UK’s best unusual winter events, from Pagan traditions to Hogmanay fireballs

UK’s best unusual winter events, from Pagan traditions to Hogmanay fireballs

The season of goodwill is upon us, but not everybody wants to celebrate this time of year with advent calendars, baubles and chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

Here are eight places to visit across the UK for those who are tired of Christmas markets and Santa meet-and-greets and want to experience something a little different. A pagan ceremony, Norse tradition and Hogmanay celebration are among the mix.

Burning the Clocks, Brighton, East Sussex

This egalitarian antidote to commercialism of Christmas was established in 1994 as a festival in which everyone – regardless of their beliefs or ethnicity – would feel they could participate. Festivalgoers take to the streets of Brighton on the evening of 21 December, the winter solstice, to celebrate the passing of time and look ahead to lighter days in the year ahead. Those in the procession brandish handmade paper and willow lanterns with fabulous designs, filled with messages expressing their thoughts and wishes and, upon reaching the beach, cast their creations into a huge fire.

Winter Solstice, Stonehenge, Wiltshire

One of Britain’s most spectacular prehistoric attractions usually gets a few brownie points docked for its high entrance prices and the fact that visitors can’t get anywhere near the menhirs making up the stone circle. But at dawn on 22 December, admission rules at the ancient monument on the Wiltshire plains are relaxed for the morning to admit attendees for the winter solstice celebrations. This is the most important date in the calendar for the people who originally built and used this site. The shortest day of the year is when rituals were performed to ensure light returned to earth in greater and greater quantities throughout the ensuing six months.

Druid and pagan communities, often fabulously dressed, perform incantations inside the circle after first light, around 8am. And yes, you can get up close and touch the stones during this time, provided you don’t climb on them or attempt to damage them.

The Ba’, Kirkwall, Orkney

KIRKWALL, SCOTLAND - JANUARY 01: Orkadians take part in the New Year???s Ba??? Game played with a hand crafted leather ball on January 1, 2020 in Kirkwall Scotland. The Ba' Game is a mass street football match which starts at the towns Mercat Cross, is played between two teams, the Uppies and the Doonies. The game has been played in Kirkwall's streets for hundreds of years, with the teams made up of men from the south end of the town and the north end. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Orkadians take part in the New Year game (Photo: Getty)

Up on Scotland’s Orkney Islands, part of Norway until 1472, Norse customs and culture survive to the present day. And it’s these that are thought to be behind The Ba’, a mayhemic mass ball game enlivening the streets of archipelago capital Kirkwall on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Two teams, the Uppies and the Doonies, the former aiming to get the ball touching a wall at the south end of town and the latter trying to get the ball to splash in Kirkwall Bay to the north, compete in the event which begins at the Mercat Cross halfway between the two teams’ goals.

Barrel rolling, Grantchester, Cambridgeshire

Navigating cumbersomely shaped whisky barrels in a relay race on a 100-yard course along the main street is how the residents of Grantchester roll on Boxing Day. This village just outside Cambridge began the barrel-rolling event in the 60s. There are several races: four teams from Grantchester face off, and there’s a championship involving teams from surrounding villages, with spectators roaring encouragement from behind the hay bales flanking the course. Festivities conclude in one of Grantchester’s pubs.

Boxing Day Swim, Tenby, Pembrokeshire

One of South Wales’ biggest and best seaside resorts, the Pembrokeshire town of Tenby doesn’t restrict taking a dip to summertime. For half a century here, hundreds of folks have been making the dash to the sea for a bracing Boxing Day swim. This year, the 51st edition, has a Disney theme. Brave participants can partake of soup beside the bonfire on the beach afterwards.

Matlock Raft Event, Matlock, Derbyshire

Matlock Raft Event Sam Hepburn
A previous year’s Matlock Raft Event (Photo: Sam Hepburn)

In and around Matlock, Derbyshire, the countdown is not just to Christmas but to this left-field extravaganza the day after. Teams turn up on Boxing Day to the start point of this ramshackle regatta near Cawdor Quarry with their own handmade rafts, then navigate them down the chilly River Derwent on a two-hour run via Matlock Bath weir to Cromford Meadows. Both vessels and crew are invariably dressed up fancifully (as cartoon characters or pirates, for example) for the occasion, which raises money for the RNLI.

Stonehaven Fireballs for Hogmanay, Stonehaven, Aberdeenshire

There are several fire festivals across the UK on New Year’s Eve or Hogmanay, as it’s called in Scotland, but the shenanigans in Stonehaven on the Aberdeenshire coast are perhaps the most bizarre of the lot. As midnight approaches, pipe music is played, fireballs are lit and many “swingers” make their way along the High Street, twirling the blazing balls above their heads. The idea is to burn off any bad spirits lingering from the previous year, so as to start the New Year afresh.

Winter Flowers Week, Garden Museum, Lambeth, London

No amount of fairy lights can conceal the fact that this can feel like a drab time of year, with the blooms of spring still far off. But Lambeth’s Garden Museum in London is putting on Winter Flowers Week from 7–11 December. In the first festival of its kind, seasonal flowers and foliage will be showcased in a riot of colourful displays by some of the country’s top florists. Sustainability will also be at the heart of the spectacle, with British-grown flowers and ecologically sensitive materials used.