Answers from Our Experts (2)
Combine 2,000 years of history, a unique sense of humor and a penchant for eccentricity, and it's no surprise Londoners have some rather strange customs. Here are three of the oddest.
1. Pearly Kings and Queens
Wander through the backstreets of London and you may just come across a group of Pearly Kings and Queens – known collectively as Pearlies. A tradition started in the 19th century, when the orphan street sweeper Henry Croft decorated his clothes in shiny pearl buttons to attract attention to his charity fundraising, Pearlies continue this charitable ritual to this day.
2. Church Ceremonies
London has a number of unusual church ceremonies, but here are two particular favorites – both taking place in February. The Blessing of the Throats in St. Etheldreda's Church, Holborn is a ceremony where two candles are tied together, lit, and then touched onto the necks of people suffering from sore throats. It comes from the legend of St. Blaise, who saved a child from choking to death on a fishbone, and so is patron saint of throat sufferers. Meanwhile, the Clown’s Service in Holy Trinity Church, Dalston, sees a congregation comprised entirely of clowns, giving thanks for the gift of laughter and honoring their godfather Joseph Grimaldi.
3. Guy Fawkes Night
A tradition born in London but now celebrated throughout the country, every 5th November the locals commemorate the failed gunpowder plot of 1605, in which Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Naturally, the celebrations revolve around burning straw effigies of Guy Fawkes, eating sticky toffee apples and ooh-aahing at a big fireworks display.
Londoners love a party and any excuse to get the bunting out tends to be greeted with great excitement. So we've developed a few – well, let's call them excuses – to down tools and pull out the party threads. Some are mainstream but others are downright peculiar. Here are my favourites:
This is an excuse to eat, basically. To mark the start of Lent people "use up" their eggs by making mountains of pancakes. The most common topping is sugar and lemon – expect the local shop to have run out of lemons by about midday.
The official start of the summer, this bank holiday (first Monday of May) is marked with one of England's odder customs – Morris dancing. Men dressed in white trousers with bells and waving hankies (yes, really) dance around a ribbon-clad pole called the "maypole". Has to be seen to be believed.
Historically all mute swans in open water belong to the Queen (or King) of England and to this day during late July they are rounded up, marked and released. Over five days groups of swan uppers dressed in red travel from Sunbury to Abingdon in traditional wooden skiffs to do this – quite a sight.
Horseman's Sunday, Hyde Park Church
At noon on the penultimate Sunday in September, the vicar of St John’s Church appears before his congregation on a horse. A procession of horses of all types and sizes then takes place and the horses gather on the forecourt of the church for a blessing,
Pearly King Harvest Festival
On the last Sunday of September, all of London's traditional pearly kings and queens gather at Guildhall Yard for a proper shindig. See maypole dancing and join in with belting out cockney tune "Maybe It's Because I'm a Londoner".
Guy Fawkes Night
The English love an antihero and so, to celebrate the man who nearly succeeded in blowing up the Houses of Parliament, every year we set off fireworks and stoke huge bonfires atop which we put an effigy of the man himself. Good family fun.
Christmas Day Swim
Every Christmas Day dozens of swimmers gather at the Serpentine in Hyde Park for a race across the icy waters. Take the plunge if you dare – or wrap your mitts around a hot chocolate and shiver along with them as you watch from the sidelines.