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Burry Man Meet Straw Bear: The Delightfully Bizarre Costumes Of British Folklore Festivals

Pagans, witches and straw bears roam Britain’s folk festivals, photographed in a new book.

In a land not so far away, the natives wear suits made of burrs and straw. They stitch their clothing with hundreds of shiny buttons and paint their bodies green. They celebrate primal rituals using bonfires and mind-altering sacraments. This place is the United Kingdom.

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So why are modern day Britons walking around dressed like horror movie characters? Answer: for the more than 700 folklore festivals–everything from harvest celebrations to horn dances–that take place across the country each year. Photographer Henry Bourne documents their bizarre, DIY getups in a new book Arcadia Britannica.

To get the shots, Bourne followed friend and folklore expert Simon Costin to events like Bonfire Night, the celebration of Guy Fawkes’s attempt to blow up the British House of Lords, and parades of the Pearly Kings and Queens, a association of working-class London residents who wear suits covered in mother-of-pearl buttons.

One of the book’s strangest portraits shows the Burry Man, a character who, during an annual ceremony in South Queensferry, spends all day walking around in a suit made of thistle burrs, with only small gaps for his eyes and mouth, through which residents help him sip whiskey. Then there is the terrifying “straw bear,” a man covered entirely in straw, whose character who would traditionally appear on the first day of the agricultural year.

Many of the traditions honored have mysterious origins or (surprise) bear little relevance to life today. As Costin writes in the book’s introduction: “Some customs relate to dates in the religious calendar, such as Easter, harvest festival and Christmas. However, with church attendance in decline, many of the events have disappeared or lost some of their meaning.”

Yet they’ve maintained a loyal, if somewhat outre, following among modern Britons. Crostin is a advocate for preserving these unusual traditions and started his own miniature folklore museum in a van, which he’d drive to festivals around the country. Now, he wants to give his Museum of British Folklore a more permanent home. One can only assume the Burry Man would approve.

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About the author

I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.

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