The best of the UK seaside

Nostalgia, beaches and ice-cream come together in perfect harmony as 12 authors and locals choose their favourite places on the UK coast, with places to stay

10 of the UK’s best castles for a family day out

With half-term upon us and summer round the corner, the UK’s castles are rolling out all kinds of entertainment, including medieval-themed activities, theatre, glamping – and a dash of Harry Potter

A decade of award-winning British landscape photography – in pictures

A new book brings together the UK’s greatest landscape photographers, who have captured everything from violent seas to tranquil mountains

Country and Western Singing

The singing of sad songs has been associated with Morecambe in Lancashire for hundreds of years. These dirges were usually sung when someone had been drowned
in the dangerous waters of Morecambe Bay. These songs were sung so frequently that a competition was organized to see who could sing the saddest song of all. This contest
reached its zenith with the ‘Disaster’ of 1812, when a man called Yeoman Parslow sang about the drowning of his wife and children in the Bay when they were trying to take a
shortcut home after blackberry picking. His words were so heartfelt and his emotions so raw that two-thirds of the crowd were saddened to such an extent that they threw themselves into the sea too.

After this happened the contest was banned until 1963, when it was revived under the name the ʻCountry and Western Air Guitar Hoe-Downʼ. The contest is held in the third week of July, but only when the tide is out as a mark of respect to the events of 1812.

The format is quite simple. Every year 20 famous C&W artists are honoured in the contest. From Monday to Saturday two hours are set aside for three artists, whereas only two artists are featured on Sunday, again for two hours. The idea is that during these two hours people can sing one of the featured artist’s songs while playing the air guitar, or sing one of their own songs in the style of that artist. Judges wearing Stetsons and cowboy boots assess each performance – marks are awarded for the accuracy of the
finger work on the air guitar, the accuracy of the impersonation and, where applicable, originality of the contestant’s lyrics.

Few people will forget the poignancy of the following song written by Benny “Wail On” Lee in the style of Waylon Jennings from the Wednesday contest in 1987.

“My dogggeeeeee got run over by the undertaker,
Taking my wife’s body to the morgue,
Ah would have waved her goodbyeeeeeee,
But my arms got pulled off,
In a farm accident,
Last weeeeeeeeeeekkkkkkkkk,
My grand daddy’s heart broke in two
When the crops failed,
For the fifth straight year,
But despite all these disasters
I still go to church,
Even though I can’t pray now
Because my arms got pulled off
In a farm accident,
Last weeeeeeeeeeekkkkkkkkk,”

After Benny sang the song a large number of people were in floods of tears and heading towards the pier, but were stopped by the police who sprayed them with nitrous oxide.
Multiple winners at the contest include Roger Donnelly who impersonates Fatboy Slim Whitman, Wendy Berenson who sings the songs of Willy Nelson with a broad Yorkshire
accent and above all Timmy Waites, whose variations of Tammy Wynette’s song D.I.V.O.R.C.E have to be heard to be believed.

In the 1980s his winning efforts included the cunning protest songs
T.H.A.T.C.H.E.R.O.U.T,
S.C.A.R.G.I.L.L.F.O.R.E.V.E.R and the 17-minute long
S.U.P.P.O.R.T.T.H.E.M.I.N.E.R.S.A.G.A.I.N.S.T.T.H.E.F.A.S.C.I.S.T.D.I.C.T.A.T.O.R.T.H.A.T.C.H.E.R.

Turtle Rinsing in London

It’s a little known fact that every turtle that swims up the River Thames past Tower Bridge into the Pool of London becomes the property and responsibility of the monarch. This rule is part of the Common Law of England and dates back to the time of Queen Matilda in the 12th Century.

The Royal Turtle Surveyor has to be notified if a turtle reaches the Pool of London so that the ceremony of Turtle Rinsing can occur. This old procedure involves the Royal Turtle Surveyor, The Royal Turtle Deputy-Surveyor, the Royal Net Bearer, The Royal Water Bagpiper, and the Master of the Hose. From the Tower of London, these five officials proceed towards the turtle in a launch bearing The Royal Standard.

Once the turtle is observed by The Royal Turtle Deputy-Surveyor using a spyglass, the Royal Net Bearer apprehends the creature in a special Turtle net that’s over two hundred years old. Once clear of the water, the turtle in the net is raised to shoulder height. Using a 500-year old hose made from Staffordshire Boar hide, the Master of the Hose sprays the creature for “one round of ye reel,” which is danced by the Royal Turtle Surveyor and The Royal Turtle Deputy-Surveyor. The Royal Water Bagpiper accompanies the dance.

Once the reel is complete, the rinsed turtle is returned to the water. In the past, the turtle was observed swimming vigorously for the open sea; however in recent years they have mainly hung around HMS Belfast waiting for tourists to drop food to them.

Historians believe that the Turtle Rinsing was created because of Matilda’s desire to keep her supporters happy by giving them jobs in the Royal Household that were purely ceremonial in nature. Other such jobs include The Royal Wasp Counter in the Hunting Forests, The Royal Cloud Shape Describer, and the Royal Maker of Cubes from Honey.

Skipping around the windmill

The concept of the Village Idiot is a long-held tradition that was refined to its highest degree in rural Somerset in the 1300s. At that time the position of Village Idiot was an official job title and had a salary, though it was paid in acorns. Both men and women could apply for the role in the annual Dancing Around the Windmill contest, which took place in November – the windiest time of the year. The selection process involved drinking copious amounts of cider and then dancing in between the blades of the windmill.

Nowadays, there is no job of Village Idiot but the contest continues in purely ceremonial form, though the rules are almost the same. The only change from 700 years ago is that the dancers don’t have to wear oak clogs. Starting at 8 o’clock in the morning the contestants are presented to the watching crowds in their fool’s costumes. Each contestant is given a gallon vat of apple cider, which they must drink by nine o’clock or be disqualified from the dance. They are not allowed to eat any food during this time.

At ten past eight, the potential idiots start dancing through the sails carrying their vats with them. The contest is judged by three umpires who perform various tasks. The contestants are supposed to avoid the sails by either slowing down or speeding up their dance, but they must never stop or they will be penalized a point by an umpire. Dancers must not move more than 10 feet from the windmill or they will be deducted a point.  Contestants who are hit by a sail are either deducted a point if they remain conscious or disqualified if they have to be sent to the hospital by the umpire. If the umpires deduct three points from a contestant then their contest is over. The contest continues until there is only one person left who hasn’t been disqualified.

Walking the Weasel

According to the Lindisfarne Chronicles, “Walking the Ways All” was an annual tradition in all Anglo-Saxon towns. The third Thursday in July was set aside for the townsfolk to walk along the common pathways and re-establish their right to frequent these paths. According to the English Common Law, if this annual reclamation wasn’t performed these pathways would become the property of the local landowner, who could then collect tithes from the townsfolk for using the paths.

In 1471 a drunken clerk, Oliver de Turnhouse, misheard the Cleckheaton town crier’s proclamation and so the new tradition began. The town mayor for that year, William de Gradlove, had to walk around the paths dragging a small mammal with sharp teeth behind him. Animal rights not being of top priority, it’s believed that a different weasel was used every year.

One particularly cruel mayor, Edgar Stride, decided to ride around the paths on a horse as he didn’t want to be bitten in the ankle by the weasel. However, his fear caused his death. The weasel’s leash wasn’t quite long enough for it to walk on the ground. Not wishing to be strangled, the weasel fought and writhed against the leash until it managed to sink its teeth into the horse’s haunch. This powerful nip caused the horse to bolt – Stride was knocked from the horse’s back when it ran under a low branch. Stride hit the ground hard and died from his injuries. His quick-thinking deputy, Mortimer Sanderson, jumped over Stride’s body and managed to pick up the weasel’s leash before it could effect an escape. He walked around the rest of the paths without further mishap. This act of quick-wittedness is now enshrined in the ceremony. Since that day, when the mayors approach the area known as Mortimer’s Leap, they have to sprint for approximately one hundred yards, ensuring that the weasel is keeping up.

Only when the role of ‘The Walking Weasel’ became an officially recognized position in 1661, to commemorate the restoration of the monarchy, did the same weasel perform the ceremony more than once. Indeed, it’s understood that the walk began to appeal to the weasel, as it came across the warrens of the local rabbits, which it could visit at other times of the year. The record for the number of walks undertaken by one weasel is 18 between 1872 and 1889 by Walter the weasel, whose son Barney succeeded him for a further 14 years. The ceremony has been performed nearly 540 times in a continuous line that hasn’t been broken by World Wars, Civil War, or the election of Margaret Thatcher.