Imagine a cart - a trailer pulled by a tractor. Towed behind the trailer is a mobile generator which is capable of powering a small village1. The whole vehicle is around 100 feet long. Constructed upon the cart is an elaborate multi-level staging with moving scenery. Illuminating the scenery are up to 30,000 lightbulbs. Add one huge sound system blasting out music and a troupe of dancers in lavish-costumes, and you're beginning to get the picture. Now imagine 80 or so of these vehicles in a three hour night-time procession winding through the heart of an ancient West Country town, watched by upwards of 120,000 spectators. That's the Bridgwater Carnival.
And that's not the half of it. The parade is repeated over the following weeks in several other towns across the county. It's estimated that around one million people get to see it. Themes are varied and spectacular. Pirates vie with showgirls and cowboys with spacemen, as Las Vegas comes to Somerset in a cacophony of light and sound.
Probably the largest illuminated processions in the world, the Somerset Guy Fawkes Carnivals are not only one of the UK's most astonishing sights, but they are also one of its best-kept secrets. Little-known outside the region, the history of this event is deep-seated in local culture, and the story is one of Catholic persecution.
The 5/11 Attack
5 November, 2005 saw the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, an unsuccessful attempt by Catholic extremists led by Guy Fawkes to blow up the UK Parliament and murder King James, after he had outlawed Catholicism.
This foiled act of terrorism has been celebrated across the UK ever since, with firework parties and bonfires upon which effigies of Fawkes are unceremoniously burned. Torchlit processions take place, like the one in Lewes, Sussex, where even today the event controversially culminates in the burning of an effigy of the Pope2.
It was one of these torchlit processions which formed the beginnings of the carnival in Bridgwater. It's a staunchly Protestant town and many residents can trace their ancestry to those who fought in the Monmouth Rebellion in 1685. The town has enthusiastically celebrated the downfall of Fawkes since 1605. One feature peculiar to the Bridgwater event is the squibbing display, an ancient ceremony where, following the parade, 200 local residents, or 'squibbers', line the High Street holding aloft lighted fireworks on the end of wooden sticks, or 'coshes'.
Early records are sketchy, but it is widely accepted that the illuminated carnival in its modern sense has been running since 1881. Over the years, the oil lamps and horses have given way to some pretty advanced technology care of Osram and Massey Ferguson, among others. Nothing has stopped it running. When wartime blackouts were imposed, the procession took place unlit.
Don't Put Your Daughter on the Cart
So who in their right mind would dress up as a pineapple, and sing and dance to 'Agadoo' non-stop for two hours or more, whilst perching on a tiny, wobbly platform four metres in the air, barely inches away from huge rotating banks of lightbulbs? The members of Somerset's carnival clubs, that's who.
Carnival clubs vary in size and are based in individual towns; some are affiliated to pubs. They have long traditions and intriguing names, like the Masqueraders CC of Glastonbury, the Gremlins CC of Bridgwater and the Shambles CC of Shepton Mallet. It's an understatement to say that carnival clubs are part of the Somerset scene: in many towns they are the very focus of social activity. Membership of these clubs runs into hundreds and they perform extensive amounts of fundraising, including putting on a two-week sell-out concert - and apart from all that there's the not-insignificant task of building the cart.
A Year in the Preparation
Following a carnival, the preparations begin in earnest for the following year. The planning required by each club for this event is probably equivalent to that required in putting on a major drama production from scratch. One of the early tasks will be to dismantle the previous year's cart - a not inconsiderable task when up to 30,000 bulbs need to be unscrewed and stored. A theme will be agreed, and the appropriate staging, music and costumes will be designed and prepared. The fundraising carnival concert takes place in October at Bridgwater Town Hall - a two-week sell-out variety show featuring the talents of carnival club members. From this point, club members can expect to be working night and day to complete the preparations.
Themes are usually original and often topical, although some genres crop up regularly, examples being Aztec temples, African jungles, Red Indian encampments, horror movies, and current West End musicals. As originality is one of the criteria in judging, entries will need some unique features to impress the judges, as well as attention to detail in the staging, lighting, music, dancing, costumes and make-up.
Even though the cash prizes on offer are small compared to the cost of entering, the competition is fierce and much local pride is at stake. Prizes are awarded for each individual carnival and overall cups for the whole circuit. The entire list of judged classes reads like Academy Awards, with prizes for carts, individuals, artistic merit and technical achievements. The main categories include:
Feature carts, where the participants sing and dance
Tableaux carts, where the participants have to strike a pose and remain still
Comic feature carts
Cups are also awarded for the best decorated tractor and the best-dressed tractor driver.
The main prizewinners of the 400th anniversary event in 2005 were a Lion King tableaux by Gemini CC of Ilminster, a Phantom of the Opera feature by Masqueraders CC, and a comic feature on the theme of pole-dancing by Newmarket CC of Bridgwater, with Gemini CC taking the overall championship cup.
Where to Watch It
There are three local circuits, the largest of which is the Somerset County Guy Fawkes Association circuit, which starts in Bridgwater on a Friday in early November, and which continues with carnivals in North Petherton, Highbridge & Burnham-on-Sea, Shepton Mallet, Midsomer Norton, Wells, Glastonbury and finally, Weston-Super-Mare.
Smaller-scale events take place on the South Somerset Federation of Carnivals circuit, which covers the towns of Wellington, Ilminster, Chard, Taunton and Yeovil.
Smaller still are the events on the Wessex Grand Prix Circuit of Carnivals, which covers Sturminster Newton, Trowbridge, Mere, Frome, Shaftesbury, Gillingham, Castle Cary, Wincanton and Warminster. Events on these latter two circuits take place between August and October.
Further illuminated carnival circuits are now established in neighbouring Devon.
Carnival-watchers should be aware that events and dates are liable to change, and they should check carefully before travelling. The Somerset CGFA circuit schedule is fairly fixed, but changes take place from time to time. Traditionally, the Bridgwater Carnival was held on Thursday, but was recently switched to Friday so that more spectators could get to see it. This was strongly opposed by traditionalists, not least those carnival club members who used to enjoy the 'Black Friday' pub crawl on that day.
It goes without saying that you need to arrive very early. Some roads will be closed and car parking will be difficult to find.
You will get a better view of the carts if you are standing back a little. Carnivals with straight routes like North Petherton and Weston-Super-Mare offer the best views, but those which wind around the town centres like Glastonbury and Bridgwater have a unique atmosphere. Covered seating can be booked at Bridgwater.
Spectators will start to line the route a couple of hours before the parade starts. You may be on your feet for five hours, so take folding chairs if you need them, and wrap up warm.
If you are close to the carts you will find it very loud, so consider ear protection, particularly for young children.
Finally, take plenty of loose change for the collections. Large amounts are raised for local charities as well as supporting the carnival clubs.