Fireworks and Fancy Dress
PUBLISHED: 17:04 19 October 2007 | UPDATED: 14:53 20 February 2013
Carts, not floats, process at Bridgwater Carnival, thought to be the biggest display of lamps (not lights) in the world. "Bridgwater Carnival has its own language which can be traced back to the beginning," says Roger Evans, a senior judge at Brid...
Carts, not floats, process at Bridgwater Carnival, thought to be the biggest display of lamps (not lights) in the world. "Bridgwater Carnival has its own language which can be traced back to the beginning," says Roger Evans, a senior judge at Bridgwater Carnival and author of several books on the subject. "Bridgwater is the home of carnival. Other towns have strong carnivals but Bridgwater sets the pace. Every year the floats get bigger because the carnivalites become more creative. It's not about money."
Carnival is a consuming passion for hundreds of people living in Bridgwater. Roger, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday, has been involved in carnival since he was four years old, establishing his own club at the age of 18 and later becoming Carnival Chair. But the carnival's beginning was in 1606, a year after the Gunpowder Plot, when villagers across Britain burned effigies of Guy Fawkes on bonfires. The celebrations became a tradition across the country, taking different guises in each area. In Bridgwater, the Guy Fawkes effigies were mounted on the back of farm carts, lit by paraffin lamps and paraded through the town, before being thrown onto a gigantic bonfire - hence the terminology still used today. "The fire could be seen in south Wales - the flames burst into the air higher than St Mary's Church spire," says Roger.
Gradually, Bridgwater Carnival became less about effigies and more about the carts. The people leading the carts would dress up and dance around them and eventually they stopped making Guy Fawkes effigies and jumped on board the carts themselves, becoming part of tableaux or moving displays. The last big bonfire was in 1924 but the procession of carnival carts has grown into a gigantic spectacle - it is now more than three miles long and takes around two-and-a-half hours to pass any one place.
Of course this makes it extremely difficult for judges like Roger to decide on the winner. "The procession is divided into four zones, with one judge in each zone," he says. "I have to move up and down within my area and judge both sides of each cart." Costumes, sound and lighting, presentation and general effect and the building of the carts are all factors to be considered. "You have to remember how good the first ones are, and the ones in between. It's not an easy task; a judge can be very unpopular if his or her opinion doesn't fall into line with the other judges."
But last year the decision-making process was very easy. The Ghost Ship, presented by the Gremlins Carnival Club was the clear winner - and proceeded to sweep the board at all the other carnivals on the Somerset Carnival Circuit. "It was truly awesome," says Roger. "It was 10 years ahead of its time. The whole thing rocked from side to side as if at sea. There is no doubt that this year other clubs will try to imitate it. When a club raises the bar, everyone takes a leap forward."
Clubs in Bridgwater will have spent the last 12 months planning and putting together their carnival carts. "It's the biggest community event in the town," says Roger. "It is a full-time activity which brings with it a sense of belonging. The discipline in each club is immense. Older club members take the younger generation under their wing rather like parents - but if you bring your club into disrepute you're out. There is a real sense of discipline and purpose."
Bridgwater College offers qualifications in carnival skills such as carpentry, electrics, street performance and costume-making. Students gain their certificates not by attending classes but by demonstrating their skills in their club environment. "Around 2,000 people study carnival-related courses and their skills are all learned in their clubs," says Roger.
Stage shows in October at Bridgwater Town Hall showcase the talents of carnival club members as well as raising vital funds to make the carts. Each club has eight-and-a-half minutes on stage, performing a routine in line with the theme of their carnival cart. The shows last for two weeks and the tickets are like gold dust. "People have come from the West End and cannot believe what a high standard of performing they are seeing in a multi-purpose town hall," says Roger.
While carnival marks the downfall of the infamous villain Guy Fawkes, Bridgwater also goes to great lengths to celebrate its most famous hero, Admiral Robert Blake. The Blake Museum in the centre of town, housed in the 17th-century home of the Blake family, showcases his life as well as past and present Bridgwater. Adjacent are the Blake Gardens, one of only a few surviving examples of a simple municipal garden from the late Victorian/Edwardian period. The gardens were opened in August 1902 as part of the town's coronation celebrations and are known as Blake Gardens because some of the land was once attached to the house in Blake Street, in which the Admiral was born.
Since this year is the 350th anniversary of Blake's death at sea, a schedule of services, concerts and banquets has been arranged in his memory, details of which can be obtained from the Blake Museum (tel 01278 456127). A large sum has also been invested in the restoration of his statue on Cornmarket by a specialist bronze-repairing company.
On the eve of Bridgwater Carnival, visitors can celebrate the life of Blake at a spectacular fireworks display. The display, which is free, will start at 7pm in St Matthew's Field and fittingly will have a maritime theme.
Many towns would not go to such lengths to remember a forgotten admiral, but Blake is held in high regard in Bridgwater. In fact it is rather like the devotion of the town's army of carnivalites. "If you take first prize at Bridgwater Carnival it is not even enough to pay your diesel home," says Roger. "You do it purely for the glory."
Bridgwater Carnival www.bridgwatercarnival.org.uk
Somerset Carnival Circuit: www.somersetcarnivals.co.uk
Blake Museum www.blake350.co.uk