Last night I watched a reindeer drive a tractor. I’m not sure how many others spotted him as the main attraction was the trailer he was pulling.It was a very large trailer with a few thousand light bulbs on it lighting the dozen or so giant Christmas elves singing and dancing to a festive vintage pop song.
To any one from the West Country, or in particular, Somerset, this will sound all too familiar and a signal that the Carnival season is here.
Last night was Castle Cary’s turn on the celebration circuit. Starting at around 7pm, ( earlier than usual) the floats and other participants need to be lit up to be seen by the crowds at this annual right of passage into Autumn.
Although I am a Dorset born & bred lass, the Somerset Carnivals have always been a significant annual marker. As children our parents would always take my brother and I to at least one each year. The biggest one is Bridgewater and I have many memories of walking what seemed like miles from the car parked either in a distant housing estate, or in the case of Shepton Mallet or Glastonbury, a narrow lane or edge of a field. My brother and I would be marched at high speed to a good viewing spot where we’d stand in often wet and always cold weather waiting for the first bright lights and loud music to begin. Those minutes, and sometimes hours, were spent wishfully looking at the ballon sellers, the elderly couple pulling trucks of toffee apples and the very enticing sellers of all things glowing.
To my parents this was not the place to spoil us with all things sweet and plastic though, it was the place to watch large majestic ‘tableau’ floats depicting an often tragic scene of battle or trauma ( Les Miserables was a frequent subject) interspersed with dancing gnomes and elves and plenty of men dressed as maids, school girls and large furry animals. Sci Fi was also, and still is, a popular subject, amazing costumes in silver and heavy alien inspired make up. All of this is watched with a heart thumpingly loud background of music. Madness and Madonnas ‘holiday’ or War of the Worlds, Elvis and even a bit of Doris Day regular background to this colourful spectacular.
My father worked in a mental hospital when we were young and so it’s residents were also a part of our childhood. Dad would love to bring one of its residents with us to see a carnival. They always loved it and it taught my brother and I an awful lot to be stood with an adult who was squealing and literally jumping with joy at each passing float.
As a teenager the carnivals weren’t part of my calendar. As we didn’t live in a carnival town I didn’t get to join in or ‘parade’ with my mates at the end as my sons now do.
Part of the joy for me has been introducing others to these events. It is always a surprise to visitors. Even the smaller one like Castle Cary shocks the uninitiated. It really can’t be described, having to be seen to be believed. I have hundreds of photographs and even snippets of video footage of all the carnivals I’ve visited, rarely watched or looked at again but it is such a magnificent spectacle that its difficult not to take photos, to try and capture a bit of the magic.
Last nights was special to me as I’ve not been able to attend the carnival for a few years. I’ve been at home, still able to hear the music, whilst the boys come and go with their friends.Then I’d catch up on Facebook with all the gossip, who was stood where, watching it with whom.
This was the first carnival that I really was just genuinely happy. October is a melancholic time of year at the best of times and over the years I have had many a bittersweet carnival season, where boyfriends and husbands would be away or worse still in someone else’s arms. Each carnival would be a reminder of past hurts and losses, a popular song dragging back painful memories, and a glance around the crowds would see happy lovers, friends and young families enjoying their offspring’s first carnival. I have happy memories of taking my own sons to carnivals and taking photographs of their faces all lit up by the passing floats, then the tears as it ended and we would find our way home against the crowds.
This year it was just Mr C and I. The boys were all with their friends, this was their night in their hometown. An evening of freedom and excitement, hopefully not trouble!
We watched it from outside the Market place’s ‘George Hotel’. Always my favourite spot. Guaranteed to bump into people you know and the place that the opening band would perform, sometimes longer than planned, when a larger float would get stuck turning into the High Street.
Castle Cary’s carnival has sadly shrunk over the years. Good old ‘Health and Safety’, and funding. There are still local dedicated ‘Carnival clubs’ who spend all year planning, making and fund raising for their top secret float. Roads need to be closed and this year barricades were in place, collections and rubbish collectors all needed for just a couple of hours of entertainment. This is why there’s a ‘circuit’. The carnival clubs enter their floats in several of the almost twenty venues. Each time they are judged, not just by the crowds, but by a specialised team of adjudicators. Each category of float measured for quality in design, costumes, music and in the case of the Tableaus, absolute stillness. It is a custom for the crowd to either applaud the tableaus or more recently, try and make the figures laugh!
If you’d like to see for yourself just what a splendid event a Carnival is have a look at their website; http://www.somersetcarnivals.co.uk/events.asp