There are lots of great parties and events going on around England and Wales for New Year’s Eve. Champagne receptions and fireworks displays are held in every city and town, but if you scratch the surface a little, you’ll soon find there are also some weird and quite odd events going on that have their roots in some of England and Wales’ strange history and traditions. If you want a good party and to toast the new year in a way you know well, you can certainly find that here, but if you want a more unusual way to see the new year, you can also find that! Here are fantastic ways to spend New Year’s Eve in England and Wales.
1. Mari Lwyd
Wales is extremely good at holding onto its old traditions and customs. They kept their language when the rest of this island adopted the English we speak today and they’ve maintained some unusual and quite scary traditions. Mari Lwyd, meaning “gray mare,” is a pre-Christian wassailing custom. Wassailing is the custom of visiting house to house during a particular festival, which has its roots in paganism. Think Halloween, only wassailing also includes carol singing and other old traditions that feature people dressing up and visiting the local houses. In Mari Lwyd, a horse’s skull is mounted on a pole and covered in sackcloth.
Someone gets under the sackcloth and carries the poll through the streets, accompanied by music and singing. It looks, of course, as if the hobby horse is making its way independently of any helper under the sackcloth, and it’s very eerie. The gray mare goes from house to house, asking locals to join the procession, Everyone sings as the parade makes its way through town. The culmination of all this seems to be a kind of contest in insults, spoken in Welsh. It’s a creepy thing to witness, but also fascinating.
Where To Stay In Wales
The Angel Hotel in Abergavenny is hosting a New Year’s Eve dinner and celebration, so when you’ve seen the Mari Lwyd you can relax at the hotel with a glass of champagne and no creepy old mare in sight. Following the dinner and overnight stay, guests can take part in the New Year’s Day guided walk through the countryside, with lunch back at the hotel.
Pro Tip: You’ll hear a lot of Welsh spoken at this festival, but everyone also speaks English, so don’t worry about talking to the locals. When you get to the Angel Hotel, there’s a barrier at the car park with a phone number for the reception. You have to ring reception and ask them to lift the barrier for you to enter the car park. You must do the same when you want to leave. The turn from the road to the barrier at the car park is quite tight and this road gets busy, so be prepared.
2. Flamborough Fire Festival
At the end of the 8th century, the northeast coastal town of Flamborough was invaded by Vikings. Whatever happened up there, the Vikings never truly left and Viking culture became a part of this area. So much so that in Flamborough, they still celebrate New Year’s Eve in a Viking way. Dressed in traditional Viking costume, locals swing balls of fire around their heads to cleanse the town of the year’s bad spirits and to welcome in the new year free of negativity, as part of the Flamborough Fire Festival. A torchlight procession parades through town, locals hold tall fire lanterns, and at the back of the parade, a Viking longship is dragged through the streets. The celebrations culminate in the Viking longship beings set alight in “the burning of the Viking longship” ritual. This is an incredible spectacle to witness and nothing like this is seen anywhere else in the UK.
Where To Stay In Flamborough
If all that fire is a bit overwhelming and all you want to do is chill out with a glass of champagne and see in the new year quietly with your family, Derwent Apartments in Scarborough are just 35 minutes away from Flamborough and offer quiet luxury by the sea. The apartments sleep four or six and are set in a beautifully renovated 19th-century townhouse. As soon as you walk in, the high ceilings and grand staircase tell the story of this grand building. There is a lift for access to the upper-floor apartment too. I loved the little balcony with tables and chairs where I could sit and listen to the waves and the seagulls squawking.
Pro Tip: Although it’s tempting, you absolutely cannot join in by holding any kind of lantern, and certainly not swinging fireballs, unless you are officially part of the parade. When you reach Derwent Apartments, take your shoes off at the door. The hall and stairway are carpeted in soft, pale, luxury carpets, and it gets wet and muddy at the fire festival. I made the mistake of walking straight in with my shoes on and had to clean my footprints off the beautiful carpet.
3. Tar Bar’l
It’s unclear when this strange tradition began, but it’s thought that Tar Bar’l was taking place during the middle ages in England. This odd festival involves 45 local men carrying burning whisky barrels over their heads, through the streets of Allendale. To take part and be a “guiser” as these men are called — guising is also the word used for trick-or-treaters in many parts of Britain and mostly in Scotland — the men have to prove that they were born in the Allen Valleys, where Allendale is located.
If the man can show his family is from this area too and he has true heritage here, all the better. The parade through the town starts at 11:30 p.m. when locals and visitors line the streets to watch. There’s an air of competition about it all and when the men reach the end of the parade in the town center, they all toss their burning barrels from their heads into a pre-made bonfire and shout, “Be damned he who throws last.”
Where To Stay In Northumberland
The Hoggs Head Inn in the nearby town of Alnwick is having a New Year’s Eve party with good rustic food, traditional English inn surroundings and atmosphere, and a live band who’ll play into the new year. It’s about an hour’s drive from Allendale, with plenty of taxis available to take you to the Tar Bar’l and back to the inn. Rooms at the inn are comfortable and there’s a choice of doubles and family rooms. There’s also an accessible room complete with an accessible bathroom with a wet room-style shower area that has rails and a seat.
4. New Year’s Eve And New Year’s Day Swim
Down in Dorset, the coastline is beautiful and interesting, much of it is known as The Jurassic Coastline due to the large amounts of fossils to be found in the rocks on the shore. Tourists flock to this coastline in summer to enjoy the sand and the sea. However, come New Year’s Day, these beaches and the sea are enjoyed in a very different way. Start your New Year’s Eve celebrations at the Noisy Lobster in Christchurch. Their New Year’s Eve party includes a four-course dinner, followed by a DJ set and dancing. The celebrations go on past midnight and end around 1:30 a.m.
The next day, after you’ve overindulged, head over to Lyme Regis for the annual New Year’s Day dip. For some reason unbeknownst to me, locals and visitors dress up in weird and wonderful costumes on New Year’s Day morning, and head down to the beach for a bracing splash and swim in the sea. The dash into the water begins at 1 p.m. That way, you’ve had plenty of time in the morning to rest after the night before. Thousands of visitors watch from the beach and gardens above the beach, which is where I like to be! The sea is incredibly cold this time of year, so if you want to take part, be prepared.
Where to Stay In Christchurch, Dorset
A mere 12 minutes drive from Christchurch, Chewton Glen is an 18th-century country house hotel set in 130 acres of grounds. From the moment you arrive at Chewton Glen on New Year’s Eve, the unwinding and preparing to welcome in the new year begins. You’re greeted with a glass of champagne and invited to a champagne afternoon tea. After that, you can take advantage of the spa with a treatment or dip in the pool. The evening gets underway with a six-course gala dinner followed by music and dancing until the clock strikes 12.
Pro Tip: If you want to watch the New Year’s Day swim, get there early and find a good spot in the gardens above the beach. You get a great view from there, and the beach gets busy with spectators.
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