The British have a global reputation for eccentricity, both in terms of individual style and appearance and also the behaviours they exhibit. Historically, Britain has always encouraged rather than criticised eccentricity and that is perhaps the difference between British eccentricity and that of any other nation. Closely correlated with creativity and intelligence, eccentricity in British society has always been more a matter for aspiration than for condemnation. Some would even say it opens doors for them.
Genuine eccentricity, if you like to take it from dictionary definitions, is about non-conformism and that is an area of British life where there is much to debate, enjoy and entertain. Notable eccentrics have often come from the aristocracy, and were renowned for the way they dressed, presented themselves, lived their lives, decorated their houses or entertained others. Eccentricity originally appeared to be the preserve of an exclusive society echelon since they had the time and money to indulge it. These days however, the playing field has been levelled somewhat by greater economic equality.
English philosopher John Stuart Mill, a leading influential figure in the 19th century on liberty and social theory, warned then 'that so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.' He need not have worried. George Santayana's later essay on 'the British character' in 1922 said 'England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies, and humors.' A century later, eccentricity is now in evidence and going strong all around us and in any household, whether in terms of unconventional home décor choices, unusual collecting behaviour, exotic pets or bizarre high fashion and audacious hairstyles. Perhaps the most prominent expressions of eccentricity are the publicly accessible events that do so much to catalyze the spirit of both the participant and the audience.
There is a full calendar of events put on all around the UK illustrating the range and type of eccentricity upheld in British life. These events are open to anyone with the desire to indulge their eccentric passions and sometimes the courage to embrace them! If there is an eccentricity you can think of, there is probably an event to celebrate it somewhere in the British Isles. Not for the faint hearted are the 'Bognor Birdman', the annual competition for human powered flying machines involving running off the end of a pier, or the 'Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling' where competitors hurtle down a steep hill in pursuit of a 7lb Double Gloucester cheese. Participants should expect to sign the organisers' liability disclaimer form, as safety is definitely not guaranteed.
Folklore is at the root of many eccentric events and may be extravagant re-enactments of centuries old traditions with what must be a hefty dose of poetic license and embellishment. These events make for popular and engaging spectacles, even if they don't appear to make sense to the casual by-stander. The 'Haxey Hood' makes much of a minor incident involving the blowing away of a lady's riding hood back in the 14th century, but that need not get in the way of a grand event that inevitably concludes with alcoholic refreshments at one of the village hostelries. The Padstow Obby Oss Festival, a raucous May Day event of parading and singing, has links back to the ancient Celts and inevitably involves men dressed in horse skins, the eponymous obby oss's.
The Brits can't resist a challenge to pit themselves against unlikely odds. This is hardly more true than in the case of the 'Man versus Horse Marathon' a 22 mile race over mountainous terrain, or the 'Race The Train' event over 14 miles of footpaths and farmland in Wales. The often quoted 'it's the taking part that counts' most definitely applies since most competitors don't hold out any hope of beating either the horse or the train. The appetite for these endurance challenges grows greater every year and the achievement of completing them is a true badge of honour.
Getting unpleasantly wet and or dirty is inexplicably attractive to the Brits and is featured in many eccentric events. Bog snorkelling along a water filled trench in Wales; dashing across a muddy river bed and back in the 'Maldon Mud Race' and pushing a wheeled bed and passenger around an arduous 2.4 mile hilly course followed by a crossing of the River Nidd in 'The Great Knaresborough Bed Race' all involve immersion in waters of varying levels of quality.
Man versus Horse Race
Being great community events, significant sums are raised for charity in local communities and their success ensures a collective will to keep holding these events into the future. Some eccentric events are generated out of the need to attract business to an area and ultimately take on a life of their own. The organisers of the Bog Snorkelling championships and the Man versus Horse Marathon did just that for the benefit of Llanwrtyd Wells, the smallest town in Britain. This town is now a focus for numerous wacky events, attracting thousands of visitors to the community for a year round 'off the wall' programme.
All this celebration of eccentricity is not to say that conformism is not highly regarded too in the way things are done in British life. Queuing for everything, a behaviour regarded by some outsiders as eccentric in itself, is as intertwined with Britishness as any national trait and is tied up in deep-rooted values such as fairness and consideration for others. There is a time and a place for eccentricity, but not if it interferes with any other such time-honoured bastions of Britishness.
'Everything is possible for an eccentric, especially when he is English' - Jules Verne
Please browse our gallery of selected great British Eccentric Events above for inspiration, and click to find useful information and links to help you discover and enjoy them.