswolds


Image source: Amazon

As befits its ancient, mysterious roots, the Cotswold Olimpicks don’t currently have a working website (launching soon). So we contacted Iain Aitch, author of A Fete Worse than Death, a celebration of all things eccentrically British, to ask him all about it.

Iain is cheerfully unfazed by events such as the Olimpicks being a little tricky to discover.

“I love the fact that we still have so many of these competitions,” he said, “As well as the fact that some remain relatively obscure and rely on you gaining local knowledge to find out when and where they happen.”

Iain did manage to find out the details of the shin-kicking contest – and was brave enough to have a go himself, donning a white coat while he and his opponent kicked and tripped each other until one hit the ground.

If you win, you go on to fight again in the next round.

“Fortunately, I lost my first bout,” he smiled, “The crowd can get quite sizeable on a warm summer evening and they certainly encourage you to get stuck in. No one quite knows the origins of the contest, but similar contests have been reported across parts of rural England, between farm hands or miners, often wearing steel-toed boots, or even nothing at all.”

When to go: We discovered that the next Cotswold Olimpicks is on Friday 3 June 2016. Plenty of time to squeeze some training in, then.


Wife Carrying, The Nower in Dorking, Surrey


Image source: Rob Irving for Trionium

Apparently, the UK wife-carrying race sees couples competing against each other ‘in one wild mix of flailing arms, legs and buttocks’.

All this, plus they are pitted against a mix of steep inclines, hay bales and onlookers armed with filled buckets and water pistols.

Kick off by choosing your hold; perhaps the piggyback (popular, but tiring and not very fast); the bridle carrying (almost impossible to keep up for long); the shoulder ride (precarious but surprisingly swift) or the Estonian hold ( ‘wife’ hangs upside down on the man’s back with her legs over his shoulders).

After that, it’s a question of hurrying to the finish line as best you can. The winners receive anything from beer to sausages, but the losers can look forward to receiving a tin of dog food and a pot noodle.

When to go: This is one you won’t have to wait too long for; the next wife-carrying contest will be flailing its limbs on Sunday 6 March 2016.


Lewes Fireworks, East Sussex


Image source: Lewes Bonfire Celebrations

Lewes does ‘pretty’ better than most – it’s dotted with artisan eateries, top-end gift shops and antique markets aplenty – but catch it on 5 November and the town lights up with flaming crosses and scorching effigies as it remembers the burning of the seven ‘Lollard’ martyrs, who died at the stake during the reign of Henry VIII.

We caught up with a local resident, Kat Rolley, to ask about her best bits of this fiery festival:

“My favourite thing is the start of the bonfires, when all the society members throw bangers at the Bishop and try to blow his hat off, as his two helpers bat them away with flaming torches. It’s the kind of life-affirming, health and safety-ignoring, community-involving event you don’t believe happens in England until you see it. And even when you see it, you still can’t quite believe it!”

When to go: Saturday 5 November 2016, of course.

For more perfectly English pairings, check out our guide to the best music festivals in the grounds of stately homes.


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