The UK’s music festivals are world-famous, but there is plenty more to celebrate in the country’s quirky roster of top UK festivals.
Festivals in the UK celebrate everything from poetry to Vikings, and even the failed attempt of Guy Fawkes’ bombing. Here’s a selection of the UK’s best festivals all year round.
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25 January: Burns Night, Scotland
On 25 January, Scots celebrate the life and works of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns by holding a special Burns Supper. This can be a casual gathering of friends or a huge formal dinner. Either way, the menu will likely include haggis (a sheep’s stomach stuffed with seasoned offal), neeps (turnips) and tatties (mashed potatoes). Someone will recite a poem called Address to a haggis before everyone toasts the haggis and tucks in. Guests then take it in turn to recite Burns’ poems or sing one of his songs. At some Burns Suppers, there are pipers to welcome in the guests — and the haggis. The evening continues with toasts to Burns, more poems and ends with the song Auld Lang Syne.
February: Jorvik Viking Festival, York
Viking lovers from all over the world — around 40,000 at the last count — gather for the annual Jorvik Viking Festival in the city of York, a city with a rich Viking heritage. You can expect battle re-enactments, combat performances, crafts, guided walks, talks, music, archaeological sessions and family-friendly events around the city.
May: Jack in the Green, Hastings
The Hastings Jack in the Green Festival celebrates the start of summer on 1 May (May Day) with its famous Jack in the Green procession, plus events held throughout the first week of the month. May Day celebrations date back to the Celts, but it was in the 16th and 17th centuries when people started making head decorations out of flowers and leaves. In time, chimney sweeps wore such large decorations that they covered the whole body and Jack in the Green was born.
There are Jack in the Green celebrations elsewhere in the UK, but Hastings’ are considered the best. Everyone dresses up, and ‘Jack’, who is covered with leaves, parades through the Old Town accompanied by traditional Morris Dancers, giants and musicians. The procession ends at West Hill where Jack is ‘killed’ in order to release the spirit of summer.
May: Hay Festival, Hay-on-Wye, Wales
For 10 days each May, the small town of Hay-on-Wye on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales is filled with writers, filmmakers, musicians, comedians, politicians — and people who come to hear them talk and exchange ideas. Bill Clinton once described the Hay Festival as ‘the Woodstock of the mind’. The festival celebrates great writing of all genres and it all takes place in a tented village in the town. There’s no one overall festival ticket, you just buy a ticket to the event that you want to see, and many are free. There’s a kids’ program too. In between gigs, hire a bike and explore the spectacular countryside.
June: Aldeburgh Festival, Suffolk
Every June, many of the world’s leading classical musicians come to Aldeburgh on the Suffolk coast for the 17-day Aldeburgh Festival. It was founded in 1948 by composer Benjamin Britten, his partner Peter Pears, and Eric Crozier as a space for musicians and audiences to create and enjoy music in a stunning natural environment. Much of the program takes place at The Pumphouse fringe, and there is also free music every lunchtime at the Bandstand on the Beach.
When you’re not taking in the culture, take in the sea breeze as Aldeburgh is a picturesque seaside town. It also has a great fish and chips shop to boot.
June: Isle of Wight Festival
The Isle of Wight Festival is a music festival is held every year at Seaclose Park on the Isle of Wight. It originated in 1969 out of the counter-culture movement but was reborn into the mainstream in 2002 and still pulls in top names from Noel Gallagher to Richard Ashcroft and Garbage to Wet Wet Wet. This is the first major music festival of the summer season, and it’s held on an island so you have to jump on a ferry or boat to get there. You can camp or stay in a bed and breakfast. It’s a pretty small island where Queen Victoria had a holiday home that you can still visit.
June: Glastonbury Festival
As one of the world’s largest, most famous, biggest — and muddiest — music and arts festivals, tickets sell out for the five-day Glastonbury Festival within minutes of going on sale. Held in the fields of Worthy Farm, just outside the mystical town of Glastonbury in Somerset, it’s a vast event covering some 900 acres featuring more than 100 stages.
But the festival is not just about music, there’s comedy, theater, circus and other arts, too. For the complete ‘Glasto’ experience, take a tent and ‘wellies’ (knee-high rubber wellington boots) because the festival’s fields can quickly turn into a mud bath after a little light rain.
July: Camp Bestival, Dorset
This is an offshoot of the Bestival festival also held in Dorset, and it’s one of the best family festivals in the UK. Held every year in the grounds of the historic Lulworth Castle in Dorset, there are top live music acts across genres on several stages but, as the organizers say, ‘kids are king’ at Camp Bestival, with a wide variety of entertainment, workshops and fun for children.
July: WOMAD, Malmesbury, Wiltshire
WOMAD, which stands for the World of Music, Arts and Dance, was established in 1980 by Peter Gabriel. It celebrates music and culture from around the world and showcases both the biggest names and emerging talent in world music. There are WOMADs held all over the globe, but the UK version is held in Charlton Park in Wiltshire. There are open air stages, alternative therapies, workshops, dance classes, poetry, art, a kids’ parade, fairground and mass of food and crafts stalls selling products from around the world.
August: Sidmouth Folk Festival
This week-long festival of folk music, dance and song takes place in the charming East Devon regency resort of Sidmouth. There are more than 700 different events at the town’s venues and on the streets, including concerts, ceilidh dancing, roots parties, master classes and dance displays.
August: Edinburgh Fringe Festival
With over 50,000 performances of more than 3,000 shows in 300 venues across Edinburgh, the Fringe Festival is the largest arts festival in the world. For the last three weeks of August, performers take to the stage and the streets to present shows of all genres that suits every taste, from the erudite to the downright bizarre. You’ll find top names and might just spot rising artists starting out their careers.
It’s pretty much non-stop; you can spend your time seeing back-to-back shows and there are masses of good places to eat and drink to keep you going while you do. Do book ahead for popular shows.
August: Notting Hill Carnival, London
For two days each August bank holiday, the streets of Notting Hill are jam packed with crowds of close to one million revellers, giant speakers and huge sound systems, live music — think African drums and steel bands, calypso — and stalls selling Caribbean street food. The Notting Hill Carnival takes place on Sunday and Monday, with bands starting from 6:00. There’s a spectacular bespangled and feathered carnival parade that starts and finishes on Ladbroke Grove and features floats, flags, dancers, music vans and bands.
Autumn: Diwali, Leicester
Outside of India, the biggest celebration of Diwali (the Festival of Lights) takes place in the city of Leicester, although there are other celebrations in the UK (sometimes in London’s Trafalgar Square for example). Everyone, including Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, gather at the heart of the UK’s Indian community in Belgrave Road to celebrate Diwali in Leicester. First, there are lots of dancing, music, and speeches, then the crowd counts down to the moment when thousands of multi-colored lights are switched on. Over 35,000 people of all faiths attend the switch-on of the lights on the Golden Mile.
5 November: Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night
All over the UK on 5 November, the British light bonfires and set off fireworks in their back gardens or, more commonly these days, at organized events in public parks. They commemorate the Catholic Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to blow up the Protestant Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605.
The most spectacular place to go in the evening of Guy Fawkes Day is the East Sussex town of Lewes, where seven bonfire societies parade through the town in costume, carrying effigies including the Pope’s and Guy Fawkes’, and huge flaming crosses. They roll barrels of flaming tar down the streets as they march to the edge of town to light huge bonfires, burn the effigies and set off spectacular fireworks. Expect to be crushed as the narrow streets are filled with thousands of revellers and spectators.
31 December: Hogmanay, Scotland
The New Year is celebrated all over the UK with parties and free-flowing alcohol but it has a special importance in Scotland where it is called Hogmanay. Traditionally, ashes were cleaned from the fire and debts were cleared on 31 December to make a fresh start to the New Year. These days, there are processions, open-air concerts, street parties and fireworks in cities — of which Edinburgh is known to have the most spectacular celebrations — and dances (ceilidhs) and house parties everywhere else.
After the clock bells have chimed midnight, neighbors visit each other’s houses as ‘first footers’, traditionally carrying a piece of coal or, more commonly, shortcake or whisky to be the first over the threshold to wish everyone a happy New Year.