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Keeping Carnivals Afloat

PUBLISHED: 13:29 17 September 2007 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013

Somerset Illuminated Carnivals

Somerset Illuminated Carnivals

Carnival is one the most special and unique features of Somerset's autumn season. Every year, more than 150,000 people visit the Bridgwater Carnival, believed to be the largest illuminated carnival in the world. Carnival clubs and groups tr...

They have been called one of the country's best-kept secrets, yet they involve hundreds of Somerset folk and contribute an estimated £38 million to our county's economy. They receive no public funding, yet every year in total they raise 150,000 for local causes. They are part of the social glue of their communities, yet each year they face legal, logistical and other challenges that jeopardise their very existence.

The Wessex Grand Prix Circuit celebrates its 21st anniversary this year. Smaller in scale than Bridgwater, it is no less competitive and entertaining, and an integral part of Somerset life and that of our neighbouring counties. The Wessex Grand Prix Circuit comprises nine towns - in Dorset, Wiltshire and, in our own county, the towns of Frome, Wincanton and Castle Cary.

The Wessex Grand Prix carnival season runs from mid-August to the end of October, which means that the competing clubs must have their entries ready by the end of July. That's no small feat, when you consider that a large float - true carnivalites call them 'carts' - can comprise two flatbed trailers carrying maybe two decks of performers, perhaps with turntables and other moving elements, a 20,000 sound system and up to 32,000 light bulbs.

Creating a float of this size involves heavy engineering, electronics, carpentry, stage and costume design and - for the moving entries - dance routines. All this must be hauled by a suitable tractor and supported by a generator.

Both the Castle Cary and Wincanton carnivals celebrate their 30th anniversaries this year. Today, these carnivals typically comprise around 80 entrants, including 10-15 floats, some of which are 100ft in length. The majority of participants are walking groups, masqueraders or very small floats. And it is this mix of the spectacular and the intimate that makes these carnivals so special. Add to this around 50 marshalls, 50 charity collectors and six or seven collection vehicles, bands and majorettes - many of whom are local to their town - and you can begin to appreciate how these really are community events.

The Cost of Carnival

Putting on a carnival costs each carnival society between 5,000 and 8,000 - insurance premiums, prize monies, hire of halls and premises, and equipment such as marshals' jackets, barriers, road signage and more all add to the cost. Neither the clubs nor the carnival societies receive any public funding, and rely on fundraising and the generosity of local businesses to finance their events.

"Carnival is a huge source of creativity, needing people of diverse talents to work together as a team"

Then there's the bureaucracy: health and safety and emergency services, contingency plans, road-closure orders and, for large carnival floats, the VSO. Somerset is the only county in the UK that requires vehicles of an abnormal size to complete a Vehicle Special Order before taking to the road; part of this process requires the float to be measured, weighed and an MOT issued.

Such red tape and restrictions increase the overheads for carnival clubs and organisers, and have contributed to the demise of some carnivals, Yeovil being one.

David Heath, MP for Somerton and Frome, is well aware of these difficulties. "Carnivals are facing a challenge, with more and more petty rules and regulations, and it is becoming more difficult to find hideaways to build the floats as agricultural holdings contract. Sometimes, sad to say, the authorities are not quite as sympathetic as they perhaps could be. That is a great shame."

So, is it really worth all the hassle? No doubt about that in the minds of the Wessex circuit members. Gordon Stockman is President of Castle Cary & Ansford Carnival Society and has been involved with the carnival there since 1977. "I see carnival as a uniting force within the community, bringing the opportunity for people to work together across age, gender, race and intellectual barriers. Carnival is a huge source of creativity, needing people of diverse talents to work together as a team."

Keith Berry, judging organiser for the Wessex circuit and Chair of Frome Carnival Charities, says, "It's a community event, attended by mums and dads and children, and people of all ages; thousands of them come out to watch the procession."

In Wincanton, John Sansom almost single-handedly reinstated the carnival back in 1977, setting up a charity shop in the town to raise funds. For a time, Stan Light, the current President of the Wessex Grand Prix, held the reins. Nowadays, John again runs the event with a handful of helpers. "For me, carnival brings people together; there's a family atmosphere and it brings money into the town - especially for the pubs."

All three agree, however, that the principal benefit of their carnival is the money it raises for local causes. The Somerset carnivals of the Wessex circuit each raise around 3,000 for charity every year.

The traditional illuminated Somerset carnivals contribute significantly to the economy and cohesion of their communities. They bring light, warmth and entertainment to our autumn months. Now, as never before, they need our support to continue to thrive.

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