Page last updated at 11:00 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 12:00 UK

New rituals for the British summer

Maize maze

By Laura Schocker

There's much that's predictable about a British summer, but it's not a season preserved in aspic. Alongside the time-honoured traditions are emerging trends that say much about Britain in the 21st Century.

From Wimbledon to the Open golf tournament, from Glastonbury to Glyndebourne, from a rained-off barbecue to enduring a motorway tailback while sitting in a stuffy car - there's much that's predictable about a British summer. But, as the gleeful faces of England's victorious cricket team proved this week, summer is not an entirely predictable season.

And as our interests and tastes change, so do the public rituals of the outdoor season.


Exploring a maze used to mean a gentle saunter around the privet hedges of a stately home. But lately maze-going has assumed out-of-town proportions with a new legion of field-sized labyrinths.

Welcome to the maize maze. The first maize maze appeared in the UK 15 years ago - this summer about 35 have sprouted up around the country.

Maize maze
A maze carved out of a cornfield near Burton-upon-Trent

In a maize maze, visitors wind through paths carved between corn stalks, as high as 9ft (2.75m), which form a design covering several acres. Think interactive crop circle.

"It's probably within the last five, six years that they've started to grow in popularity significantly," says David Leon, director of the newly formed Maize Maze Association.

He estimates that the UK's mazes will get nearly a million visitors this year. "It's a fun activity to do out in the countryside," he says.

The fun has its roots in financial hardship, though, as farmers seek to bolster falling crop revenues by exploiting the market for "aggritainment". "It's helped change what was our quieter time of the year to what is now our busiest time," says Jonny Hewitt, director of the Red House Farm maze in Cheshire and a spokesperson for the National Farmers Union.

British farmers have capitalised on a general goodwill towards the rural countryside, Mr Hewitt says, by offering seasonal activities like barbecues along with the maze. The designs typically change each year, with themes this summer including the Wild West and animals. And when all the visitors have left, much of the crop can still be harvested and used for cattle feed.

Aside from a day outdoors, the mazes are an opportunity to solve a puzzle, says Adrian Fisher, a maze designer who designed the world's first in Pennsylvania in 1993. "They get you into the problem solving mode," he says. "Finally you reach the goal. You punch the sky and say, 'Yes!'"


It's a pastime that tends to make headlines for the wrong reasons - death and serious injury. Yet such dangers haven't stopped the spread of the ominously named pursuit, tombstoning.

Last year, 139 people required emergency responses after tombstoning

"Tombstoning is quite a new term that has been attached to the practice of jumping from a height into the water," says Jo Stagg, of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The basic technique is to jump, feet first, into a body of water from some high point, like a cliff.

People have been taking these leaps for years, Ms Stagg says, but a recent increase in injuries and fatalities has heightened awareness. Between 2004 and 2008, there were 139 incidents that required an immediate emergency response in the UK - just more than half of the most serious cases were teenagers.

So with serious risks possible, why do more and more people continue to jump? It's about the adrenaline, says regular tombstoner Pip Evans, of Salisbury. "The feeling that you get is that your stomach is literally coming right up though your mouth," he says. "You can do the same jump 100 times, but every time you'll have that feeling."

Even with one major injury from a 60ft (18.3m) jump and some bleeding and bruising along the way, Mr Evans isn't planning to stop anytime soon. Last summer, he and a friend took a tombstoning tour of the United States with multiple jumps each week. So far this season, he has jumped once in the UK.

"It's just a bit of fun, a bit of a social thing, a bit of a hobby," he says. But, he warns, when it's time to step off the ledge, "you have to be committed 110%."


For those seeking some of the excitement of tombstoning, in a more health and safety-conscious environment, there's the burgeoning appetite for battle re-enactments.

Historical re-enactment has been gaining popularity over the past few years, says Mark Griffin, a full-time re-enactor. "As a hobby, it's growing and growing," he says. He estimates that 20,000 people currently participate.

Jacobite Re-enactment Takes Place Outside Holyrood
A Jacobite re-enactment outside Holyrood, Edinburgh

"It's a good break from the hustle and bustle of modern life," says Mr Griffin, who is the living history coordinator for the festival of history. The event, held by English Heritage, celebrates 2,000 years of history.

This year, Henry VIII is the re-enactment poster boy - 2009 being the 500th anniversary of his coming to the throne, Mr Griffin says. Popular subjects tend to change based on media attention or television shows focusing on a particular period.

The reasons people get involved in re-enactment are as varied as the possible subjects and time periods.

For Mr Griffin, the activity allows him to understand what life was like in the past, while spending time with fellow re-enactors who share his passion in the present. "You get to grab a sword and beat the heck out of them occasionally," he jokes.

And one reason more people may be getting involved, Mr Griffin suggests, is because re-enactment offers something for everyone, whether it's a connection to history or a day out in the country.

"History has always been popular. Now it's even more popular because you can actually dress up and do it and get a sort of nitty gritty feel for how things used to be," he says. "You can dip into it or you can throw yourself into it right in the deep end."


Where Paris led, Britain's provincial centres have followed with urban beaches springing up across the country.

Nottingham beach
The Nottingham urban beach uses 300 tons of sand

The first major city beach, the Paris Plage, was created in 2002 along the banks of the river Seine, complete with sand and palm trees. The idea caught on across the channel and since then Edinburgh, Cardiff, Birmingham, Belfast and Bristol have been among the cities to create mock beaches for the public.

On Wednesday, Nottingham will debut its beach, featuring 300 tons of sand and converting its Old Market Square into the largest city-centre beach in the UK.

As British cities have regenerated their centres, the urban beach has come to be seen as marketing device - helping draw shoppers and tourists, many of whom are staying home rather than venturing abroad because of financial pressures. Over the past year, the number of UK residents travelling abroad has decreased 8%, according to the Office for National Statistics.

"A holiday is seen as an essential element to a lot of people," says Dr Caroline Scarles, a lecturer in tourism at University of Surrey. "For people who are not able to go abroad and overseas as they have in past years, 'staycations' are something that they can experience in the UK."

And what better way to do that than an urban beach, says David Crouch, a professor of travel and tourism at University of Derby. "The urban city beach epitomises this interesting mix, so that it's near but it's also eccentric," he says. "It's about fun, being together and, of course, in the city, they're convenient."


Sneezing, while not exactly a ritual, looks set to become a summer staple in coming years and the culprit is not swine flu, but hayfever. Ten years ago, one in six people in the UK had hayfever - today the figure is one in four. And the change reflects a trend that some reports suggest could lead to a rate greater than one in two by 2060.

"The rise has been so fast," says Dr Glenis Scadding, president of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

While the exact reason behind the seasonal rheumy eyes and runny noses isn't proven, experts do offer some theories. One possible reason? We've become too hygienic and keep our living and work spaces too clean.

Sometimes a little bacteria can go a long way. People who shared a bathroom as children, for instance, are less likely to have allergies, says Dr Scadding. Other explanations for the increase in hayfever include climate changes and diet shifts over the years.

"Hayfever was almost unknown in the 18th Century and even in the 19th," Dr Scadding says. "Now it has spread to become very common."

Ice in alcoholic drinks, sock-less sandal-wearing for men, family-friendly music festivals - what other new rituals are there for the British summer?

The usual summer ritual is going shopping for shorts, t-shirts and flip flops, new shades and sun tan cream. Then put them back in the suitcase as the British weather brings on the rain.
Alan Morrison, London

Summer drinks. Pimms and Magners for example. Fruity, fizzy drinks good cooled with ice and drunk sitting up against a tree or on a picnic blanket. Recent successful advertising campaigns have made these drinks poster children for the British summer. On the other hand, does anyone buy Pimms once the sun goes in?
Ian Ferguson, Southampton, UK

I am wearing flip-flops in the office. Daring or what!
Maq, Chelmsford, Essex, UK

One of our favourites is to make a model hot air balloon out of tissue paper and glue (about 2m tall), fill it with hot air using a bbq or camping stove, then let it fly and get as many children (and adults) as possible to chase after it. It usually survives to be patched and re-launched a few times before it disintegrates or lands somewhere inaccessible
Sue, Kenilworth, Warwickshire

Spending my lunch hour at work reading completely pointless articles on the internet could be defined as a new ritual for the British Summer. It's a modern version of the slow news week, traditionally reserved for newspapers, but clearly spreading!
Chris Tappenden, Bewdley

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