1. Peter Pan Cup
What finer way to spend Christmas morning than stripping down to your smalls and swimming 100 yards (yes, yards) across a central London lake? Exclusively for plucky members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, this chilly annual dip dates back to 1864, but acquired its name in 1904 when Neverland creator JM Barrie presented the winner’s gong. Alternatively, when the big day comes you could just stay in, drinking Prosecco and watching ‘Moonraker.’ Each to their own.
2. Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Festival
Think you’re a Londoner? You’ve got nothing on these mother-ofpearl- encrusted old timers, who descend on the City for their annual charity knees-up every autumn. High on jellied eels, they march from a specially erected maypole at the Guildhall to drop alms (and ’aitches) at the steps of cockney hub St Mary-le-Bow church. In the past they’ve collected canned goods, tea, but surprisingly few apples and pears.
3. Swan upping
Every July for the past nine centuries a flotilla of skiff-riding flunkies has taken to the Thames in order to count the Queen’s mute swan population. Originally intended to deter peasants from pilfering the monarch’s supper, now the aim is purely conservation. Presumably any nonmute swans caught would have plenty to say about being plucked from their watery ’hood, tied up, weighed and tagged: ‘Unhand me you boot-licking serf – I can break your arm don’t you know?!’
4. Replacing John Stow’s Quill
In a medieval church nestled ’twixt ye Gherkin and ye Cheese Grater, the marble bust of 16th-century antiquarian John Stow can be found hunched over a manuscript, deep in thought. So that one day he might finish his life’s work (the sprawling ‘Survey of London’, published in 1598 but never completed to his satisfaction), the Lord Mayor with great ceremony replaces his quill every three years. Write on.
5. The Goat Race
Goats! Racing! What fun. This twee annual gala pits two horny denizens of Spitalfields City Farm against each other in a hoofbased sprint for glory. As you might gather, this festival of ‘goat-themed fun and entertainment’ deliberately butts heads scheduling-wise with the Oxford and Cambridge boat race on the other side of town. Other pun-based farmyard competitions we’d like to suggest: Wimble-hen. Lamb-erica’s Cup. Olym-pigs. You’re welcome, sports fans.
6. The Grimaldi Service
Joseph Grimaldi of Sadler’s Wells is widely regarded as the godfather of modern clowning. Reviewed favourably by The Times in 1813 as ‘the most assiduous of all imaginable buffoons’, his legend lives on through an annual memorial service, held at the Holy Trinity church in Dalston each February, which attracts a packed congregation of devotees in full clown costume. Some wonder if Grimaldi’s contribution to comedy will ever be surpassed – well, they are big shoes to fill.
7. Swearing on the Horns
This parody of a religious initiation rite has been performed around various Highgate pubs since the 1600s. The horns of a stag are mounted on a five-foot pole outside the inn, and those who wish to imbibe must declare an oath of fealty to the landlord and kiss the horns. An effective tourist trap, Edward Walford recalls ‘upwards of eighty stagecoaches a day’ stopping at The Red Lion alone in 1818.
8. Midsummer Madness
At 2am on the longest day of the year, a peloton of around a hundred cyclists sets off from Greenwich to catch the sunrise on Primrose Hill, stopping along the way to grab coffee and pick up stragglers. By the time they reach the final climb, all walks of London life are represented, from the ubiquitous ‘Mamils’ (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) to crusty stoner druids and smartly-dressed Hampstead mums with artisan pastries.
9. State opening of Parliament
The Queen (her again) rides to Parliament in a golden carriage to read the government a to-do list they themselves wrote; it’s like setting your own exam paper, then failing. Weird. The speech itself is written on goatskin. Not weird enough? Check out the guest list: ‘Fitzalan Pursuivant Extraordinary’ is there, right above ‘Clarenceux King of Arms’. Weirder still? Alan Sugar attends, wearing a stoat.
© Sara Hannant
10. Bankside Twelfth Night
There’s a whiff of ‘The Mighty Boosh’ about this wintery ritual, which can be traced back to the Crusades. Bedecked in foliage, the ‘Holly Man’ emerges from the Thames on January 5, wassailing with all his might to inspire fertility in the year ahead. Later on, his costumed cohorts Turkey Sniper, the Old ’Oss and Clever Legs engage in the ‘traditional folk combat of St. George’, before retiring to the pub for a surreal piss-up.
by Andy Hill