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Strange British November Traditions

November 2019

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Lewes Bonfire Night Torch Light Procession

The month of November is chock full of strange and glorious British customs and traditions. Bonfire Night on November 5th is probably the most well known. It’s when children create effigies of the sixteenth century Yorkshireman who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes, whose real name was Guido, got hung, drawn and quartered for his unsuccessful efforts. To commemorate the occasion, the aforementioned effigies are thrown onto a pyre, while onlookers enjoy community firework displays as they munch on toffee apples, sausages, and Yorkshire Parkin – a Northern England cake-like treat made with flour, oatmeal, ginger and treacle.

The town of Lewes in East Sussex kicks off their Bonfire Night celebrations with a torch light procession which winds through the streets, before the lighting of the communal bonfire. Meanwhile, about 170 miles west of Lewes lies the quaint town of Ottery St. Mary in Devon, where the idea of carrying a flaming torch might for some be considered tame. Instead, the Ottery St. Mary townsfolk – known as Ottregians - race through the streets, hauling flaming wooden barrels of burning tar on their backs. I kid you not.

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Tar Barrel Burning, Ottery St. Mary

Tar Barrel Burning is a tradition that dates back to the 17th century. There’s nothing quite like it. Another strange Ottery St. Mary tradition is Pixie Day. Held in June, this ancient ritual consists of the Pixies that plague Ottery St. Mary being publicly banished to a cluster of local caves, known collectively as “Pixie’s Parlour”. I doubt there’s anything quite like that either.

Ottery St. Mary’s festivities make other towns’ November customs seem a little bland. But not to be outdone in the strangeness factor, the villagers in Shebbear, Devon, have their Devil’s Stone. Legend has it that the stone was dropped by the Devil when he was cast out of heaven by St. Michael. And so, as one does when that happens, every November 5th the six-foot-long stone, which is set under an ancient oak tree, gets turned over – whether it needs it or not.

Talking of Saints, November 1st is All Saints Day – the annual antidote to Halloween, when children once again take to knocking on doors. This time though they are gifted with Soul Cakes, a cross between a biscuit and a scone. This tradition was probably more prevalent before the rise of trick-or-treating in the U.K., but it reportedly still takes place in Sheffield.

While the end of November tradition of slaving over a hot stove baking a plethora of pies for Thanksgiving is an age old custom we still enjoy, the U.K.’s Old Clem’s Night, which celebrates blacksmith’s slaving over their anvils, has almost died out.

Held on November 23rd, in honor of St. Clement, the patron saint of metalworks and blacksmiths, Old Clem’s Night kicks off with a procession of singing blacksmiths which interrupts its journey through the streets with stops at various taverns along the way. With every stop, the participants are given money towards their feast and fortified with ale, the result being that the procession becomes rowdier and rowdier until they reach their final destination where they round off the evening with a rousing rendition of the Blacksmith’s anthem, “Twanky Dillo”. A real folksong, which also goes by the alternative name of...twankydillo. I kid you not again.

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