Friday, 16 November 2012

Gunpowder, treason and - 1,100,000 light bulbs? By Sue Purkiss

You've probably all heard of the Carnival of Venice. But down in Somerset, we have a carnival of our own, and this is its season. It starts in Bridgwater, close to the 5th November, and then it travels in succession to Weston Super Mare, North Petherton, Burnham on Sea, Shepton Mallet, Wells and Glastonbury. For the evening of carnival, the town centre is closed, and no matter what the weather, the route is lined with crowds of people, watching as upwards of fifty brilliantly lit carts (called 'floats' in other places) roll through the streets, drawn by tractors. Each cart has a theme, which is illustrated by performers - some have a tableau, but most have dancers, all gorgeously costumed and made-up (Strictly, eat your heart out!). The music's loud and the lights are dazzling - a cart may have 22,000 light bulbs.

Perhaps it all sounds a touch excessive - but this is a tradition which began over 500 years ago, deeply rooted and much treasured. It began when James 1 ordered his subjects to celebrate the discovery and punishment of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators by lighting bonfires all over the land. The towns of the south west, staunchly protestant, set to with alacrity. In Bridgwater, they built a huge bonfire right in the centre of town. To start off with it was built out of an old wooden ship (Bridgwater is a port), with 100 tar barrels to get the flames leaping. (Eventually they ran out of ships and had to collect wood, like everyone else.) There were special fireworks called squibs, attached to long sticks, and a hundred 'squibbers' stood in line in the High Street and let their squibs off as a triumphant finale.

The townspeople streamed through the town to the bonfire, many of them dressed in masks and costumes. Effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope, and anyone who'd managed to get on the wrong side of the Bridgie populace were slung onto the fire, and there was merry-making till the early hours. Eventually, in 1880, the merriment tipped over into a riot. The town dignitaries cogitated. There was no question of banning the carnival: instead, they formed a committee (what else?), which decided that henceforth there had better be a procession, which would wind through the town so that everyone would be able to see it, and the high jinks would not be concentrated in one small area.

And so began the formation of the carnival clubs, rejoicing in names such as the Masqueraders and the Gremlins. Each cart costs thousands of pounds, much of which is raised from sponsorship. The clubs spend the whole year raising money and building the cart; to do this they need costume makers, make-up artists, electricians, mechanics, tractor drivers, artists, painters, carpenters, sound engineers and more besides. Friendships are formed, marriages are made (and possibly broken); whole lives are lived within the ambit of the club. Thousands and thousands of pounds are raised for charity. After the carnival, the floats are dismantled and it all begins again - as you travel through Somerset, you may see the remnants: a giraffe grazes in a field near Glastonbury, a camel and a dinosaur gaze at each other from opposite sides of the M5.

In 1685, the Bridgie people were still staunchly protestant, as were many others in the south west. But now, unfortunately, the king, James 11, was not. The people of Bridgwater, along with many others from the south west, took part in the Monmouth Rebellion - also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion - and they paid a severe price for it at the Battle of Sedgemoor and in its aftermath. Presumably during the three short years of James' reign, the great bonfire was not lit on the Cornhill: and presumably when James was deposed and William and Mary came to the throne, the merrymaking was even more heartfelt and more riotous than before.

But perhaps Bridgwater's finest hour came in 1938, after Britain and France had shamefully let down Czechoslovakia by signing an agreement at Munich which allowed Hitler to invade unopposed and take the Sudetenland. Shortly afterwards, there was a by-election in the town, and it was won by an independent candidate, a journalist named Vernon Bartlett (left) who fought the election on a single platform: opposing the Munich Agreement, standing up to Fascism and defending Czechoslovakia. His victory sent a clear message to the coalition government; once again, Bridgwater had stood up for what it believed in. During the war, the carnival did not take place, but one William Henry Edwin Lockyer walked the route each year. The tradition was kept alive, and it continues.


13 comments:

Joan Lennon said...

Good heavens! I had no idea - well done, Somerset, for staying different!

Pauline Chandler said...

Fascinating post, Sue! Well done, Vernon Barlett, and, in his own way, William Lockyer. Good men.

Mark Burgess said...

Thank you, Sue. I'd no idea that the carnival's origins were in the Gunpowder Plot. And good for Bridgwater!

Sue Purkiss said...

Absolutely - you don't mess with Bridgwater!

adele said...

Really interesting! I will tweet it after lunch!

Katherine Langrish said...

Astounding! Great post, Sue!

Ann Turnbull said...


I think I've seen that dinosaur by the M5 - and possibly some of the other creatures. Had no idea they'd come from such a grand carnival!

Lynne Benton said...

Fascinating piece, Sue. I've seen the carnival several times and you're right, it's always a fantastic event (even the year one float got stuck going round a tight corner in Wells, and the performers went on "Singing in the Rain" for at least twenty minutes while it was being unstuck!)
Now, thanks to your piece, I know how it all started.

Jane Stemp said...

We used to have the Carnival in Wincanton, Sue - not easy considering the tight kink in the road at the top of South Street - but the organisers moved away and nobody else will do it. So we have to go to Castle Cary if we want to warm our hands at a million light-bulbs... Hooray for Vernon Bartlett, by the way!

Paeony Lewis said...

What an amazing carnival procession, Sue. Plus being at night makes it even more impressive. I enjoyed finding out the history and am now going to find out more about Norwich's far less impressive annual Lord Mayor's Procession which includes the city's medieval dragon, Snap.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Any excuse for a party, eh? ;-) and probably safer than the bonfires and fireworks. Rio, eat your heart out! :-)

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks so much for your comments, everyone!

Leslie Wilson said...

Great blog!