London Festivals and Special Events
This is simply a rundown of the principal festivals and annual events in the capital, ranging from the upper-caste rituals of Royal Ascot to the sassy street party of the Notting Hill Carnival, plus a few oddities like Horseman's Sunday. Our listings cover a pretty wide spread of interests, but they are by no means exhaustive; London has an almost endless roll-call of ceremonials and special shows, and for daily information, as always, it's well worth checking Time Out or the Evening Standard.
London Parade To kick off the new year, a procession of floats, marching bands, clowns, American cheerleaders and classic cars wends its way from Parliament Square at noon, through the centre of London, to Berkeley Square, collecting money for charity from around one million spectators en route. Information tel 020/8566 8586; www.london parade.co.uk. Admission charge for grandstand seats in Piccadilly, otherwise free.
London International Mime Festival Annual mime festival which takes place in the last two weeks of January on the South Bank, and in other funky venues throughout London. It pulls in some very big names in mime, animation and puppetry. Information tel 020/7637 5661; www.mimefest.co.uk.
LATE JANUARY/EARLY FEBRUARY
Chinese New Year Celebrations The streets of Soho's Chinatown explode in a riot of dancing dragons and firecrackers on the night of this vibrant annual celebration, and the streets and restaurants are packed to capacity.
Head of the River Race Less well known than the Oxford and Cambridge race, but much more fun; there are over 400 crews setting off at ten-second intervals and chasing each other from Mortlake to Putney. Information tel 01932/220401; www.horr.co.uk.
LATE MARCH/EARLY APRIL
Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race Since 1845, the rowing teams of Oxford and Cambridge universities have battled it out on a four-mile, upstream course on the Thames from Putney to Mortlake. It's as much a social as sporting event, and the pubs at prime vantage points pack out early. Alternatively you can catch it on TV. Best source of information is the current sponsor's Web site: www.aberdeen-asset.com.
THIRD SUNDAY IN APRIL
London Marathon The world's most popular city marathon, with some 35,000 runners sweating the 26.2 miles from Greenwich Park to Westminster Bridge. Only a handful of world-class athletes enter each year; most of the competitors are club runners or obsessive flab-fighters. There's always someone dressed up as a gorilla, and you can generally spot a fundraising celebrity or two. Information tel 020/7620 4117; www.london-marathon.co.uk.
MAY BANK HOLIDAY WEEKEND
IWA Canal Cavalcade Lively celebration of the city's inland waterways held at Little Venice (near Warwick Avenue), with scores of decorated narrowboats, Morris dancers and lots of children's activities. Information tel 020/8874 2787.
SUNDAY NEAREST TO MAY 9
May Fayre and Puppet Festival The garden of St Paul's church in Covent Garden is taken over by puppet booths to commemorate the first recorded sighting of a Punch and Judy show, by diarist Samuel Pepys in 1662. Information tel 020/7375 0441.
FA Cup Final This is the culmination of the football (soccer) year: the premier domestic knock-out competition, played to a packed house at Wembley Stadium. Tickets are pretty much impossible to obtain if you're not an affiliated supporter of one of the two competing clubs, though they are often available at inflated prices on the black market. The game is also shown live on television. Information tel 020/8902 0902.
THIRD OR FOURTH WEEK IN MAY
Chelsea Flower Show Run by the Royal Horticultural Society, the world's finest horticultural event transforms the normally tranquil grounds of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea for four days, with a daily inundation of up to 50,000 gardening gurus and amateurs (the general public are allowed in on the last two days only). It's a solidly bourgeois event, with the public admitted only for the closing stages, and charging an exorbitant fee for the privilege. Information tel 020/7834 4333; www.rhs.org.uk.
Oak Apple Day The Chelsea Pensioners of the Royal Hospital honour their founder, Charles II, by wearing their posh uniforms and decorating his statue with oak leaves, in memory of the oak tree in which the king hid after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Information tel 020/7730 5282.
LATE MAY/EARLY JUNE
Beating of the Retreat This annual display takes place on Horse Guards' Parade over three evenings, and marks the old military custom of drumming the troops back to base at dusk. Soldiers on foot and horseback provide a colourful, very British ceremony which precedes a floodlit performance by the Massed Bands of the Queen's Household Cavalry. Information tel 020/7739 5323.
FIRST OR SECOND SATURDAY IN JUNE
Derby Day Run at the Epsom racecourse in Surrey, the Derby is the country's premier flat race - the beast that gets its snout over the line first is instantly worth millions. Admission prices reflect proximity to the horses and to the watching nobility. The race is always shown live on TV. Information tel 01372/726311; www.epsomderby.co.uk.
EARLY JUNE TO MID-AUGUST
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition Thousands of prints, paintings, sculptures and sketches, most by amateurs and nearly all of them for sale, are displayed at one of the city's finest galleries. Information tel 020/7300 8000; www.royalacademy.org.uk.
Fleadh Pronounced "flaa", this is a raucous (by no means exclusively) Irish music festival in Finsbury Park, North London. Van Morrison has pitched up here on more than a few occasions, but then so too have Bob Dylan and the briefly reformed Sex Pistols. Information tel 020/8963 0940; www.meanfiddler.com.
Spitalfields Festival Classical music recitals in Hawksmoor's Christ Church, the parish church of Spitalfields, and other events in and around the old Spitalfields Market for a fortnight or so in June. Information tel 020/7377 0287; www.spitalfieldsfestival.org.uk.
SECOND SATURDAY IN JUNE
Trooping of the Colour This celebration of the Queen's official birthday (her real one is on April 21) features massed bands, gun salutes, fly-pasts and crowds of tourists and patriotic Britons paying homage. Tickets for the ceremony itself (limited to two per person) must be applied for well in advance; phone 020/7414 2479. Otherwise, the royal procession along the Mall lets you glimpse the nobility for free, and there are rehearsals (minus Her Majesty) on the two preceding Saturdays.
Royal Ascot A highlight of the society year, held at the Ascot racecourse in Berkshire, this high-profile meeting has the Queen and sundry royals completing a crowd-pleasing lap of the track in open carriages prior to the opening races. The event is otherwise famed for its fashion statements, and there's TV coverage of both the races and the more extravagant headgear of the female racegoers. Information tel 01344/622211; www.ascot.co.uk.
LAST WEEK OF JUNE AND FIRST WEEK OF JULY
Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships This Grand Slam tournament attracts the cream of the world's professionals and is one of the highlights of the sporting and social calendar. Tickets are hard to get hold of, but as they are valid for the whole day you could always hang around outside in the hope of gleaning an early leaver's cast-off. Don't buy from touts, even if you can afford to, as the tickets may well be fakes. Information tel 020/8946 2244; www.wimbledon.org.
LATE JUNE TO MID-JULY
City of London Festival For nearly a month, churches (including St Paul's Cathedral), livery halls and corporate buildings around the City play host to classical and jazz musicians, theatre companies and other guest performers. Information tel 020/7377 0540; www.colf.org.
Greenwich & Docklands Festival Ten-day festival of fireworks, music, dance, theatre, art and spectacles at venues on both sides of the river, plus a village fayre in neighbouring Blackheath. Information tel 020/8305 1818; www.festival.org.
MID-JULY TO MID-SEPTEMBER
BBC Henry Wood Promenade Concerts Commonly known as the Proms, this series of nightly classical concerts at the Royal Albert Hall is a well-loved British institution. Information tel 020/7765 5575; www.bbc.co.uk/proms.
Doggett's Coat and Badge Race The world's oldest rowing race, from London Bridge to Chelsea, established by Thomas Doggett, an eighteenth-century Irish comedian, to commemorate George I's accession to the throne. The winner receives a Hanoverian costume and silver badge. Information tel 020/7626 3531.
Mardi Gras Gay and lesbian march through the city followed by a huge (ticketed) party in the park.
THIRD WEEK OF JULY
Swan Upping Five-day scramble up the Thames, from Sunbury to Pangbourne, during which liveried rowers search for swans, marking them (on the bill) as belonging to either the Queen, the Dyers' or the Vintners' City liveries. At Windsor, all the oarsmen stand to attention in their boats and salute the Queen. Information tel 020/7236 1863.
Summer Rites Relaxed annual gay and lesbian festival.
LAST BANK HOLIDAY WEEKEND IN AUGUST
Notting Hill Carnival The two-day free festival in Notting Hill Gate is the longest-running, best-known and biggest street party in Europe. Dating back 35 years, Carnival is a tumult of imaginatively decorated floats, eye-catching costumes, thumping sound systems, live bands, irresistible food and huge crowds. Information tel 020/8964 0544; www.nottinghillcarnival.net.uk.
SATURDAY IN EARLY SEPTEMBER
Great River Race Hundreds of boats are rowed or paddled from Ham House, Richmond, down to Island Gardens on the Isle of Dogs. Starts are staggered and there are any number of weird and wonderful vessels taking part. Information tel 020/8398 9057.
THIRD SUNDAY IN SEPTEMBER
Horseman's Sunday In an eccentric 11.30am ceremony at the Hyde Park church of St John & St Michael, a vicar on horseback blesses a hundred or so horses; the newly consecrated beasts then parade around the neighbourhood before galloping off through the park, and later taking part in show jumping. Information tel 020/7262 1732.
THIRD WEEKEND IN SEPTEMBER
Open House A once-a-year opportunity to peek inside over 400 buildings around London, many of which don't normally open their doors to the public. You'll need to book in advance for some of the more popular places. Information tel 0891/600061; www.londonopenhouse.org.
LATE SEPTEMBER/EARLY OCTOBER
Soho Jazz Festival Headed by Ronnie Scott's, this is a week-long celebration of one of Soho's most famous attributes - its jazz culture. Information tel 020/7437 6437.
FIRST SUNDAY IN OCTOBER
Costermongers' Pearly Harvest Festival Service Cockney fruit and vegetable festival at St Martin-in-the-Fields Church. Of most interest to the onlooker are the Pearly Kings and Queens who gather at around 3pm in their traditional pearl-button studded outfits. Information tel 020/7930 0089.
LATE OCTOBER/EARLY NOVEMBER
State Opening of Parliament The Queen arrives by coach at the Houses of Parliament at 11am accompanied by the Household Cavalry and gun salutes. The ceremony itself takes place inside the House of Lords and is televised; it also takes place whenever a new government is sworn in. Information tel 020/7219 3000; www.parliament.uk.
London Film Festival A three-week cinematic season with scores of new international films screened at the National Film Theatre and some West End venues. Information tel 020/7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk or (nearer the time) www.lff.org.uk.
London Jazz Festival Big ten-day jazz fest held in all London's jazz venues, large and small. Information tel 020/7405 5974.
FIRST SUNDAY IN NOVEMBER
London to Brighton Veteran Car Run In 1896 Parliament abolished the Act that required all cars to crawl along at 2mph behind someone waving a red flag. Such was the euphoria in the motoring community that a rally was promptly set up to mark the occasion, and a century later it's still going strong. Classic cars built before 1905 set off from Hyde Park at 7.30am and travel the 58 miles to Brighton along the A23 at the heady maximum speed of 20mph. Information tel 01753/681736.
Bonfire Night In memory of Guy Fawkes - executed for his role in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot to blow up King James I and the Houses of Parliament - effigies of the hapless Mr Fawkes are burned on bonfires all over Britain. There are also council-run fires and fireworks displays right across the capital; Parliament Hill in Hampstead provides a good vantage point from which to take in several displays at once. Information tel 020/7971 0026.
SECOND SATURDAY IN NOVEMBER
Lord Mayor's Show The newly appointed Lord Mayor begins his or her day of investiture at Westminster, leaving there at around 9am for Guildhall. At 11.10am, the vast ceremonial procession, headed by the 1756 State Coach, begins its journey from Guildhall to the Law Courts in the Strand, where the oath of office is taken at 11.50am. From there the coach and its train of 140-odd floats make their way back towards Guildhall, arriving at 2.20pm. Later in the day there's a fireworks display from a barge tethered between Waterloo and Blackfriars bridges, and a small funfair on Paternoster Square, by St Paul's Cathedral. Information tel 020/7606 3030; www.corpoflondon.gov.uk.
NEAREST SUNDAY TO NOVEMBER 11
Remembrance Sunday A day of nationwide commemorative ceremonies for the dead and wounded of the two world wars and other conflicts. The principal ceremony, attended by the Queen, various other royals and the Prime Minister, takes place at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, beginning with a march-past of veterans and building to a one-minute silence at the stroke of 11am.
Each year since the end of World War II, Norway has acknowledged its gratitude to the country that helped liberate it from the Nazis with the gift of a mighty spruce tree that appears in Trafalgar Square in early December. Decorated with lights, it becomes the focus for carol singing versus traffic noise each evening until Christmas Eve.
NEW YEAR'S EVE
The New Year is welcomed en masse in Trafalgar Square as thousands of inebriated revellers stagger about and slur to Auld Lang Syne at midnight. For the millennium, there was a big firework display along the Thames, and it remains to be seen whether the show will be repeated or if the crowds will once more return to their traditional haunt. Whatever happens, London Transport runs free public transport all night, sponsored by various public-spirited breweries.
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