With the northern hemisphere tilting towards darkness, winter is a spooky and mysterious time for British people. It’s a weird and wonderful time to visit the country. Most of its ancient winter festivals are intimately connected with evil spirits and papist plotters, where the traditions of yesteryear survive to this day.
Bonfire Night on November 5th is celebrated across Britain, where local residents burn an effigy of ‘papist plotter’ Guy Fawkes (a stuffed doll full of old clothes, like a scarecrow) alongside a huge fireworks display.
In 1605 Guy Fawkes and his gang of Catholic rebels attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament with a gunpowder plot. They were subsequently caught and executed for treason. To honour the foiling of this plot, King James VI and I ordered his subjects to have a bonfire celebration on November 5th.
Filling the skies with colour and flames, huge crowds come and watch the shows from around 6pm-8pm and celebrate the execution of Guy Fawkes.
Bonfire Night sets the tone for a series of mad winter festivals in Britain. Many are completely bonkers and unforgettable occasions, especially if you’re a first-time visitor to the country.
Eccentricity certainly won’t be in short supply if you stay in a British hostel over winter. There are fireballs swung by hairy fishermen in a Scottish market town, a winter solstice dance at Stonehenge and a strange Green Man dressed in evergreen foliage rising from the River Thames.
Sure the weather isn’t always kind, but if you’re brave and pack a woolly hat, you’ll have a wonderful time exploring the Lands of Wonder this winter.
1. Guy Fawkes Carnival, Bridgwater, England
The Bridgwater festival is the largest illuminated winter carnival procession in Europe. Celebrating the demise of Guy Fawkes in early November, visitors come to Bridgwater to witness their unique ‘Squibbing’ tradition.
A Squib is a large firework, strapped to a large wooden pole, which are held at arms lengths by ‘Squibbers’ who thrust them towards the sky.
Squibbers line Bridgwater High Street and light their squibs in sequence, creating a riotous light display that has inspired local people for centuries.
Where to stay near Bridgwater
- 007 Travellers Hostel – Situated in central Bristol, the trendy youth hostel is cheap, friendly and only a short train or bus journey from nearby Bridgwater. Dorms from €18.
- Bath Backpackers – Stylish, charming and located in the gorgeous heritage town of Bath, guests can stay in a 300 year old building, easily accessible to Bridgwater by train and bus. Dorms from €21.
2. Stonehenge Winter Solstice, Salisbury, England
Every year travellers descend upon Stonehenge to mark the Winter Solstice and watch the sunrise on the shortest day of the year. The Winter Solstice is a magical time to visit the World Heritage site and it takes place on either December 21st or 22nd, when the sun shines directly over the tropic of Capricorn.
Neo-druids, pagans and Wiccans make the journey to Stonehenge every year and celebrate alongside ordinary visitors. Likened to a religious experience, when the sun rises over the ancient stones, you’ll watch the Wiltshire countryside brighten the spirits of millions.
Where to stay near Stonehenge
- The Swan Inn – Situated between the historic city of Salisbury and Stonehenge, the eighteenth century inn offers beautiful views of the rolling Wiltshire countryside and the warmest English hospitality. Rooms available from €41.
3. Stonehaven Fireballs, Aberdeenshire, Scotland
Hogmanay is a uniquely Scottish celebration and is one of the Scotland’s most popular traditions. Roughly translating from Gaelic to mean ‘a new morning’, Hogmanay is a hedonistic brew of ancient customs and Celtic revelry.
Stonehaven celebrates Hogmanay with a pre-Christian ceremony that dates back to ancient times, a custom which involves burly fishermen swinging fireballs over their heads to ward off ‘evil spirits’.
Starting at midnight, the Stonehaven Fireballs galvanises the entire town and huge crowds line the high street as local people swing great balls of fire towards the harbour.
Where to stay near Stonehaven
- St Andrews Tourist Hostel – Situated in the historic Scottish town of St Andrews, the 3* hostel is a charming place to explore Scotland’s beautiful east coast. Equally close to Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the hostel is only an hour’s train journey away from Stonehaven. Dorms from €17.
4. Twelfth Night, London, England
Twelfth Night is a free seasonal celebration held in London’s Bankside on the River Thames. Mixing pagan seasonal customs with modern festivity, the quirky New Year festival heralds the arrival of a ‘Green Man’ on a boat, who is accompanied by Wassailers and mummers who perform a combat play involving Saint George.
Once the play commences, free cakes are handed out and revellers are free to mingle with the mystical Green Man…
*And that concludes our merry preview of ancient winter festivals in Britain. Forget the cold and embrace your inner pagan while booking a ye olde hostel this winter.
Where to stay in London
- Safestay At Elephant And Castle – Offering boutique accommodation next to the River Thames, it’s perfect for travellers wanting to be close to London’s Bankside on vacation. Dorms from €29.
- FRESH @ The Great Eastern, Docklands – Only 30 minutes train journey away from the River Thames, the trendy London hostel is ideal for visitors looking for a stylish and comfortable place to stay in the capital. Dorms from €15.