The UK has a rich tradition of events across a wide range of sports and outdoor pursuits. In this article we highlight over 20 of the biggest and most-visited events, together with a couple of quirky occasions guaranteed to appeal to the sports enthusiast and those seeking something a little off the beaten track.
With origins dating to 1860, the Cheltenham Festival is one of the marquee events of the National Hunt racing season, with prestige and prize money surpassing everything bar the Grand National. The Festival is an annual event and takes place in mid-March. The event has expanded in recent years and now runs to four days, affording plenty of opportunities for the swathes of visitors who descend on the region at this time. Attendance across the four-day event can reach a quarter of a million, and attracts the public, sportspeople and celebrities alike.
There are headline events each day, with the finale being the Gold Cup, which offers prize money in excess of £500,000. The Gold Cup event started as a flat race as far back as 1819, but was changed to a jump event in 1924. It has been won by some of racing’s most famous horses, including the majestic Desert Orchid and three-time winner Arkle, and is the flagship event of the Festival.
Visitors to Cheltenham can also enjoy the beautiful attractions in and around this picturesque spa town; from the myriad theaters and galleries to the tree-lined shopping centre, the town is one of the the UK’s most popular destinations all year round, and is the gateway to the Cotswolds, which I can heartily recommend exploring. Festival visitors can also take advantage of the many St Patrick’s Day events which often run throughout the week.
One of the world’s most famous sporting events, Wimbledon is a crown jewel in the British summer calendar; it is the oldest tennis tournament in existence, and was first held at its present venue in 1877. It is held at the All England Club in Wimbledon, and runs through the first two weeks of July. It is the only one of the four Grand Slam tournaments to be held on grass, and is generally considered to be the most prestigious and revered among both players and fans.
Wimbledon’s great appeal is not just restricted to tennis fans. The event attracts a wide range of visitors who are drawn in by 140 years of rich tradition and history, and an atmosphere unlike anything that is experienced elsewhere. From the grand spectacle of Royal visitors to the swatches of spectators who camp out for days in the hope of securing one of the 500 available daily tickets, Wimbledon is an event worth attending for any lover of sports or British tradition. Whether it’s the punnets of strawberries and cream or the chance to rub shoulders with celebrities, the fortnight is a yearly focus for visitors from around the globe. The event has been won by many of the world’s greatest players, with the likes of Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer forever associated with the title.
The event has always held a certain level of interest for British sports fans, though success was in very short supply for a long period after the heyday of Fred Perry in the 1930s. Aside from Virginia Wade’s astonishing success in the 1977 Jubilee year, British fans often came to cheer plucky underdogs such as Tim Henman or Jo Durie, before their patience and long suffering was finally ended by the arrival of Andy Murray. Murray’s ascent to the highest ranks of world tennis was assured when he finally captured the Men’s Singles title in 2013, ending 77 years of British failure!
Dating to 1839 and attracting prize money in excess of a million pounds, the Grand National is an iconic British sporting event, and almost certainly the most famous horse race in the world. It is a handicap steeplechase event, perhaps best known for the intense drama and remarkable stories it throws up – its uncommonly large fences and lengthy course make it a grand spectacle and it’s very popular both with race lovers and the public. It is one of the most popular events with bookmakers as it often attracts punts from those who would normally shy away from betting in any form.
Visiting the Grand National is also a reason to explore Liverpool and its environs. Music lovers will thrill to visit iconic sights such as the Cavern Club, where the Beatles performed, and its historic Georgian and Victorian boroughs. The regeneration in recent years has been huge, with the dock areas around the Mersey, and Albert Dock in particular, now a haven for tourists and culture lovers, thanks to serious investment in museums, bars and shops. Sports lovers can also head to Stanley Park and see Liverpool’s historic Anfield Stadium, with Everton’s Goodison Park barely a stone’s throw away.
Despite its exclusivity, the annual Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race has long been a focal point of the British sporting calendar. Established in 1829, and held annually since 1856, the 4 mile race along the River Thames attracts hordes of fans cheering on their favourites each year. Up to a quarter of a million people line the Thames’ banks to get a view of the race, while the event is bookended by picnics and parties along the riverbanks throughout the day.
Such is the fervour of the supporters that there have been mutinies, sabotage and even the closure of Hammersmith Bridge in the 1870s when the weight of thousands of spectators caused structural damage. However, there are literally hundreds of excellent vantage points along the course, and those attending are also well served by dozens of pubs and bars along the length of the route – indeed the Boat Race, which is usually over in just 16-20 minutes, can often be supplementary to the festivities on offer. Neutrals can enjoy the entertainments while the diehard Oxbridge supporters will find plenty of ways to enliven proceedings, win or lose!
Test match cricket
To me, few things better epitomise the sporting summer than the annual Test match cricket events. Whether it’s the fervent Ashes series with Australia or a chance to view some of the subcontinent’s finest talents, few events hold as much appeal for supporters young and old. Despite the burgeoning appeal of shorter 20/20 cricket, Test matches remain the staple form of the game for most of us purists, and whatever the fortunes of our national side, grounds are always packed to capacity.
A day at the cricket can take many forms, from the popular social side to studying the game at its purest. With venues stretching from Hampshire’s Rose Bowl in the south to Durham in the north, every Test brings different areas to visit and attractions on offer. The Lord’s Test match in London is of course a flagship event, and every sports enthusiast should make the pilgrimage to take in the rich history and wonderful architecture at the ground. Edgbaston and Headingley offer more boisterous occasions, with national fervour at its peak, but any day at the cricket is a great excuse to (hopefully!) enjoy several hours in the sun and take in several hundred years of sporting tradition.
FA Cup Final
Growing up, few occasions were as exciting as the FA Cup final, the pinnacle of the English football season. From the long televised build up on the day to the ceremony and pomp of the event itself, the FA Cup final often showcased some of the domestic game’s best moments – who can forget Ricky Villa’s jinking run and goal in the 1981 final, the incredible underdog triumphs of Wimbledon and Coventry, or the horrendous injury to Gazza? While it has been slightly devalued in recent years as the leading teams put their focus on European competition, the season-ending showpiece retains much of its thrill, especially for supporters of the less glamorous clubs.
A day out at Wembley is a great occasion whatever the event, and to experience the FA Cup final in one of the world’s premier stadia remains a massive thrill. From the opening strains of “Abide With Me” to the presentation of the trophy, it’s a showpiece occasion that has excited fans throughout its 140 year history. Attending the final also provides an opportunity to spend a weekend in London, enjoying the thousands of sights and attractions available.
The Ryder Cup is one of the biggest events on the golfing calendar and comes to British or European shores every four years. Few events are as hotly contested both among players of the US and European teams and the partisan spectators. In recent years both players and fans have been accused of crossing the line from time to time but the national fervour and intense competition make this a real must-watch event.
If you’re fortunate enough to get tickets, few occasions can inspire you quite so much. The red and blue bedecked American fans are always boisterous and recognisable while in the past 30 years, the rise in European successes means that home fans have become just as vocal – and with good reason. To see giants of the game such as Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson up close is an experience that any sports lover can revel in.
F1 British Grand Prix
The British Grand Prix is one of the longest staged events in the Formula 1 calendar, and has been held every year since 1926. Although other circuits have hosted the event, it has now found a permanent home at Silverstone in Northamptonshire, which will host the British GP until at least 2027. Growing up, many of my fondest memories of motor racing came from watching the great drivers such as Prost, Lauda and Piquet compete for glory, while the British challenge was met head on by Nigel Mansell and Damon Hill.
The British Grand Prix is a pilgrimage for sports lovers, who enjoy the high speeds on view; Silverstone remains a very fast circuit, despite recent safety modifications. Although it is less glamorous than events in Monaco or the newer South East Asian venues, the British GP is a huge event in the country’s calendar and one that’s certainly worth a visit; if you can’t get tickets for race day, it’s still well worth attending on practice and qualifying days, as the crews ramp up preparations for the main event.
The oldest – and arguably most famous – of the four golfing major tournaments, the Open has been competed for since 1860, with the “Claret Jug” one of the most recognisable trophies in all of sports. Unlike a tournament such as the Masters, which is held annually at Augusta, the Open is played at one of a group of different links courses across England and Scotland; one of the big challenges, especially for non-Europeans, is the traditional links style course with vast open spaces, undulating landscapes and (often) ferocious weather to deal with.
Spectators flock to the Open in huge numbers, especially when it’s held at the majestic Scottish courses of St Andrews or Troon – the four-day event is a focal point for many golf fans to plan a holiday around, and with the delights of Scotland on offer, what better way to combine a terrific sporting contest with the chance to explore some of the world’s greatest scenery? With a diverse range of nationalities represented, the Open is less partisan than, say, the Ryder Cup, but there will still be strong support for the British golfers in particular.
Tour de France
It may appear an odd choice in the list of iconic UK sporting occasions, but the world’s greatest cycle race has started in Yorkshire for the past few years in a bid to diversify its appeal. Thousands have thronged to the picturesque Dales to see the world’s premier road cyclists, and the resurgence in popularity of cycling in Britain can partly be attributed to this. The Olympic feats of the likes of Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Bradley Wiggins have of course also greatly helped, and the presence of Tour winners Wiggins and Chris Froome means there’s huge British interest in the event; far more so in fact than in past years when success for the UK has been hard to come by.
With hundreds of miles of great scenery to explore, finding the best place to watch the Tour is an event in itself, and it’s a great way to get to know the beautiful Dales along the way.
20/20 Finals Day
Despite my preference for Test match cricket, few can dispute the rampaging popularity of cricket’s shortest format, the 20/20. A worldwide phenomenon, especially in India where TV revenues are in the billions, T20 cricket is a terrific way to spend a few hours – its primary focus on big hitting makes it a visceral event, complemented by music, fireworks and raucous crowds. Although it has caught on to a lesser degree in England, it’s still extremely popular.
The 20/20 finals day is the culmination of the domestic limited overs event, and features two semi-finals and then the final clash, with a mascot race thrown into the mix. With four sets of passionate supporters in attendance, plus a healthy sprinkling of neutrals, the atmosphere is exciting and vibrant throughout – the closest you can get to a carnival at the cricket! Whether you’re a diehard supporter or not, it’s a top day out and caters superbly for its predominantly youthful audience.
MotoGP British Grand Prix
For visceral thrills and spills, few events can rival MotoGP; unlike it’s F1 cousin, where simply having the best car almost certainly ensures success, the premier motorcycle championship often comes down to rider skill, ingenuity and luck on the day as much as the actual hardware. MotoGP is booming in Britain, thanks partly to increased TV coverage but also an upsurge in road biking. Silverstone is one of the fastest tracks on the world circuit, with high octane excitement guaranteed from start to end.
Many fans flock to see superstars such as the mercurial Italian Valentino Rossi, but there’s plenty of British interest. The UK boasts a long tradition of motorcycle champions from Barry Sheene to Mike Hailwood, and newer stars like Cal Crutchlow and Bradley Smith are in the mix. The race day also sees other events, with Moto2 and Moto3 races showcasing emerging talent and even greater thrills and unpredictability. The superb atmosphere and dramatic racing means a day at the MotoGP is a sure-fire winner every time.
Football Playoff Finals
If much of the media’s attention is aimed at the Premier League and European competitions, the annual football playoff finals shift focus to the Championship and lower divisions. The introduction of the end of season playoffs in 1987 meant that more teams retained interest in their respective divisions until much later in the season; the teams finishing in third to sixth places take part in a knockout competition to determine the final promotion place, with the finals held at Wembley over the second May bank holiday weekend.
The Championship playoff final is naturally the main attraction, with the winner guaranteed at least one season among the riches and exposure of the Premier League, but the finalists from Leagues One and Two also get their chance to play on British football’s biggest stage; it makes for tremendous fervour among the fans as well as players who may otherwise never get to step onto the hallowed Wembley turf. Having seen my own team feature in the playoff final, I can attest to the superb atmosphere and excitement of the occasion and the brilliant concept of this end of season spectacle – not to mention the opportunity to take in the attractions of the capital over the holiday weekend.
Super League Playoffs and Grand Final
Rugby league is another sport which has benefited from huge TV exposure, expanding from a predominantly Northern sport to a game beloved by fans the length and breadth of the country. While the traditional powerhouse teams such as Wigan, Leeds and Warrington continue to dominate the sport, one of the twelve spots annually is taken up by French side Catalan Dragons, and London Broncos competed in 19 of the 20 seasons up to 2015.
The Grand Final is the culmination of the season; the league has an intriguing format whereby it’s possible for the team finishing 8th in regular season to still be crowned champions, thanks to an elaborate series of playoff competitions which lead to the Grand Final, held at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium. The winners also get to compete in the World Club championship, which pits the best Super League side against an Australian club side to determine the world’s best. The fervour exhibited by rugby league fans certainly compares favourably to that shown by their football compatriots, and is generally much friendlier, despite the fierce local rivalries such as Wigan vs St Helens and Leeds vs Bradford.
June sees one of horse racing’s most famous events, the Royal Ascot flat race meeting, which was first established in 1711. It contains as much history and tradition as any occasion on the UK sporting calendar, and is attended by the Queen and other members of the Royal family each year. Visitors flock to see the pomp and circumstance such as the coach processions and attendance is often very much seen as a social affair above and beyond the high quality racing on offer.
Despite the glamour and strictly enforced dress-codes, one of the biggest draws is the two and a half mile Gold Cup, held on Ladies Day. The race attracts huge sponsorship and prize money, and dates to 1807. The race has seen some monumental feats, such as the Irish horse Yeats’ four successive wins from 2006-2009 and veteran jockey Lester Piggott’s remarkable 11 victories over a quarter of a century.
It may surprise readers to know that the most attended annual highland games events, celebrating Scottish and Gaelic culture, actually take place in the United States! However, for tradition and fervour, and number of participants, few can rival the Cowal Highland Gathering, held each August in Dunoon. This event sees some 3,500 competitors gather to take part in a diverse series of events, from caber tossing to an array of heavy weight throwing contests. The meet has expanded from a basic affair in 1894 to its present day festival type atmosphere, with pipe band competitions, dancing contests and much more.
The population of Dunoon is doubled by an influx of some 20,000 passionate spectators, who revel in Herculean displays of strength alongside the traditional Scottish entertainments on show. The Cowal gathering is the largest but by no means the only event of its type held each year – some 20 or more large events take place across Scotland throughout the year, including the Braemar gathering, usually attended by members of the British royal family, and the Ceres Games in Fife, which date back over seven centuries to the reign of Robert the Bruce!
British Rally Championships
There are more than 5,000 motorsport events held annually in the UK, testament to the huge popularity of racing in its many forms. Two of the most popular – and most fun to watch – are the annual English and Welsh Rally Championships; each offer a chance to get up close to the action and experience the adrenaline at first hand. They are multi-stage events, which run throughout the year with points tallied towards the overall championships. The English legs are held in locations as diverse as the Lake District, Yorkshire and Shropshire, while the Welsh rally provides challenging forest and hillside courses throughout the length of the country.
For many enthusiasts, rally is more accessible than F1, with a chance to view vehicles and drivers up close, and meet up with like-minded petrolheads! Unlike many championships, the various rally stages are spread throughout the year, affording a great variety in conditions for both drivers and spectators, as well as offering some of the UK’s most scenic locations to explore around the events.
World Darts Championships
Darts is a sport undergoing a huge resurgence. After its first heyday in the late 1970’s with the likes of Eric Bristow and Jocky Wilson plying their trade in dingy, smoke-filled venues, the sport has exploded in popularity thanks to an injection of money and glamour, courtesy of Sky Sports. New heroes such as Dutch maestro Michael van Gerwen stand alongside 16-time world champion Phil Taylor in an array of events.
However, none are more sought after than the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) World Championships, contested around the turn of each year at London’s Alexandra Palace; fans flock to the venue in high spirits, with fancy dress, strobe lights and raucous music very much a feature of the occasion. With huge prize money now on offer, darts has transformed from a pub game into a genuine world sport; few nights out provide as much guaranteed atmosphere and fun as the two week run of the World Championships. The summer World Matchplay in Blackpool and the multi-week Premier League offer similar high levels of entertainment and great value for money.
World Snooker Championship
Another sport which once boomed in popularity before declining at the end of the 20th Century is snooker. Again, a huge injection of money and an influx of Far Eastern talent has reinvigorated the game in modern times and led to a new generation of players at all levels. Among its playing ranks is arguably the game’s greatest ever star, Ronnie O’Sullivan, a ‘cueman’ so adept that he can play equally well with left or right hand!
The snooker offers a more sedate sporting occasion than many others on this list, but it retains an enduring fascination for the patience and high skill levels on offer. The Crucible venue in Sheffield has hosted the world championships for several decades and is one of UK sport’s most famous venues. Despite the almost oppressive silence, the atmosphere is intense and it’s a great experience, especially when something magical occurs on the table.
Six Nations Rugby
February and March sees the most hotly-contested annual rugby union championship, the Six Nations; the four home countries compete in a round robin tournament with France and Italy to determine the Northern hemisphere’s most powerful side. Each year sees a tremendous battle for national pride with the contests between England and Scotland and England and Wales among the most anticipated and hard-fought.
Twickenham, Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium and Cardiff’s Principality Stadium are all fantastic venues, with a charged atmosphere throughout match days. Rugby union fans are highly passionate and the home nations encounters are particularly fierce; few sporting events offer the chance to beat your chest quite so much!
Gloucester Cheese Rolling
Held annually on Spring Bank holiday at Cooper’s Hill, the cheese rolling festival is quintessentially British, with origins dating to ancient times. Once the preserve of residents of nearby Brockworth, the event is now so competitive that it attracts participants from around the world. The event itself has traditions that can be linked to the settlement of grazing rights, while others maintain links to pagan festivals of fertility and the harvest.
The event has become so fervent that plans to change its organisation in 2010 drew severe protests, and it became far less controlled. Crowds of up to 4,000 ardent locals and visitors flock to the scene to take in the somewhat madcap range of events as competitors hurl themselves down the relatively steep hill – safety is taken very seriously by the organisers but it’s almost inevitable that injury can occur on such a steep hillside. The apparent danger just adds to the enthralling nature of the event. Definitely a day out to experience if you’re after something a little different!
World Black Pudding Throwing Championships
One of the UK’s most unusual events is the annual World Black Pudding Throwing Championships, held in the quaint Lancashire village of Ramsbottom, nestled in the shadow of the Pennines. Its origins are rumoured to date to the Wars of the Roses, but the official competition was first held in the 1980s, rekindling the ancient rivalry between Lancashire and Yorkshire.
It’s an event close to my heart, as I live close by and have attended on numerous occasions – aside from the ludicrous spectacle of black pudding throwing (one aim is to dislodge piles of Yorkshire puddings, another to achieve a record distance), the event is extremely sociable and has built into a great annual tradition. The charming village, safe atmosphere and bustling nearby towns offer plenty of interest for both locals and visitors, and the event can be enjoyed by all the family.
Red Bull Air Race
One of the aviation world’s most thrilling events comes to Britain annually. The World Air Sports Federation’s air race world championships takes place in several stages at venues around the world, with the British leg usually held at Ascot racecourse. The event mixes high speed flying with acrobatics, as participants weave their way through a challenging series of aerial obstacles to achieve the fastest possible time. Interest in the event is growing rapidly, and in 2015 more than 50,000 spectators turned out to see the stars of the aerial motorsport world in action.
The event is especially good for families, with an array of attractions on offer, including chances to meet the pilots, various racing series and plenty of stalls and sideshows to keep everyone entertained. The mix of low altitude stunt flying, high adrenaline thrills and the incredible skill of the pilots mean that the events are immense fun and incredible to view up close.
The UK has a long and rich tradition of sports, dating to ancient times. The events listed above are just a tiny fraction of the wide range of competitions, year-long tournaments and one-off events that can be experienced. Whatever your particular sporting passion, you can find it in the UK, with many offering the opportunity to explore some of the nation’s finest locations along the way.