Britain’s unusual New Year’s Eve celebrations
Fancy a New Year’s Eve in Britain that’s a little bit different? Rosie Collins discovers some unusual ways to welcome in 2020
Bored of the classic New Year’s Eve countdown and fireworks displays? Fear not, because there are plenty of utterly bonkers traditions still going strong all around the UK that you can dip your toe into to shake up your festivities. Here are a few of our favourites.
Sunrise at Glastonbury Tor
If you’re of the mindset that Glastonbury’s only claim to fame is the music festival, you couldn’t be more wrong. The Tor, or hill, is topped with St Michael’s Tower, which was firmly attached to St Michael’s Church until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539. This was the spot where Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, was hanged, drawn and quartered with two of his monks. Very cheery. The Tor itself is peppered throughout Britain’s ancient history, cropping up in a number of myths. Celtic legend says that beneath the hill there is a hidden cave that leads into the fairy realm of Annwn, where the lord of the Celtic underworld, Gwyn ap Nudd, resides. Legend also says that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table visited Glastonbury Tor, otherwise known as ‘The Isle of Avalon’. It provides the perfect spot for looking out over the Somerset Levels and any surrounding fireworks displays, or simply for a spot of stargazing. But the crown jewel of this place is the sunrise on New Year’s Day. So hunker down with hats, gloves, loved ones and a hip flask of something warming, pray for clear skies and proceed to marvel at nature from one of the UK’s most magical spots.
Stonehaven Fireballs Festival
Fireworks are a long-time tradition of New Year’s Eve, but the Scottish history books provide something a little more exciting – fireballs! Just south of Aberdeen on Scotland’s northeastern coast lies the usually quiet fishing town of Stonehaven. However, during ‘Hogmanay’ (the Scottish word for the last day of the year), it comes alive for the Stonehaven Fireballs Festival.
It is thought that the tradition stems from the 19th-century ritual of fishermen using flames to ward off evil spirits, hoping for a year of good fishing. Until the mid-20th century, participation was exclusive to Stonehaven residents. When midnight strikes on 31 December, a large group of kilted Scots takes to the streets, swinging balls of flame on long chains. Led by a band of bagpipers, they head through the town to the harbour, where the fireballs are thrown into the sea. The celebration concludes with a fireworks display, lots of music and jovial revelry. If you’re a fan of hammer-throwing competitions and sparklers, this is the event for you. Don’t worry if you can’t be there in the flesh though – the town kindly sets up a webcam so fireball enthusiasts can tune in from all around the world.
Allendale Tar Bar’l
Seriously, what would New Year’s Eve be without copious amounts of fire? The Tar Bar’l is another example of a raucous festival to tempt even the most disciplined pyromaniacs. The ceremony, which has been celebrated for at least 160 years (though many people believe it was started in the Middle Ages), sees 45 men carry whisky barrels filled with burning hot tar on their heads in a colourful procession through the town. These gentlemen are traditionally known as ‘guisers’ and they must have been born in the Allen Valleys to participate. There has only been one documented occasion of a woman carrying a barrel and that was in the 1950s, when ‘one of a pair of maiden sisters’ were permitted to partake as a thank you for all of the costumes they made for the guisers, some of which are still in use. The procession culminates at midnight in the town centre, where the barrels are thrown into the Bar’l Fire, and so lighting the ceremonial bonfire. Meanwhile, the crowds chant ‘be damned to he who throws last’ in a very exciting, non-culty way. This fiery event is accompanied by a great deal of traditional music and merriment, and Northumberland Fire and Rescue are on standby, just in case – though apparently they have never been called on to deal with an incident at the event. Fingers crossed… or Bar’l.
Saundersfoot New Year’s Day Swim
While many of us will be slipping into something with an elasticated waistband ready to indulge in further festivities, other eccentrics are getting out their swimming gear. The bizarre Saundersfoot New Year’s Day Swim will be celebrating its 36th year and thousands of people are expected to take to the waters of Saundersfoot in Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales, wearing fancy dress on New Year’s Day morning. The first swim took place in 1984 and was meant to be a one-off event to raise money for the swimming team’s new sports club changing rooms, but it has since turned into a bracing tradition. In 2019, a record-breaking 2,119 swimmers braved the chilly waters while thousands of spectators turned out to cheer them on. It starts with a much-needed warm-up on the beach before everyone dashes into the water. This year, the event raised £57,000 for charity. So get kitted out in fancy dress (there’s a new theme each year and a costume competition) and brave the waves before drying off and warming up with a glass of mulled cider.