Where to begin with an offering of the ten classic British traditions all expats should experience?
1. The pub
Let’s start in the pub – the best times often do. Expats who have just moved to the UK may be surprised at how popular the pub is to their British colleagues but it’s a good place to socialise and make new friends.Most British people don’t need to be asked twice to go to the pub and there are a wide range available, from trendy drinking bars to ‘olde worlde’ pubs.
It’s popular to go to the pub after work, particularly on a Friday night where workers of all ranks will mingle and exchange banter with colleagues before dispersing for the weekend.
However, expats will soon find that the pub is often the central point for lots of weekend activities and many pubs offer excellent food as well. They are also a great place to meet before heading off somewhere and a great way to relax, for example after a day’s walking in the hills.
Expats heading to the UK may believe that the food is going to be awful and, to be fair, in years gone by this might have been the case, but that was a hangover from the days of rationing and things are different now.
For instance, most big cities will have restaurants for just about every type of cuisine available and there is a network of food delivery firms as well, so expats don’t have to head out to visit pubs and restaurants to enjoy good food and can simply order online or by phone and enjoy the food at home.
Speaking of food, it is worth mentioning classic dishes such as trifle, which is a famous British dessert which consists of several layers including cream, custard, sponge cake and fruits such as strawberries. Trifles are served chilled.
Expats can also try Eton Mess, which consists of meringue, cream and strawberries which are mixed together in a big gloopy mess. There’s also the traditional dessert of jam roly-poly, which is usually served warm with custard and bread and butter pudding. We would also recommend the excellent sticky toffee pudding and Spotted Dick – which is a real dish and not a way for Brits to embarrass their expat friends and colleagues!
Other dishes that need to be sampled are Yorkshire puddings, which should be crisp and served with a nice gravy. Many Sunday lunches will feature Yorkshire puddings; another excuse to visit the pub.
And then, of course, there are chips (and by chips we mean fries). Chips and curry sauce, fish and chips, chips and gravy, chips and vinegar… the list goes on and on.
3. Soft drinks
While many of the world’s most popular soft drinks, or sodas, are sold in the UK, there’s a whole new world of taste awaiting expats with a variety of attractions.
First up is a drink that easily outsells Coca-Cola and Pepsi in Scotland, and that is Irn Bru (pronounced Iron Brew). Available everywhere, the taste is hard to describe but it’s tangy, acidic and metallic – which helps explain an advertising campaign saying it was ‘made from girders’. Irn Bru has a legendary status as a hangover cure.
The same makers also produce Tizer which has a cherry flavour.
Expats will also encounter Vimto, which is a fruit drink flavoured with herbs to provide ‘vim’.
Another unusual fizzy drink is Lucozade, which many expats will see advertised on televised sports since it contains glucose; it’s a drink that was historically recommended for poorly people but now seems to have been adopted by athletes and sports people to help keep their fluid and sugar levels up.
Finally, is the UK’s perennial favourite, Ribena. A big favourite with children, this is a blackcurrant flavoured drink that is packed with vitamin C and should be diluted before being consumed.
You can’t get more traditional than cricket. This summer sport is played with a bat and ball and is very popular. It is played in most villages and there are lots of leagues dotted around the country.
Expats interested in playing should find it easy to find a game; versions of it are played on beaches and in parks by friends and family. Cricket is also an international game and when England plays rivals the games can go on for several days – these are called test matches.
At village level, there will be intervals for lunch and tea and there are lots of amusing phrases used during the game to describe various aspects such as Yorker, bouncer, nibble, silly mid-off and the excellent ‘googly’.
We could also mention rugby and football which are also huge sports with big followings and lots of participants dotted around the country, with lots of leagues for expats to join or watch the sports.
In addition, the pub games of darts and snooker are also popular.
5. Bonfire Night
Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes’ Night, on the 5th of November, is a big event with lots of organised bonfires and firework events. It’s also a time when friends and families organise firework parties to commemorate a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament by Guy Fawkes. Traditionally, an effigy of Fawkes, known as a ‘guy’, is burned on top of the bonfire. The fact the British are celebrating a failed plot to blow up the seat of power probably says more about them than any other traditions – though, strictly speaking, it was originally held to celebrate the saving of King James I.
In addition to the fireworks, people also get to enjoy a range of foods on the night including baked potatoes, sausages, bonfire toffee, parkin (a sticky cake) and, despite the cold, BBQs. It’s one of those occasions when most families will make the effort to go to events or parties and expats should accept an invitation or go along to an officially organised event.
One reason that the number of organised events has grown was to help reduce the number of people being injured with fires and fireworks on Bonfire Night. Also, the use of fireworks has been more tightly controlled in recent years.
It’s at this time of year that expats may sometimes come across children in the street with an effigy, asking passers-by for a ‘penny for the guy’. This is quite rare now but does still happen.
Expats who want to see something special on bonfire night could head to Lewes to see one of the country’s most famous events, though organisers are trying to deter visitors because of the dangers involved. There is a lit torch procession through the town to a big bonfire and firework display. Among the events is the ‘barrel run’ which sees flaming tar barrels being rolled into the river.
While tea drinking is a national pastime for the British, expats could get a feel for high tea by going to a posh hotel to enjoy a cream tea, which includes scones as well as jam and clotted cream.
Usually, other cakes and sandwiches are served up for the special event. Brits don’t go to this level of trouble in their own homes, but expat visitors can generally expect cakes and biscuits (cookies) to be wheeled out along with cups of tea. Coffee is also usually available.
Many recommendations for British traditions that highlight tea drinking will point to teas such as Earl Grey being available, but most Brits will simply offer a breakfast tea with milk and sugar. This will either be fairly weak or be described as ‘builder’s tea’, which is simply a cup of tea that is that strong in taste and is not a make or brand or, indeed, an actual builder’s cup of tea!
Expats should also prepare themselves for the unusual habit of dunking biscuits in tea, which many people do.
7. The seaside
As an island, the UK has some impressive seaside resorts that grew in popularity in the Victorian era and they make for an excellent day out; these resorts are particularly popular at weekends when visitors like to stroll on the beaches and enjoy the local delights.
Expats may be surprised to see how popular amusement arcades are with families.
No trip to the British seaside is complete without enjoying fish and chips, a cup of tea and even a pub trip or a stop in an ice cream parlour. Most people will eat their chips with lashings of salt and vinegar on the beach, though many also enjoy these in cafes and restaurants.
The seaside resorts are worth a visit and expats can also enjoy looking at the multi-coloured beach chalets which people use for changing in or making their home for the day.
The most popular seaside resorts are Brighton, which is easy to reach from London, Blackpool and Whitby. We would also recommend that expats should take several layers as well as coats just in case the weather does not do what the forecasters have predicted.
8. Roast dinners
Everyone in the UK loves a roast dinner, which is traditionally served up on a Sunday; pubs and restaurants also offer excellent examples, which are a great way for families to get around the dinner table and enjoy each other’s company.
Sunday lunches are best enjoyed in winter at the pub, particularly if there’s a roaring log fire in progress. Expats should appreciate that many of these pubs will be busy and booking may be necessary.
A very close second to roast dinners is that many Brits will enjoy a full English breakfast, which is usually enjoyed at the weekends either at home or in a cafe. This can consist of hash browns, toast, beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, bacon, sausages, black pudding, eggs and a variety of other fried items.
Pantomimes are a peculiarly British tradition but they have been taking off in other countries in recent years. Essentially, a pantomime is a festive take on a fairy tale and made into a comedy for all of the family. They are a popular Christmas tradition.
Expats will find major theatres up and down the country will be putting on pantomimes, which will usually have a famous star or two in them – it’s not unknown for a famous Hollywood star to be signed up to appear. In addition, small amateur dramatic groups put on pantomimes which are well attended.
Some of the female roles are played by men, particularly if the story features the ‘Ugly Sisters’, and the lead male is played by a woman, often known as the ‘principal boy’.
There is a lot of audience participation and expats will soon find out what they are expected to do and say; a pantomime is a great way to be silly and enjoy the family fun and atmosphere.
10. Ladies’ Day
Horse racing is a great tradition in the UK, with many of the big race meetings being well attended – tens of thousands of people will turn up to enjoy the racing and the many public bars that are available on racecourses. One of the big attractions at most of these racecourses is ‘Ladies’ Day’, which sees women dressing up in fashionable outfits, and many racecourses have competitions to reward the best dressed.
The atmosphere is one of fun and they make for a great day out. One of the most famous of these is the Royal Ascot Ladies’ Day, which sees the Royal family in attendance and there are some fantastic and impressive fashion statements on show.
For expats new to the UK, a trip to the races is highly recommended and it doesn’t have to be on Ladies’ Day, although the colour and fashion sense being shown makes for a great day out.
We should really give honourable mentions to the likes of bog snorkelling – which many expats will enjoy though it’s a minority ‘sport’ – the World Conker Championships held every autumn, and the act of cheese rolling held every spring in Gloucestershire.
There’s also Morris Dancing, which is a tradition that has been going on for hundreds of years, with participants dressing in strange outfits and skipping with handkerchiefs and sticks. Many villages still have a Maypole in their centres for a ceremonial folk dance held on May Day.
The world gurning championships (gurning is face-pulling) and the world’s biggest liar competition are both held in Cumbria in the UK.
What traditions were you introduced to when you moved to the UK? Let us know in the comments!