The expert selection: Britain’s eccentric festive celebrations

The next eight days will see a series of unconventional festive celebrations taking place across Britain. Benedict le Vay, author of several books about the eccentric side of the country, selects some of the best.

Peter Pan Cup, London Tomorrow at 9am, as on every Christmas morning since 1864, a dedicated group of swimmers will forgo lie-ins, present-opening and lazy breakfasts to leap into the freezing waters of the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park. Participants (who must be members of the Serpentine Swimming Club) compete for the Peter Pan cup, donated by JM Barrie in 1903, watched by a large crowd of spectators. Organised dips also take place in the sea from Hunstanton in Norfolk (11am) to Porthcawl, south Wales (11.45am). New Year’s day brings the “Loony Dook” – 1,000 or more brave souls jumping into the Firth of Forth at South Queensferry, near Edinburgh. Anyone can take part, but you must register and pay £6 (

Marshfield Paper Boys, Gloucestershire Mummers plays are traditional folk performances that have been performed in the streets and pubs of English towns for at least 900 years. The contents vary but they are usually spoken in rhyme and involve a fight and someone being brought back to life by a doctor with a magic potion or pill. In Marshfield, not far from Bath, the play is performed every Boxing Day morning, by local residents bizarrely dressed from head to toe in strips of paper. It usually starts at Marshfield Market Place at 11am, with the mummers being led through the streets by the town crier before the first of several performances.

Mapleton Bridge Jump, Derbyshire A large crowd gathers on New Year’s day in the village of Mapleton, near Ashbourne, to watch this bizarre race. Participants, many of whom wear fancy dress, paddle half a mile down the river Dove in small boats, then leap from a 30ft bridge into the water. It’s an instant hangover cure apparently, or would be if most participants didn’t immediately retreat to the Okeover Arms, where the winner is later awarded the Brass Monkey trophy.

Bath Race, Dorset Every New Year’s day since 1973 dozens of contestants have raced through the harbour in Poole using bath tubs rather than boats. Some strap more than one bath together and one year a team of 20 raced a nine-bath human-powered paddle steamer. It broke apart halfway and sunk.

Allendale Tar Barrel Parade, Northumberland At about 11.45pm on New Year’s eve, brightly dressed “guizers” go marching through the town, led by a band. Each bears a blazing half barrel on his head, filled with tar and wood shavings, and these are hurled on a bonfire in the marketplace. It’s just one of many fire-related festivals in northern England and Scotland. In Comrie, Perthshire, the Flambeaux Procession starts from the square on the last stroke of midnight. Participants carry flaming torches to every corner of the village “to drive out evil spirits”. The procession ends with the torches being thrown into the River Earn and everyone dancing. The Ne’erday Bonfire at the South Lanarkshire town of Biggar sees a marching band and an enormous bonfire in the High Street (9pm-midnight). Sparks also fly at Stonehaven near Aberdeen in the Fireball Ceremony, which starts at about 11.30pm and involves a couple of dozen men marching down the High Street. Whirling round their heads are fireballs, made of flammable material on the end of wire ropes. As the men march down to the harbour, these circles of fire make a startling sight.

‘Eccentric Britain’ by Benedict le Vay is published by Bradt

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