“Seeing is believing” is the slogan of the Bridgwater Carnival and having experienced it for the first time this year I would urge you to see and experience this unique and quintessentially English Festival for yourself!
Thousands of people lined the streets to watch the 128 entries paraded at the annual Bridgwater Carnival. Carnival clubs work year round to raise funds to build their carts, which can cost in the region of £20,000 each. Organisers said the event, one of the largest illuminated carnivals in Europe, is a “big boost” for the Somerset economy. The carnival raised £22,000 for local charities.
About 150,000 people turned out to watch the Bridgwater Carnival in Somerset. Some clubs spend a year creating the illuminated carts which can cost £20,000 each. There were 125 entries with top awards going to Pentathlon Carnival Club, and Gremlins with its float, Lights, Camera, Action. Traditionally, Bridgwater Carnival is the first event of the Guy Fawkes carnival circuit.
— Heart West News (@HeartWestNews) November 7, 2015
— Bridgwater Carnival (@BCarnival) November 12, 2015
The timing of the West Country Carnival close to the British celebration of Bonfire night on 5 November is no coincidence, as the roots of the original carnival in Bridgwater date back to 1605. Guy Fawkes is the character most associated with the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament, however the instigator was Jesuit priest Robert Parsons from Nether Stowey, a short distance from Bridgwater. Parsons and his colleagues Edmund Campion and Ralph Emerson were Catholics, who wanted to put an end to the Protestant monarchy and parliament of the day, in order to put an end to Catholic persecution. In 1580, they were discovered attempting to garner favour with northern-English based nobility in the English Mission, and were then associated with the failed Spanish Armada of 1588, both plots to replace Protestant Elizabeth I of England with Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.
After the deaths of Campion and Emerson, Parsons continued to plot to restore Catholic power in England, and hence his last ill-fated attempt against parliament and King James VI on 5 November 1605. After the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, Parsons was key in corresponding with Thomas Morton over the authority of use of St Paul in the creation and implementation of the Jacobean Oath of Allegiance.
Bonfire night is a major annual celebration across the whole of England, but it is likely that the reason that the West Country Carnival was originally so keenly celebrated is that the South West towns were predominantly Protestant – hence the celebration of Robert Parsons’ (and Guy Fawkes’) failure. The religious origins of the event are almost forgotten and far less significant today.
— Paul Jones (@GazetteNewsEd) November 10, 2015
Uniquely in the West Country, the vehicles are called carts, unlike other carnivals where the term carnival float is used. The term cart is still used today to describe the large and elaborate trailers used in the procession. Carts are built by local clubs of individuals funded totally by charitable donations and sponsorship from local businesses. Carts are always themed, with no restriction on the theme from the organising committee.
Regularly chosen themes include:
Popular children’s books — like Alice in Wonderland
Favourite children’s characters — such as Disney characters
Scenes or themes from history — like Pre-Historic, Victorian or famous Battles
Scenes or themes from around the world — such as Australia, Rio de Janeiro or Spanish
Travel and transport — such as cars or trains, e.g., The Chattanooga Choo-Choo
Popular themes of the day — including pop songs or dances
The future or exploration — such as space
Carts include both music and costumed people to complete their theme. People and items on the cart can either be moving or static in tableau. Today these carts are driven by farm tractors, and usually also tow a large diesel-driven electricity generator to provide the huge amount of power required to power the carts. Some generators used can provide over one megawatt of power, with 10,000 to 30,000 lamps not uncommon on a modern-day cart. The tractors themselves are often decorated to match the rest of the cart and generator, and in some cases modified so that the driver is positioned low down between the two front wheels. This allows for a higher degree of decoration without obscuring the driver’s view. The length of the entire cart is often built to the maximum allowable of 100 feet (30 m). The effect is overpowering but in a good way – as they pass by you are almost grilled by the heat off the light bulbs and some displays are enveloped in smoke from the generators. It was a pity then that the effect was lost on some floats which went by the spectators “dark” due to technical problems developing on the 2.5 mile carnival route.
The members of the Carnival associations manning and acting on the float are not known as re-enactors but as Masqueraders reflecting the unique nature of this specifically Somerset tradition of carnival. These floats are interspersed with walking exhibits, either groups or singles, occasional marching bands or majorette troupes, and charity collectors who take donations from the spectators.
— Kira Lewis MYP (@KLewisMYP) November 8, 2015
The old tradition of squibbing takes place annually after the towns carnival. This year there were 180 squibbers who were holding, what can be described as, giant sparklers over their heads with torrents of sparks raining down on them and the crowd. The sound, sight and smell was immense.
A squib locally is a firework which is held aloft by a person known as a “squibber” on the end of a long wooden handle called a “cosh”. One hundred squibbers stand in line in Bridgwater town centre making an unusual but impressive sight for visitors who crowd the High Street. Originally the squibs were made especially for the carnival and were known as the Bridgwater Squib, and culminated with a large bang as each squib extinguished. With modern Health and Safety concerns it has become difficult to purchase such squibs, and owing to the rising cost of insurance the present-day squibs have no bang.
Only 2 hours to the 2015 Bridgwater Carnival begins … There were people sat on chairs waiting at 3pm #thecarnivaliscomingtotown
— Bridgwater Carnival (@BCarnival) November 7, 2015
Lines of flammable liquid are also run along the ground by the squibbers and lit to add to the spectacle. Visitors often think the whole sight looks a little dangerous, but the event is well organised and nobody has been hurt to date.
I wasn’t greatly looking forward to a “Guy Fawkes” Carnival for the whole “celebration” feeds into a somewhat sectarian rewriting of history which normalises the cultural vandalism, greed and destruction of England’s patronomy which stemmed from the destruction of the monasteries and the long period of vicious suppression of Catholicism, which ensued and which provoked Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators to desperate measures. You just have to look at the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, the oldest Christian foundation of England, nearby to get a sense of what was lost and how difficult this period must have been for those who were loyal to England’s traditional faith.
While the Bridgwater Carnival has its origins in the wheeling of the effigies to the Bonfire to be burnt it has moved well beyond these origins and is now a somewhat superb outburst of light, creativity and good humour in the face of approaching Winter darkness. Bridgwater kicks off the Somerset Carnival Season and many of the floats will be displayed in the following weeks in Wells, Shepton Mallet, Glastonbury, Weston-super-Mere, Highbridge and Burnham on Sea. Somerset with its coastline on the Bristol Channel, its rich history and the Mendip and Quantock Hills is regarded as an idyllic part of England. However it struggles with declining traditional industries and husbandry, and the seaside town with the decline of seaside holidays and the costal commerce they used to enjoy. The geography also poses difficulties with the “Somerset Levels” traditionally flooded in winter, hence the Saxon name Somerset “land of the summer.”
The Somerset carnival season provides a huge fillip to the local economy as well as an outlet for a unique and somewhat wonderful display of local creativity. The next Bridgwater is on Saturday, November 5, 2016. Make plans to get there, as they say locally, “Seeing is believing.”
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