Growing up in New Zealand, my British grandparents would regale me with stories about the quirky traditions and village pastimes of English people, including how they’d roll cheese downhill in the Cotswold, pay homage to chalk men with enormous appendages in Dorset, and bless oysters with holy water in Kent.
Of course I would giggle at their stories, never sure whether they were telling the truth – I mean why would anyone chase cheese?! – but I always secretly harboured a desire to find out for myself; to visit the UK and see whether there really were naked chalk giants in the hills and priests in white robes uttering prayers over little shellfish that would soon be eaten.
To my delight – after all only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun – I soon discovered that these pastimes were in fact real, some of them dating from hundreds of years ago and were still being practiced in modern day Britain. On my first visit to the UK in 1991 my grandmother took me to see the famous Cerne Abbas giant – an ancient supposed symbol of fertility with an erect penis and a large club – sculptured into the chalk hillside in Dorset. I didn’t ask too many questions about his manhood as my grandmother was rather posh and old and I didn’t want to embarrass either of us, but boy did I snigger.
And then two weeks ago, I was honoured and humbled to witness priests in white robes actually blessing oysters at the ‘Landing of the Oysters’ at the Whitstable Oyster Festival in Kent. This is a tradition that dates back to the Norman times and ends with the blessed oysters being delivered to restaurants, bars and towns in Whitstable.
While I’m not normally one to get emotional over bivalve molluscs, seeing the oysters being carried down the main street of Whitstable in a specially designed cart like baby Jesus with sea scout ‘bodyguards’ on either side, a row of priests in white robes behind them carrying crosses and holy water and all the townsfolk dressed as sea creatures dancing and singing in a procession behind the priests well, I was nearly blubbering like a baby! And I hadn’t even had my first pint of Salted Caramel cider.
What a parade. There were jellyfish of all colours, large fish, small fish, groper fish, even a man that looked like a fish. I saw a giant King Neptune type paper mache man and his blonde other half, morris dancers and a noisy group of what I think were either pirates or sailors. There were mermaids and mermen, whales, dolphins, a metallic lobster car being driven by a man who looked faintly like the Mad Hatter, an enormous seahorse dalek and a diver dalek plus lots of clowns and colourful Nemo-type fish and it was beautiful and the most happiest celebration of life, the ocean and sea creatures I’ve seen in a very long time.
“I think I’m going to cry,” I told my English friend who looked at me in amusement as we stood on the side of the road watching the colourful procession go past.
“No, over the fact all the townspeople are honouring the sea and its creatures. It’s so moving. Oh god, I’m getting weepy over a giant sea cucumber.”
“Er, I think that’s just a badly shaped fish costume.”
“Oh no, that’s even worse. Now I’m really going to cry – the villagers have tried so hard and they’ve been doing this for years and …… waggghhh!!!”
Actually I didn’t really cry. I just stood there with an enormous lump in my throat staring at the most magical parade in the whole land and thinking of all the beautiful and majestic real sea creatures in the ocean behind me. In fact the whole weekend was magical and if you haven’t ever been to the Whitstable Oyster Festival, you must go. The food, the sunshine, the people jumping off piers, the happy smiling faces, the piles and piles of oyster shells everywhere, the cider, the incredible sunsets and little sailing boats – it was absolutely perfect and quintessential English.
If you do go next year, make sure you book way ahead as the hotels, Air BnBs, apartments and even the little colourful shacks on the seafront all sell out. And if you want to eat dinner during the festival, book ahead as everything, and I mean everything even little cafes, stop serving food at 9pm. Or you could go to the best fish and chips in Whitstable – the very busy and super efficient Ossie’s Best Fish and Chips on the main street – and still have a brilliant night or grab a container of specially blessed and holy oysters from one of the shuck shacks and watch the sun set from the sea wall.
So, that’s one quirky British tradition ticked off my list. Now to find a block of cheese and a steep hill ….