Summer's here, and Britain's great eccentrics come out to play

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The Independent Online

Where in the world would people cheerfully accept money to dress up and dance round someone's grave? And where could you watch the population racing snails, charming worms, making faces, carrying coals and racing sedan chairs?

Britain, of course. Or more specifically, Britain when the sun comes out. The national summer festival season is upon us, and it reveals us as a nation of cheerful eccentrics.

Yesterday, two widows, 10 young girls in white and a dancing fiddler marched through the streets of St Ives in Cornwall to dance at the grave of Johannes Knill, a Customs officer who died in 1811.

Knill built a 50ft-high three-sided granite obelisk that he intended as his mausoleum. To ensure he would be remembered, he left behind a sum of money and asked that every five years, two widows would be paid £1 each, 10 girls aged about seven would be paid 10 shillings each, and a fiddler would be given £1 to dance round the grave.

And, in St Ives, they're more than happy to comply. Sue Robinson of St Ives Tourist Board said: "I think he was a bit of a weird one, but every five years we do him the honour.

"He also left £10 for a big dinner for the vicar, mayor, Customs officer, their wives and friends, £5 each for the best knitter of fish nets and curer of pilchards, and £5 to the man who had the largest legitimate family without ever having asked for help from the parish. But that ended years ago."

In Kent yesterday, two cricket teams competed for the horns of a ram, slow-roasted while they played. The Ebernoe Horn Fairhas been a fixture since 1864, although these days the horns are removed first so as not to offend animal lovers.

And today, also in Kent, several hundred people will follow a priest to the seaside at Whitstable to watch him praying over the water.

"It's very popular," said Jeanne Harrison, co-ordinator of the Whitstable Oyster Festival, of which the "Blessing the Waters" event is an integral part. "I think foreigners sometimes wonder what we're up to, but it is a lovely ceremony."

Later in the summer, there will "rushbearing" in Grasmere, Cumbria, where children carry rushes down from the fens to cover the floor of the churches. There is the Old Gooseberry Show at Egton Bridge in North Yorkshire, when the search will be on for the largest fruit. Also held over the summer months are the Coal-Carrying Contest in Gawthorpe, West Yorkshire, the National Gurning Championships, in Cumbria, the National Sedan Chair-Carrying Championships in Lancaster and the World Worm-Charming Festival in Nantwich, Cheshire.

"This kind of thing shows how much we value a sense of humour in this country," said Anne Jenkins of the English Tourism Council.

In fairness, we aren't unique. Take the Finnish, for example; they have annual wife-carrying festivals. Americans visiting the Rocky Mountain Oyster Festival soon find out that the oysters are, in fact, bulls' testicles. And, 20,000 Spaniards in Buñol, near Valencia, throw 150,000lbs of tomatoes at each other during a frenzied two hours in August.

But they all pale into insignificance next to the crazed pointlessness of the World Bog Snorkelling Championships, at in Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, where 40 snorkellers will do time-trials along a 60-yard ditch in a peat bog on 27 August.