The English are known for their party spirit and quirky habits, both of which are directly connected to the consumption of copious amounts of alcohol. Living in a country with mostly glum weather and not much to laugh about after the fall of the empire, they take every excuse to celebrate. Here’s a selection of ten famous British events, from traditional to less-orthodox holidays, music festivals and multicultural celebrations.
So, what are the best festivals and events to attend in England?
1. Beer and ale festivals
This is a country that loves its beer, so it’s no surprise that all year round, you will find lots of beer festivals, even in the smallest of towns. These events are not just visited by locals — some people travel halfway across the country for them. Length varies — some are just one- or two-day long affairs, but generally they end up taking anything from four days to several weeks.
They might not always have the fun-fair factor that the Oktoberfest is famous for, but they definitely have the booze factor — and there’s always one going on somewhere in the country.
When is it? Throughout the year.
2. Summer solstice at Stonehenge
Usually, awe-inspiring Stonehenge is a tourist trap. People travel here from all over England and the world just to get here (this is the biggest mystery of Stonehenge: England is a small country and it’s easy to get just about anywhere within two hours, but going to Stonehenge always takes forever) – and upon arrival, they can just look at the century-old stones from a safe and frustrating distance.
England has a big community of pagans (Wiccans and the like, not the Harry Potter fan type) who, in traditional English Union-minded manner, fought for their right to use Stonehenge as a religious site. So the only time to actually get close to monuments is for pagan celebrations, of which the Summer Solstice is, due to the weather, the most popular one. Time to befriend a British witch!
When is it? June.
3. Pancake Day
Every Christian country has its own pre-Lent traditions — the few days before the period of fasting leading up to Easter. Traditionally, on Shrove Tuesday, the day before fasting began, housewives and cooks would make a dish that would use up all calorie-rich foods in the pantry. Take butter, eggs, flour and milk and you get… pancakes.
The tradition has continued and these days you’ll find pancakes everywhere in the week leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Many pubs and restaurants offer special pancake deals and most people, families or flatmates alike, will make traditional British pancakes – with nothing more but a light sprinkling of lemon and sugar (suggest any other topping and people will look at you like you’re crazy).
Every country has it. THE rock festival with ALL the great international bands, that always sells out well in advance, and during which you forget your own name or any manners your parents ever taught you. In England, this takes place every summer in Glastonbury, which is usually a quaint medieval English town (well worth visiting outside festival season, too). Tickets are so popular that there is a long-winded application process, so apply now for a chance to attend next summer!
When is it? June.
5. Camden pub crawl
A pub crawl is a venerable British institution, wherever you are in the country — and Camden’s is a well-organised and enjoyable option. Every August for a long weekend, the pubs and music venues in London’s Camden Town work together to organise an event featuring lots of different musicians, from international top acts to renowned British groups and guy-next-door bands – so you can not only drink yourself from pub to pub, but also listen to good music while doing it.
Here, because there are several venues taking part, it’s not too hard to get tickets, but accommodation in London is usually booked solid, so planning in advance is advised.
When is it? August.
6. Totally Thames festival
During the whole month of September (which is often London’s best month weather-wise, full of mild, sunny days), London celebrates with the Totally Thames festival, which takes place along the banks of the Thames. There’s boat races, river-inspired art, and free performances from all over the world.
In past years, especially-popular parts of the festival included free outdoor theatre performances and movie screenings, an Eastern European food market and a large Korean area with food, traditional Korean music and taekwondo workshops – there is much to explore and it changes every year.
When is it? September.
7. Guy Fawkes’ Night
‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November…’ There’s a saying in England that the last man who got into parliament with honest intentions was Guy Fawkes – and his intention was to blow it up. Things didn’t quite end up the way Guy had planned, and today the fact that he did NOT blow up parliament is celebrated with fireworks and a long visit to the pub – traditional English logic.
When is it? November.
8. St George’s Day
This is the original national holiday of England, with St George being the patron saint of the country and St George’s cross as the motif of the English flag. The actual date of the holiday changes yearly, depending on when Easter takes place. However, since Scotland became part of the UK, celebrations around St George’s Day are not really celebrated except by the Church of England. However, this is still a good excuse to visit (where else?) the pub.
When is it? April.
Indians represent the largest ethnic minority in England, and their influence on the country is evident — and not just in the amount of curry English people eat. Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, is celebrated each October/November all over Britain, and not just by Indians — anyone can join in.
Try to get yourself invited to a private celebration if possible (this shouldn’t be too hard if you know a local, many Indians invite all their friends, regardless of religion), but failing that many cities also have public events like food festivals, displays of traditional Indian music and much more. Especially spectacular are the celebrations around London’s Trafalgar Square. It’s a fun and easy way to get acquainted with Indian and Hindu culture.
10. St Patrick’s Day
This is a macabre one to include when you consider the history and relationship between England and Ireland, but maybe this is why it’s so important. Of course St Patrick’s Day is an originally Irish holiday, but Irish people and people of Irish descent make up a huge percentage of the population, especially in Northern England.
This means that St Patrick’s Day is one of the biggest public celebrations in England, perhaps second only to Guy Fawkes’ night and definitely bigger than England’s own St George’s Day. Many big cities hold St Patrick’s Day parades, and pretty much every pub has a special event for 17 March.
When is it? March.
Note: this article was originally published in 2010, but was updated in 2018.