England's Small Town Festivals

A question from Jeanne in Los Angeles:
What kinds of small town festivals could I attend that really demonstrate the culture of the people of England (not the biggies, but rather the lesser-knowns)?

In England, summer time is festival time.

Villages put on fetes, food festivals open their doors and the English turn out in force to celebrate (or practise) some ancient or not so ancient customs.

None of these are 'tourist attractions' as such, but these small town festivals are first rate entertainment for locals and visitors alike, show off English produce at their best, and celebrate some of our cherished traditions.

So, really, you're spoilt for choice when trying to find a fete or small town festival to attend.

Village Fetes

Many villages have their annual fete, usually during the summer months. These are great fun if you're staying local.

Growers show off their produce, all the local clubs and societies turn out in force and - if you're organised - you can get your Christmas presents in early at the craft stalls.

The entertainment at these small town festivals is usually cheerful and good-natured and there's food and drink to please even the most fussy palate.

Food Festivals and Village Shows

Food festivals, celebrating local produce and producers, are popular all across England, and at the end of the summer England bristles with village shows, where hobby gardeners and crafters compete for laurels and accolades.

If you love the pungent, peppery taste of watercress and happen to be in Hampshire in May, you can attend Alresford's Watercress Festival.

In June, England celebrates its love for asparagus at the Bretforton Asparagus Festival, while in July the port of Whitstable in Kent hosts an Oyster Festival that dates back to Roman times.

The Isle of Wight has its famous Garlic Festival, which takes place in August, and at the West Dean Chilli Festival, also in August, you can try chilli beer, chilli ice cream or chilli sauce hot enough to make your hair smoke.

Late August has Pershore in Worcestershire celebrate its Plum Fayre, a festival that sees the whole of this small town turn out in force and join in, and in September Sturminster Newton in Dorset puts on a most wonderful Cheese Festival, which also allows the local artisan craftsmen and women show off their best products.

History and Customs

Small town festivals celebrating local history and some (occasionally very obscure) local customs are held across England throughout the year. And then, of course, there are the music festivals.

If you like history, then the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, celebrating the War of the Roses Battle of 1471, is a must. It's the largest medieval fair in Europe, but that does not mean that it has lost its charm. It feels much smaller than it is, and I'd really recommend it to any visitor with a bend for medieval history.

And going back to the pivotal moment in English history, the Battle of Hastings is celebrated every year at - surprisingly perhaps - Waltham Abbey. King Harold, England's Anglo-Saxon ruler defeated by William the Conqueror, was a benefactor of the Abbey and is said to be buried there. So every year at the beginning of October, the abbey celebrates King Harold Day, with a display of Anglo-Saxon crafts, music and living history.

If you're more interested in the War of the Roses and the old rivalry between York and Lancaster, you could attend a very curious event, the Black Pudding Throwing Championships, which is held in Ramsbottom. During this event black puddings, associated with Lancashire, are thrown at a line of Yorkshire puddings. I haven't seen this one yet, so I've no idea of the rules or significance of the event, but as soon as I know you will too, I promise.

Cheese rolling is popular in the south of England, but I would recommend it only as a spectator sport. Anyone who has seen the participants hurl themselves down the very steep Cooper's Hill in Gloucestershire will urgently book an appointment at the local hospital! If this is on your 'must see' list of small town festivals, then make sure you stand well clear!

If you are the athletic type and must have your exercise, you could try Woolsack Racing or even take part in the oldest Olympic games in the world, the Cotswold Olimpicks, where you can compete in marvellous events like shin kicking or shuffle board racing!

And if you like haunted houses and jesters and the trappings of times gone by, then you could try and visit the Festival of Fools at Muncaster Castle or the Oxford Ghost Fest.

Music festivals are now put on by many towns across England. Snape in Suffolk has one of the oldest and most famous small town music festivals in the Snape Maltings, while Upton on Severn in Worcestershire is making a name for itself with jazz and folk and riverside festivals throughout the year.

The Isle of Wight and the Reading music festivals are both popular, while the most famous of them all - the Glastonbury Festival - draws such huge crowds that it can never be described as a small town festival!

There, that should give you some ideas for fetes and festivals to attend in England. We just love to party and - considering the number of festivals that date back generations - must have done so for many hundreds of years.

Come and have fun!