So, Halloween was all go in NY. Brooklyn became a pumpkin field, a 13 foot spider scaled the brownstone opposite us and hundreds of shiny slutty costume shops popped up all over town.
However, in London there's little orange nylon hysteria. People get a bit witchy and go to the pub, the goths are quite jolly, but no one really bats an eyelid. And no one dresses up as a bat. Or a viking, a cheerleader, Chilean miner or Charlie Sheen's hotel room cupboard.
BUT. Not to be beaten. Although All Hallow's Eve is less of an event in the UK, many other local traditional celebrations and rituals are observed throughout the year, especially in our smaller villages and backwaters. Not scary or ghoulish but steeped in Blackadder-esque British history, perhaps pointless or painful, often utterly daft. More entertaining than a dog in a Sarah Palin costume?
Four of our Weird & Wonderful Traditional British Folk Pastimes:
1. Cheese Rolling
Cooper's Hill, Gloucestershire, UK. May.
Blessed are the Cheese Rollers. A cheese is flung down a hill, dozens of men chase it. Suicidally steep, the hill drops away at a 70-degree angle, plunges, levels out then plummets before suddenly flattening leaving chasers only a few feet to stop before crashing into a cottage fence at the bottom. Rugby players are on hand to try to catch them.
The 250-yard racecourse is, as Hobbes would say, nasty, brutish and short. Much peril awaits: ankle-twisting grass, leaf slime, gravel pits, Burgandy snails and duck's nests. Walking is hard, running is crazy and chasing a cheese ... well.
No one ever catches the cheese -- it rockets down at nearly 70 miles an hour. "People literally fly through the air," says Rob Seex, the current master of ceremonies. "It just looks insane. You will be amazed that people aren't more seriously hurt than they are."
The wheels of Double Gloucester weigh as much as a baby, eight pounds. Three inches thick and nine inches in diameter, they could be legally classed as missiles.
A blood sport of sorts, even innocent cheese watchers are often hurt by stray people and dairy. "That's gotta be a bit of a whack," says a contestant whose mother was hit in the leg by an errant cheese. "She had a huge bruise and couldn't walk for a couple of weeks."
Legend has it eight people were struck by lightning during the infamous 1982 cheese roll. The "Cheese Chase Chaos" of 1990 racked up some 22 casualties -- including a grandmother, 59, knocked out by the deadly Double Gloucester.
2. Dwile Flonking
Bungay & Beccles, Suffolk, UK. August.
It takes a hero to dodge a dwile, avoid a wanton and score a swadger. Partly because who has a clue what any of it means?
Resurrected in the late 1960's Dwile Flonking (or Dwyle Flunking) is an outdoor pub game of dubious origin but joyous originality. Does dwile flonking really date back to the Suffolk harvests of 400 years ago or is it just a good excuse for getting drunk and celebrating Christmas in August?
Dwile Flonking involves two teams of twelve, dressed in traditional and soon soggy folk costumes, who dance around the other in a circle while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team.
One team forms a circle (called the Girter). A member of the opposing team takes his turn to stand in the middle of the Girter and be the Flonker. The Flonker carries a 2-3 foot long stick (or Driveller) on the end of which is a beer sodden sponge (or dwile). As the Girter members dance around him the Flonker must flonk his dwile using his Driveller to try and hit a member of the Girter.
The referee or 'jobanowl' decides who flonks first by tossing a sugar beet. The game begins when the jobanowl shouts "Here y'go t'gither!" Very Harry Potter, isn't it? As if Lewis Carroll invented Quidditch.
3. Green Man Battling
Clun, Ango-Welsh Border. Early May.
An ancient pagan tradition from Shropshire. Basically, a bloke dresses up as a great big fecund Wood God and has a fight with the Frost Queen on a Bridge. Winner gets Spring.
The Green Man is a woodland spirit, great trees border his cloak, their branches interlacing across his chest and, uniquely for wood gods, his leaf face is crowned with deer antlers.
Winter is banished and Summer welcomed by this re-enactment of the embodiment of the seasons, the festival also features juggling, duck racing & Morris dancing.
4. The World Gurning Championships
Egremont, Cumbria, UK. September.
Contestants put their heads through a horse collar and contort their faces into the most gruesome or daft expressions possible.
Originated at Egremont Crab Fair in 1297 (named after apples not custaceans) after Henry III granted this apple variety a royal charter, 'gurning' was born from expressions caused by the bitterness of the apples.
Other attractions at the contest include the rather literally named 'climbing up the greasy pole to try and get the leg of lamb nailed at the top.'
According to the BBC, who follow the festival, using the horse collar frame is called "gurnin' through a braffin'. Often the greatest gurners are those with no teeth, who can often lift their lip up over their nose, which has, apparently, led to many of the sports professionals removing their own teeth with pliers.
So, if Halloween didn't spook you or your inner Jack-O-Lantern is all burnt out, hop on a flight over the pond and Flonk your Dwile to your heart's content.
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