Meet the woman looking to attend every wonderful UK festival

The evening of Midsummer’s Day, the power station Square in Whalton, a small village in the north of England, lights up fiery red. Baal’s fire tradition – locals build a bonfire and light it – is meant to bless the harvest of the season and has continued uninterrupted for centuries. The Mari Lwyd tradition in South Wales is so old that no one knows how or when it started. In the dead of winter, each year, individuals carrying sheets or bags carry horse skulls mounted and decorated door to door, singing and hoping to be invited inside, a gesture reported to bring good luck to the household. Across Britain there are hundreds of festivals and other events, often honoring almost lost pagan traditions. They celebrate all aspects of the human experience, both mundane and wonderful: porridge, sports, cheese and fire – so much fire, from flaming barrels of tar to burning wooden longships. A woman has made it her mission to experience them all.

Since 2010, historian Averil Shepherd has been tracking the unusual, mystical and ancient rituals of Britain. However, the task is not all bonfires and navigation. Finding accurate and current information on often hyperlocal events organized by volunteers with little promotion is a huge logistical undertaking. Shepherd rose to the challenge by creating Calendar Customs, a comprehensive online database of around 750 traditions currently celebrated in England, Scotland and Wales.

Atlas Obscura spoke to Shepherd from her home in Northumberland, England, about dancing with antlers, partying with the Vikings and other memorable moments from the more than 550 festivals she has attended.

Historian Averil Shepherd at a recent Up Hella Aa fire festival. Courtesy of Averil Shepherd

Has your education helped you cultivate your fascination with ancient customs?

As a family, we practiced a number of household traditions, such as having Halloween parties that involved throwing apples, turnip lanterns, and trying to scare neighbors half to death. And we tried to remember to wash our faces in the May dew; say “Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits” on the first of the month; and other seasonal delicacies and superstitions.

The first festival I attended was the Tar Barrels [in Allendale, England]; we used to go there regularly when I was a schoolgirl as we lived only a few miles away. On New Year’s Eve, a group of 40 to 50 disguised models parade through the village, carrying half-barrels filled with flaming materials on their heads. They make their way to the market, where a large bonfire waits to be lit by the burning barrels at the stroke of midnight. Once the campfire is set up, everyone join hands and sing “Auld Lang Syne” to welcome the New Year. It was always a thrilling sight to watch the disguises; when they passed nearby, you could feel the heat of the burning barrels.

What inspired you to create Calendar Customs?

The Abbots’ Bromley Horn Dance [in Central England], renowned as one of the oldest traditions in Europe. There are six sets of reindeer antlers and six dancers wear them. Its origins are lost in the mists of time, but some believe it to be linked to bringing good luck to the village or preserving the ancient rights to wander the Needwood Forest and use its resources. Sometimes visitors are allowed to dance with the “horns”, which is considered a great privilege; as the musicians set out to lead the dancers, the hair stood on end at my neck. I had a ‘drive to Damascus’ moment and realized that I wanted to do more things like this.

Shepherd (second from right) was inspired to document festivals after participating in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.
Shepherd (second from right) was inspired to document festivals after participating in the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance. Courtesy of Averil Shepherd

How many festivals are there in Great Britain and which one is the oldest?

It is extremely difficult to answer. For example, there are over 250 different boating events across the country in a typical year, and countless bonfires, Christmas tree festivals, galas, shows, parties, civic ceremonies. , crown deposits, unusual contests – the total will literally run into the thousands, and it’s hard to know where to stop. Even after running the site for over a decade, I’m still finding more and more, which is good. I don’t want to run out of inspiration. No one knows what the oldest continuous festival is, and if anyone claims to know they will be misleading you!

Which custom do you find the most mysterious?

The Burryman in South Queensferry, Scotland. A man completely encased in a blanket of sticky burdock smears marches through the streets, apparently for good luck. Bringing good luck is usually a bit of a mystery; for example, I really don’t know why receiving a sprig of Jack in the Green on May 1st in Hastings or a piece of the Straw Bear in Whittlesey, England is auspicious, but it is!

Locals race with flaming tar barrels through the streets of Ottery Saint Mary.
Locals race with flaming tar barrels through the streets of Ottery Saint Mary. Courtesy of Averil Shepherd

What is the most amazing thing that you have witnessed?

Tar Barrels Race through the streets of Ottery Saint Mary in Devon. There is a constant background noise of screaming, a tingling of excitement in the air, and a noticeable whiff of anarchy. The finalist could well be Up Helly Aa in Shetland Islands, Scotland, who celebrates the islands’ long Viking heritage. The main event is undoubtedly the burning of the Viking ship. I remember seeing some very damaged Vikings the next morning because they had danced the night away!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.