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Britain Welcomes Spring with Oddball Festivals and Quirky Competitions

The annual Cheese Rolling event in the English village of Stilton, held every May, sees teams of four compete against …

Wife carrying. Cheese chasing. Eating 76 feet of stinging nettles in an hour. As the weather heats up, unusual events bloom like wildflowers across the UK.

The silly season kicks off with the Pooh Sticks Championships, a game drawn from A.A. Milne’s beloved Winnie-the-Pooh books. Contestants face upstream on a bridge, then release twigs into the water. The first stick to emerge on the other side wins.

An Oxford-area Rotary Club chapter spun this simple pastime into a charity fundraiser, now in its 30th year (£2, March 24, Day's Lock between Little Wittenham and Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire). But British novelist Katy Darby stresses the joy of pick-up games. “Unplanned Pooh Sticks are the best kind,” she said. “Wherever there is a picturesque bridge and a frisky river, spontaneous outbreaks of Pooh Sticking are inevitable. It's definitely a great thing to do with kids and grandkids or if you're feeling silly.”

Members of the Beltane Fire Society celebrate the coming of summer in Edinburgh, Scotland. …Perhaps not surprisingly, April 1 is prime time for oddball activities. West Yorkshire tests strength and stamina with The World Coal Carrying Contest (£10–15). Meanwhile, Leicestershire competitors wrestle a small beer keg across a mile-wide rugby pitch in the centuries-old tradition of Bottle Kicking. The Guardian newspaper reports just three rules amid all the bedlam: “no gouging, no strangling and, um, no rules.”

Beltane — the Celtic “lucky fire” festival, marking the transition from winter to summer — is booming throughout spring. From Edinburgh to Peebles and Yorkshire, alongside Clun’s Green Man Festival and Hampshire’s Burning of the Wicker Man, crowds sing and dance and play with fire.

In Oxford, a boy’s choir greets the dawn atop a college tower on May Morning (May 1). Maypoles, barbershop quartets and paper machê unicorns swirl below. Not to mention sozzled revelers — an exemption allows many pubs to serve all night or open at sunrise — clad in anything from tuxedos to tree limbs.

This bacchanalia revived 20 years after it was featured in the film “Shadowlands” about the bittersweet romance between Narnia author C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) and his cancer-stricken wife Joy (Debra Winger). Now up to 18,000 partiers clog the City of Dreaming Spires to welcome spring. “The celebration keys into the natural feeling of the sap rising in May,” notes the author of “Strange Oxford,” Folklorist Mogg Morgan. “Oxford is a special place that lends itself to this kind of freeform and spontaneous happening.”

Forty-five miles to the west, Brockworth is taking a page from an even more casual playbook. In 2010, insurance expenses stopped the official Cheese Rolling, where contestants bounded down a steep hill, pursuing handmade 8-lb wheels of Double Gloucester that can hit 70 mph. Yet fans still gather on the down-low (£5–10, May 27), inspired by centuries of habit as well as their recent star turn in The Maccabees “Can You Give It” video. The village of Stilton, about 60 miles north of London, incorporates a slightly less dangerous version of cheese rolling on paved streets as part of its May Day celebration.

A couple plays Pooh Sticks in Castle Combe, a village in Wiltshire, England. (Photo by …Wales, on the other hand, has embraced whimsy with summer activities like bog snorkeling and wife-carrying contests. Gordon Green, the man behind these non-standard sports, explains: “We wanted to improve the economy of our town — the smallest in Britain, Llanwrtyd Wells, population 601 — so we started organizing quirky events like the Man Versus Horse Marathon, first held in 1980.” It took 25 years for a human runner to outpace a four-legged competitor over 22 miles of broken ground, but Huw Lobb finally beat the herd by two minutes (£20–30, June 8).

Brits and visitors can fuel all this fun, Popeye-style, with leafy greens at The Great Dorset Stinging Nettle Eating Competition. Each year, 50-odd participants tuck into these prickly weeds for an hour, turning their mouths numb and squid-ink black. Organic vegetable grower Simon Sleigh holds the record, having chewed the leaves off 76 feet of nettle stalk — the length of a heavy-duty garden hose (£5, June 30, The George Inn, Chideock).

Moments like these have kept writer and photographer Susie Brown combing the UK for the last decade, compiling material for a book on Bogs, Barrels and Birdmen. “Britain has been occupied by many different peoples, all of whom left their mark: the Vikings, the Romans, the Normans, the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts,” Brown said. Each culture’s traditions, she points out, are woven into the “rich tapestry of events we celebrate today.”

Old rituals endured; others sprang up fresh. Either way, Brown suspects a love of sports, ceremony and social connection is the kindling. “The British community spirit — not just seen in wartime!”

Getting there: The national carrier British Airways flies into London and 23 other UK destinations.

By Amanda Castleman

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COUNTRY GUIDES

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    Found on a peninsular in the mid-west of Great Britain, Wales retains the strong personality of its … More »

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