It all started in sleety Edinburgh, exactly a month after Christmas, with the splendidly atmospheric Burns Night. High on spirits and the often sombre stanzas of Robbie Burns, Scotland’s national poet, the festival my husband and I attended was a surreal mix of maudlin and merry—the perfect grown-up getaway. Pulling on woollies and weatherproofs in preparation, we caught a budget flight to Edinburgh. After a taxi ride through the grand but undeniably grey city that January afternoon, we disembarked at The Royal Terrace Hotel, trembling in our wellies at the unexpectedly arctic temperatures.
Though we were sorely tempted to stay in that night, we braced ourselves with wee drams of Scotch before striking out into the wind and rain. As we wandered from pub to pub, peeping into private parties along the way, we were assailed by the steaming scent of haggis, the Scottish national dish made with offal, mingling with the smoky smell of whiskey and fires blazing. The pub with the most alluring aroma drew us in. Giggling tipsily, we tucked into our Scottish supper, finishing with the fruity heaven of the cranachan, a dessert of oatmeal, cream, and berries, also doused in whiskey. Fortified, we ventured back out into the inky night for the eagerly awaited bagpipes-until-dawn party. There, amidst endless toasts and rousing rounds of “Auld Lang Syne”, I fell asleep on my beloved’s shoulder. How we got back to our hotel I couldn’t tell you, but I have a fond image of him slinging me over his broad back like Lochinvar, a knight in Sir Walter Scott’s epic ballad “Mermion”, and striding off to the strains of the few bagpipers left standing.
Burns Night isn’t for children, but Light Night in Nottingham the very next month, certainly is. Light Night, usually held on a Friday, takes over Nottingham’s City Centre, wreathing this historic neighbourhood in lights and colours, and filling it with the laughter of families. Artists work with technicians to light up the city in new and arresting ways, musicians serenade passers-by, and actors and poets recite on street corners. For our first experience of Light Night, we focused on the events that would excite the children, starting with a magical parade at Sneinton Market Place. Children with shimmering fish-shaped lanterns traipsed alongside a giant octopus on strings. We followed the parade to the City Arts Dome illuminated with images of places and faces from around the city. From there we made our way to Nottingham Castle, which was lit up with torches set around its manicured grounds. My children jigged to the beat of the drums of a costumed crew re-enacting an event from the English Civil War. They cheered when the final fireworks blazed through the night sky. But as we turned to leave, they asked, “Where’s Robin Hood?” It was unthinkable not to have encountered him in his own city. Sure enough, on our way out a smiling man in Lincoln green doffed his feathered cap at us. “Oooh” said the children, “do you think he saw us dance?” “Of course!” I replied. “Yikes!” said my six-year-old son, worried he had made an unmanly impression on his hero. After one last spin on the giant, glittering Ferris wheel at Old Market Square, with views of the twinkling city, we were ready for bed.
Intrepid night-trippers with a taste for the weird and wonderful must visit the Summer Solstice at Stonehenge. Ancient Britons called it “Litha”, the sun “standing still” on the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. For our trip to this bohemian festival, I dressed in my best hippie chic, and my husband rented a red VW camper van. We arrived to find every inch of the majestic sweep of Stonehenge filled with hippies, some of whom had been there for hours, getting increasingly stoned and friendly. As night fell, the stunning setting began to look less like the Glastonbury Music Festival and more the sacred Druidic ground we’d come to see. As the sun was snuffed out, the atmosphere changed on that vast swathe of Wiltshire field, turning electric with anticipation but also respectfully quiet. Only the guitars could still be heard gently weeping in the darkness. Then the modern-day Druids took their appointed places around the towering stones. An hour later, I watched the sun rise in its russet-red glory from behind the dark bulk of the standing stones. The Druids raised their arms towards it, chanting a welcome in their ancient Celtic tongue. Others joined in gamely, even if few knew what the words meant. The dancing and strumming resumed with odd blasts of horn, a didgeridoo on one occasion and a vuvuzela on another. As a ring of yoga practitioners began their earnest exercises, we slipped away for a warm breakfast and a comfy bed to sleep off the most fascinating night.
Night travel in Britain would be incomplete without a trip to the beautiful-by-day and sinister-by-night coastal town of Whitby in Yorkshire. Unlike many kitschy English seaside settlements, this town with its connection to Dracula (and other ghouls) is beautiful and bone-chilling at the same time. Bram Stoker, the Irish writer who set part of his 1897 Gothic novel in this relatively unknown north England town, must have felt the undercurrents of mystery and passion beneath the constant sound of the waves and the strains of sea shanties sung on these streets. Stoker’s Dracula makes his first foray beyond Transylvania in wind-lashed Whitby, but unlike the blood-sucking count, we arrived for our romantic weekend in the middle of the day with the sun at its zenith and the sea, a calm blue. It was, however, Halloween, and Whitby’s cobbled streets were soon choked with grotesquely togged tourists, slathered in mascara and swirling black capes. Alongside the goths, families enjoyed the bracing sea air and pretty little shops, done up for the occasion. A confectioner had a life-size, marzipan Dracula in a mouth-watering dark chocolate tomb in its window. A giant woolly spider crawled across a web of rope on the wall of a pub.
Our next destination on the Night Trail was York, birthplace of “The Guy”, vilified in English history as the man who planned to blow up the English parliament, killing king and commoner alike. So hated is he that the English burn his effigies to this day, in blazing bonfires across the country, but especially in York which Fawkes once called home. We arrived in the afternoon to find the best vantage point at the biggest bonfire, in the centre of the city. York is an ancient metropolis ringed by Roman walls, with amazing antiquities at every corner—a Roman column here, a Pagan altar there. The fires lit in a hundred fields among these relics heightened the sense of having gone back in time. We bought toffee apples, a traditional Bonfire Night treat, and cups of steaming cocoa from one of many decked-out roadside stalls. The children clamoured for glow sticks, gleaming batons to hold up against the night sky. “Just this once”, we said, but were secretly happy to have it made easier for us to keep an eye on them. As it was, the sticks were unnecessary. The central bonfire was such a towering inferno, it lit up the heart of York, turning night into day. On our way back to the car, the kids were busy discussing which firework made the biggest bang when a blue plaque on a Tudor building caught my eye. “Guy Fawkes” it said, “lived here between 1579 and…” The rest appeared blurred. I stopped for a better look while the children carried on with their father. Feeling watched, however, I looked up at the window immediately above me. A figure seemed to shrink into the shadows as I caught a glimpse of a face, briefly staring into my own, with a twirling Guy Fawkes moustache in the shadow of a large hat. I laughed at my flight of fancy and scurried after my family. I had a tale to tell and more reason than ever to carry on night-tripping across Britain.
Celebrated every year on 25 January, poet Robert Burns’ birthday, Burns Night is an important part of Scottish culture, celebrated at various venues including the Edinburgh Castle. The highlight is the Burns Supper, hosted in pubs and restaurants across Scotland, as well as by people in their homes. It begins with the reading of Burns’ Address to a Haggis and ends with a toast to Robert Burns, called Immortal Memory, and the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.”
Next Date 25 January 2016
Trivia A Burns Night app released in 2012. It includes lyrics of some Burns’ classics, a guide on how to host a perfect Burns Supper, and a documentary on the poet’s life.
Light Night Festival lights up the entire city centre of Nottingham. The garden of Nottingham Castle glitters, there are late night museum tours at Brewhouse yard, and luminous art installations in the Creative Quarter.
Next Date 5 February 2016
Trivia At the 2015 festivities commemorating the First World War, a tank made of plastic bottles was on display in the grounds of Nottingham Castle.
On 20-21 June every year, Stonehenge becomes the meeting point for Druids, Pagans, Wiccans, hippies, and English and Welsh families who come to celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. A four-day camping festival also takes place in the grounds around the prehistoric site.
Next Date 20-21 June 2015
Trivia An estimated 37,000 poeple gathered to watch the sun rise at the Stonehenge last year.
Whitby Goth Weekend, or WGW, began in 1994 and is now celebrated twice a year—in April and in October. The October celebrations often coincide with Halloween adding an eerie atmosphere to this alternative music festival.
Next Date Whitby Goth Weekend runs from 30 October- 1 November 2015 followed by the Spring Event in April 2016.
Trivia The first festival was held in a pub 21 years ago and now, the WGW is responsible for a contribution of an estimated £1m to the local economy every year.
Guy Fawkes Night is the commemoration of the arrest of arguably the most famously disliked conspirator in English history. The people of York, where Fawkes was born, celebrate it with gusto, fireworks and by burning effigies of the man.
Next Date 5 November 2015
Trivia The practice of lighting bonfires to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ capture began in the year of his arrest making it a 400-year-old tradition.
Appeared in the June 2015 issue as “Tripping The Night Fantastic”.
Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. Her short stories have been published in three continents and her HarperCollins India book, 'Memoirs of My Body' is out now.