Like to live like a local when you travel? Whether it’s speaking Welsh, cheering like a Liverpudlian or dancing with a Scot, here are 21 ways to immerse yourself in British traditions from the delicious to the downright weird.
1. Address a haggis
Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the pudding-race! (Opening lines of ‘Address to a haggis’.)
The Scots pay homage to their national dish on Burns Night, 25 January, when haggis, neeps and tatties (turnips and potatoes) are served alongside drams and drams of whisky. Guests stand to welcome the dish – which is often served on a silver platter and piped in by bagpipes – before the host recites the ‘Address to a haggis’ by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns, slices it with a sword and the feast begins.
2. Eat a ‘moron’
The Welsh language is alive and well, and in some parts of Wales you’re more likely to be greeted with a friendly ‘Shw mae?’ than the English equivalent (‘How’s it going?’). Get started in Cymraeg with these handy phrases:
Dau cwrw os gwelwch yn dda (dye cooroo os gwelook un thar): Two beers please
Diolch yn fawr (deeolk un vowr): Thanks very much
Iechyd da! (‘yakee da!’): Cheers!
And one guaranteed to come up in a pub quiz one day: carrot in Welsh is ‘moron’.
3. Toss a caber
The Queen is a big fan of Highland Games, a Scottish summer tradition that involves athletic events such as tossing the caber (basically, throwing a very big stick as far as possible) and tug o’ war, as well as Highland dance competitions and bagpiping galore –all set against a spectacularly scenic Scottish backdrop. 80 Games take place from May through September in the Highlands, on the islands and even in the grounds of castles.
4. Converse with a cabbie
Don’t be surprised if you hop into a black cab and realise, by the end of your journey, that you and your driver have discussed everything from football to the meaning of life itself; ‘cabbies’ are known for their love of a chat. Britain’s black cabs are as much of an icon as its red telephone boxes, but even more conducive to conversation: hail a taxi in a sophisticated manner, ditch your headphones and pick up valuable local tips.
5. Go large with your hat
‘The Season’ refers to a programme of summertime events historically attended by the British aristocracy – and now open to all – at which the common thread seems to be hat-wearing. The Grand National? Can’t move for hats. Henley Royal Regatta? Full of fascinators. Royal Ascot? Hats are written into the dress code. Visit Alison Tod in Abergavenny, South Wales, whose store is heaven for hat-lovers and who offers a bespoke millinery service.
6. Race a horse
As you might imagine, the idea for Man vs Horse came about over a pint or three, when Gordon Green decided to put his town – Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales – on the map by hosting an annual running race between human and horse. It started in 1980 and 25 years later came the first human victory, followed by another in 2007 – the horse has triumphed every year since and the jackpot of prize money is rising….
Photo © Whole Earth
7. Snorkel to victory
Five years after launching Man vs Horse, Gordon Green had another bright idea for an event – the World Bog Snorkelling Championship. After all, why just swim, when you can snorkel in a peat bog? Hundreds of people agree and flock to Llanwrtyd Wells to break the record, which currently stands at one minute 22.56 seconds. On your marks, get set, really hold your breath and don’t let go ‘til the end… GO!
8. Play Poohsticks
Harry Potter gave us ‘Quidditch’ and Alice in Wonderland gave us croquet – using flamingos as mallets – but by far the easiest fictional game to play in real life is ‘Poohsticks’, which featured in The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne . Find a bridge over running water and a stick; each contender drops their stick on the upstream side of the bridge and the first to appear downstream wins. Play the game where it was invented, in leafy Ashdown Forest, and show off your skills at the World Poohsticks Championships, held every June.
9. Pack a picnic
Brits love a picnic, and whenever the sun is shining you’ll find us in the great outdoors, lolling about on a check-patterned rug contemplating another Scotch egg and glass of Pimms. London is home to nine Royal Parks, which locals head for in their lunch hour, after work and on weekends; pick up gourmet treats from Fortnum and Mason on Piccadilly then find a spot in Green Park for a leisurely afternoon of picnicking and people-watching.
10. Have a bevvy
Out in Liverpool and made friends at the bar? When it’s your round, ask if anyone fancies another ‘bevvy’, Scouse (the Liverpudlian dialect) for ‘drink’. Other useful words and phrases include ‘scran’ – food, ‘made up’ – really happy, and ‘boss’ – great. So: ‘I’m really made up that I met you guys, that was a boss night! Want to meet up for some scran on Hope Street tomorrow?’
11. Lunch at dinnertime, dinner at teatime
Listen out for people inviting you to ‘lunch’, ‘dinner’ and ‘tea’ across England and guess whether that means they’re from ‘up north’ or ‘down south’. If you book at table at Café Football in Manchester for 1pm, that’s ‘dinner’, and if it’s Café Football in London at the same time it’s ‘lunch’. The evening meal? Mancunians have ‘tea’, while Londoners call it ‘dinner’ – or even ‘supper’. And breakfast? Breakfast is just breakfast everywhere.
12. Perfect your pudding
Become a brilliant British home cook on a ‘Great British puddings and teatime treats’ course at Penistone Pies in the Peak District (sounds like a tongue twister, doesn’t it?). You’ll learn the art of the perfect Bakewell tart, bread and butter pudding, Victoria sponge and a variety of scones. It’s an hour from the village of Bakewell, where the Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop can be found – in case you’re less into cookery and more into ‘pudding appreciation’.
13. Strip the willow
The Scots know how to party – ceilidhs (pronounced ‘cay-lees’) are the proof. Couples or groups dance a set of easy steps to music performed by live bands that play with increasing speed, leading to collisions, dizziness and a lot of laughter; dances include ‘The Gay Gordons’, ‘The Flying Scotsman’ and super-spinny ‘Strip the Willow’. You may start out shy, but by the end you’ll need to be dragged off the floor: this is one addictive tradition.
14. Trust in the countryside
The National Trust has four million members – six times more than all Britain’s main political parties put together – so it’s fair to say it’s pretty popular. Buy a National Trust touring pass and make like a British weekender. History buff? Head to Chartwell in Kent, where Winston Churchill lived. Mr Darcy make you swoon? Visit Lyme Park in the Peak District, scene of that Colin-Firth-wet-shirt moment. Science fan? Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire was where Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity.
15. Say ‘slàinte mhath’!
Toast the good health of your fellow Scotsman or -woman with a wee dram o’ whisky and a hearty rendition of the Scottish Gaelic version of ‘cheers’: ‘slàinte mhath!’ (pronounced ‘slancha var!’). The legendary 3,384 bottles that comprise ‘The Collection’ at the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh should be more than enough to keep you in good spirits.
16. Speak Kernewek in Kernow
Did you know that Cornwall (‘Kernow’) has its own language? ‘Kernewek’ has a growing number of speakers. Bid your fellow man a ‘myttin da’ and ask for ‘Kernewek cream tea, mar pleg’ (please). When you’re done, just let the staff know that ‘An den ma a be oll’ (‘this gentlemen will pay for everything)/ ‘An venyn ma a be oll’ (this lady will pay for everything’), indicating the appropriate member of your group, and politely leave.
17. Race a burning tar barrel
Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot – AND TAR. In Ottery St Mary – yes, that’s a real place name, not something from Harry Potter – the 5th of November sees 87 ‘barrel rollers’ carry 30 burning barrels of tar through the streets of the town in an event that dates back 400 years. The reasons for the ritual are lost in antiquity, which doesn’t stop hundreds of spectators flocking to Ottery to enjoy it.
18. Say it with a spoon…
Carve your loved one a lovespoon, a Welsh tradition that dates back to the 17th century. Not just any old kitchen implement, these are decorative wooden artworks featuring hidden symbols: keys to say ‘I promise to look after you’, birds to say ‘let’s go away together’ and bells to indicate you’ve got marriage on your mind… Make one at The Lovespoon Workshop near Tenby, west Wales, or buy one whittled by an expert in shops across the country.
19. …on St Dwynwen’s Day
Did you know Wales has its very own Valentine’s Day? 25 January marks the patron saint of lovers in Wales, St Dwynwen. The unlucky-in-love 4th century princess fell for a local lad, Maelon, but was prevented from being with him by her dad, who wanted her to wed a prince. Maelon was turned into a block of ice – we’ve all been there, right? – and God granted Dwynwen three wishes. First (obvs) she asked for Maelon to be thawed; second, that God help all true lovers; third, that she would never marry. Take your lover to one of the country’s most romantic spots, St Dwynwen’s Church at Llanddwyn Island on Anglesey.
20. Get kilted up
Adopt the local dress in Scotland: 21st Century Kilts is the contemporary kilt-wearers label of choice, established in 1996 by Howie Nicholsby in a bid to ‘give men throughout the world a realistic alternative to trousers’. He’s done that for celebs from Robbie Williams to Richard Branson and offers the garment in leather, camouflage fabric and, of course, tartan.
21. Pour gravy on your Yorkshire pud
Nothing beats a leisurely roast on a Sunday afternoon, a British tradition any food lover, beer lover or just general fan of relaxation can get behind. Families up and down the country still sit down to a roast with all the trimmings on a Sunday, and pubs across Britain serve up some of the best roasts you’ll find. Head to The Durham Ox in the Yorkshire countryside, famed for its Sunday lunch, and enjoy the works – including, of course, Yorkshire puddings with lashings of gravy.