Arrr! Summer Events Revel in Britain’s Pirate Past

Christy Karras
Visit Britain

Hundreds of black-clad rogues are about to take over the town of Brixham on England’s southern coast. The townspeople are prepared — to join the invasion, that is, as the Brixham Pirate Festival sails into town with Jolly Rogers flying May 4-5.

The Brixham Buccaneers will attempt to break a “pirate conga line” record on Sunday, but that’s just the tip of the plank. Festivities include reenactments, songs, swordfights, and even dancing. It’s all family-friendly fun — as long as the kids don’t mind the sound of cannon and gunfire.

A more musical version of pirate life will storm Britain this summer: Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance” musical will be touring the UK starting in Glasgow, Scotland, on May 15.

Pirate celebrations continue into the summer. As at Brixham, Hastings Pirate Day annually attempts to set records with pirate-clad revelers. Hastings, on the southeastern coast, set the Guinness World Record for most pirates in one place in 2012 (14,231) and will try to best its record in 2013.

Just in time for the occasion, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are giving Hastings a pirate-ship replica built for the Bucs’ 2011 NFL game against the Chicago Bears at Wembley Stadium in London. Near Hastings, the Smugglers Adventure in St. Clements Caves lets you into the life of a rogue year-round.

On the other side of England’s southern coast, Joss Bay in Kent is named for a prolific smuggler, Joss Snelling, who eventually taught his trade to his son and grandson.

Nowhere is Britain’s pirate past celebrated more than on the southwest coast of England. The real Penzance, where the professional rugby team is called the Cornish Pirates, lies on the edge of the Cornwall peninsula. Brixham is on the coast in Devon, just to the east.

Local lore is steeped in tales of smugglers and pirates. As global trade increased in the 1600s, pirates robbed ships and smuggled cargo between Britain and ports around the world. Some of history's most famous pirates were British: Scotland-born Captain Kidd, Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard), “Calico Jack” Rackham, Henry Morgan (whose name is now a rum brand) and Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts.

By the late 1700s, up to a quarter of trade in Britain was illegal, with much of it coming through southwestern England. Within Cornwall, 'legal' tea, spirits or fineries were almost unknown,” Paul White wrote in his book “The Cornish Smuggling Industry.”

In reality, with shipping and military interests stretching around the globe, Britain was generally more concerned with stopping pirates. The country’s many world-class maritime museums are full of displays about historic ships that would have battled them.

The collection at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, for example, includes pirate medals, flags and art depicting battles at sea. The Museum of London Docklands has a number of family-friendly pirate-oriented programs, such as “How to Be a Pirate,” “Billy Jenkins: a Pirate’s Life for Me” and “Queen Elizabeth I and the Pirate Queen of Ireland.”

The UK-made movie “Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!” (called “Pirates! Band of Misfits” in the US) was nominated for a 2013 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. The ship built for the movie is on display for a few more days in Liverpool. After it leaves, the city’s Merseyside Maritime Museum will still have plenty for seafarers to explore.

At the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, on England’s south coast, a genuine Jolly Roger flag from about 1790 is on display, but it’s as much to commemorate to Royal Navy’s fight against pirates as to glorify the scoundrels.

“Pirates always attract much interest, no doubt in part due to the many Hollywood films about them,” said Richard Noyce, the museum’s curator of artifacts. “However, in reality they weren’t the loveable rogues they are often portrayed as. Then, as now, pirates were seen as a threat to trade and great efforts were made to suppress their criminal activities.”

Photos: Pirates of all ages meet at Brixham this weekend for the town's waterfront Pirate Festival. (Photo courtesy Brixham Pirate Festival)

On Pirate Day in Hastings, England, revelers will try to break their own record for number of pirates in one place. (Photo courtesy of Hastings Borough Council & 1066 Country Marketing)

Pirate ships sail into Brixham Harbor for the pirate festival. (Photo courtesy of Brixham Pirate Festival)

A local actor playing smuggler Joss Snelling enjoys a tankard of ale in Broadstairs, Kent, near the spot now named Joss Cove. (Photo by Rod Edwards/Visit Britain via Thanet District Council)