Sample the wonderful and eccentric traditions that take place in the British capital with our guide to 12 months’ worth of ceremonies, parades and grand events
Visitors from around the globe line the Thames Riverside for the London New Year’s Eve Fireworks (31 December 2019. www.london.gov.uk/events) which light up the sky behind The London Eye, a 135-metre observation wheel. Festivities continue at noon the next day as a New Year’s Day Parade (1 January 2020. www.lnydp.com) winds its way through the capital from Piccadilly, down Lower Regent’s Street and through to Trafalgar Square and Whitehall.
If heads are still sore from the revelry, visit the Chapel Royal for the Epiphany (6 January 2020. www.royal.uk/chapelroyal). Set inside the St James’s Palace chapel in which Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were married 180 years ago, this ancient ceremony is a chance for the Queen and her subjects to give thanks as gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are presented on Her Majesty’s behalf during a Holy Communion service.
For a lighter take on a traditional service, visit the All Saints Church in Haggerston, east London, for the 74th Annual Grimaldi Clown Service (2 February 2020. www.clownsinternational.com). Clowns in full make-up and costume attend to commemorate the life of the father of modern-day clowns, Joseph Grimaldi, as well as paying respects to others who have passed on “to the big top in the sky” during the previous 12 months. Spare seats are available for clown appreciators.
St Paul’s Cathedral hosts the Cakes and Ale Service (25 February 2020. www.stpauls.co.uk) on behalf of the Worshipful Company of Stationers, whose former master John Norton included provisions in his will when he died in 1612 for a buffet of beer and sweet things to be served in his honour every year. While the sermon is private, visitors can catch the procession from Stationers’ Hall.
Every year, The Boat Race (29 March 2020. www.theboatrace.org) is famously contested between teams from England’s two best universities, Oxford and Cambridge, yet they do so on neutral ground: the four-mile Championship Course runs from Putney to Mortlake in southwest London. Cambridge has the historic lead overall in both the men’s and women’s races, outperforming their uni rivals 84-80 and 44-30 respectively. Watch from the banks or bridges along the route to see if history will repeat itself in 2020.
John Stow’s Quill Pen Ceremony (5 April 2020. www.merchant-taylors.co.uk) commemorates the death of the Tudor historian famed for his landmark Survey of London in 1598. His statue in St Andrew Undershaft church holds a real quill pen that is replaced every three years in a modest ceremony by either the Lord Mayor of London or the Master of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. The church itself celebrates its 500th anniversary in this coming year too.
In truly regal fashion, Queen Elizabeth II has two birthdays – an official date in June and her actual birthday on 21 April, which she celebrates privately. For the rest of us, we can enjoy the Queen’s Birthday Gun Salute (21 April 2020. www.royal.uk) in her honour, which sees 41 rounds blasted from cannons in Hyde Park before a 62-round salute an hour later at the Tower of London. Good views of the latter can be had from Tower Hill.
In the same week, more stirring patriotism can be found at the Feast of St George (25 April 2020 – tbc. www.london.gov.uk/events) in Trafalgar Square.
The Mayor of London hosts this tribute to England’s patron saint, as trips to the English food market can be interspersed with music and comedy performances.
A busy weekend for this part of central London is capped by the London Marathon (26 April, 2020, www.virginmoneylondonmarathon.com) which concludes on The Mall, adjacent to Trafalgar Square. Even though runners pass in a blink of an eye, the atmosphere is well worth immersing yourself in.
The garden of the “Actors’ Church” – actually St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden – plays host to the 45th Annual Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival
(10 May 2020. www.alternativearts.co.uk). Timed to coincide with the anniversary of diarist Samuel Pepys first watching a puppet show featuring the Mr Punch character
in 1662, the event sees slapstick performances, puppets for sale and other traditional festivities.
Cutting-edge garden design is celebrated at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show (19-23 May 2020. www.rhs.org.uk) as temporary green spaces are cultivated within the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and vie for awards from the prestigious Royal Horticultural Society. Bask in their splendour while picking up tips and plants to brighten your home garden.
When the British climate behaves itself, the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (16 May to 6 September. www.openairtheatre.com) is one of the most delightful places to while away a summer’s evening. In fact, the Queen has been a regular visitor to the tree-lined auditorium since the summer season began in 1932. This year, productions will include Shakespeare’s Romeo Juliet and a revival of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel.
The Summer Exhibition (9 June to 16 August 2020. www.royalacademy.org.uk) at the Royal Academy of Arts in London is the world’s largest open submission art show and dates back more than 250 years. Something of a bellwether for contemporary tastes, the walls are packed with work by amateurs and world-renowned talents alike. On the pre-exhibition Varnishing Day, artists gather in the academy’s courtyard and form a procession along Piccadilly led by a steel band, before attending an artists’ blessing at nearby St James’s Church.
It was King George II who first decided to combine Britain’s annual summer military march with his own birthday celebration – despite him being born in
late autumn. More than 260 years later, Trooping the Colour (13 June 2020. www.royal.uk/trooping-colour) has been staged on the monarch’s unofficial birthday ever since. As Union Jack flags line The Mall, troops parade in full regalia and the Royal Family watch a flypast from the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
For many visitors, the tennis is a secondary concern at The Championships Wimbledon 2020 (29 June to 12 July 2020. www.wimbledon.com), one of four international Grand Slam competitions. Instead, this staple of the British summer season simply provides a delightful opportunity to quaff Pimm’s and eat cream-doused strawberries in the shadow of Centre Court.
The 500-year-old home of Henry VIII provides a suitably grandiose backdrop for what is now Britain’s largest flower show, RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival (6-12 July 2020. www.rhs.org.uk).
Founded 125 years ago, The Proms (17 July to 12 September 2020. www.bbc.co.uk/proms) is an eight-week programme of classical music concerts centred around London’s Royal Albert Hall. Originally conceived as an informal event to encourage attendees from lower classes – “prom” is short for “promenade concert” – this has blossomed into a top-class collection of premieres and anniversary concerts, with the Last Night of the Proms providing a rousing and patriotic finale filled with British anthems.
From classical music to a ballet of sorts, as elegant mute swans are rounded up for the annual Swan Upping (20-24 July 2020 – tbc. www.royalswan.co.uk). Officially owned by the British Crown, the birds are given their annual health check by “uppers” on the River Thames in a ceremony that has become something of a tourist favourite.
The Guildhall Yard comes to life for the Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Festival (27 September 2020. www.pearlysociety.co.uk), a proper East End knees-up with Morris dancing, a maypole and a marching band. Traditional cockney family members known as Pearlies come decked out in black suits or dresses adorned with hundreds of shiny buttons for a parade to St Mary-le-Bow Church in time for the 3pm service.
Lord Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar lent a poignancy to the Britain’s victory against Napoleon’s fleet in 1805, a major skirmish that is still commemorated 215 years later. Trafalgar Day Parade and Service (18 October 2020 – tbc. www.royalnavy.mod.uk) sees Royal Navy sea cadets leave Horse Guards Parade in the morning en route to Trafalgar Square. Stand beside Nelson’s Column for the best views.
Tickets sell fast for BFI London Film Festival (early October – tbc. www.bfi.org.uk), a fortnight-long programme of more than 300 films in cinemas across the capital, including premieres in Leicester Square.
King John’s reign was falling apart in 1215 when he issued a royal charter allowing the City of London to elect a mayor. The one proviso was that his new charge must pledge allegiance to him in an annual ceremony that has been enacted ever since and blossomed into the Lord Mayor’s Show (7 November 2020. www.lordmayorsshow.london). The 90-minute display of pomp and pageantry features marching bands, parade floats and more.
A more solemn Westminster occasion takes place the next day, as the National Service of Remembrance (8 November 2020. www.britishlegion.org.uk) is held at the Cenotaph on Whitehall. Two minutes’ silence is observed at 11am and the Royal Family and Prime Minister lay wreaths to commemorate First World War casualties.
The three choirs of St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Cathedral and Westminster Abbey join forces to celebrate the Festival of St Cecilia (18 November 2020 – tbc. www.westminstercathedral.org.uk) an event dedicated to the patron saint of music. Held in one of the three participating venues (it is Westminster Cathedral’s turn in 2020), it sees masters from the city livery companies attend in ceremonial robes.