Outings: Floating around in the South-west

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All singing, all dancing - Somerset dresses up this month, with thousands of pounds, man-hours and light-bulbs being used up in the name of charity. It's carnival season again, as

David Foster discovers.

A ripple of applause rattles the cold November night as two magnificent police horses turn slowly into Sadler Street. Every move is measured, deliberate, almost stately.

Blue lights scour the ancient buildings as the city's fire engine, followed by the ambulance, swings around the corner. The crowd draws breath, and presses back on to the narrow pavements; small children wriggle to the front. The music grows inexorably louder, and a cheer breaks out as the first float lurches into view. Carnival is underway in Wells.

Putting the emergency services at the front of the parade isn't just showmanship. There's no other way they could respond to a call this evening; for the next few hours, around 100 immense floats will be grinding through the city at walking pace.

At the centre of each float is the "cart" - a poor name for a vehicle that will have cost tens of thousands of pounds, and taken many months to construct.

Drenched in light and deafened by their own music, performers in lavish costumes whirl through the air, singing and dancing, or stand like waxworks in the still-life tableaux. Most carts are pulled by a decorated tractor, and all have generators, completing a train of vehicles up to 100ft in length.

By any standards, this would be a remarkable show. Yet Wells is just one of seven venues on Bridgwater's Guy Fawkes carnival circuit, which includes Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet and Weston-super-mare. In the first two weeks of November these floats will cover some 360 miles, at a top speed of around 15 mph; the traffic jams are legendary, though nowadays most of the journeys are made overnight.

Every float is the product of a dedicated Carnival Club. Ideas start flying around early in January, and by mid-February, says Mini Sheppard of Mendip Vale CC, "people come forward with drawings, costume fabric samples, taped music and even models" to illustrate their suggestions. By Easter, the talking will be over, and Mini, a welder by trade, will join the carpenters, electricians and engineers who devote every spare hour of the next seven months to constructing the Mendip Vale float.

A typical float may have seven or eight thousand lightbulbs, as well as 30 or 40 powerful floodlights. Last year's Shooting Stars, from the Wells-based Gorgons CC, also boasted a 6-kilowatt sound system. Many of the big generators that power the electrics are hired from a specialist firm in Staffordshire, and two of their own fitters come down every year to tend the equipment.

Even so, things do occasionally go wrong. "Two or three of the crew were in tears one year when the lights went out", confided Mini. But that was not the worst that can happen.

Gorgons' Chairman Paul Phipps recalls climbing the steep hill out of Shepton Mallet about six years ago, and ripping the front axle from under Dr Who. "Luckily, when the cart came down, one of the main struts dug into the road and the whole thing stopped dead. The police were quite impressed, so we didn't tell them there weren't any brakes."

Pulling the whole event together is the Wells Carnival committee. Forty years ago, Nancy Dodd met her husband Cecil through the carnival, and she took over from him as secretary after his death in 1984.

In some ways, she says, Wells's new relief road has made the team's job easier, but a particular headache this year is the traffic calming that followed in its wake. "There's one set of traffic lights they're going to have to move", she says - and Tarmac ramps will be needed over many of the new kerbstones.

Nobody seems to mind. After all, it's all in aid of local charities, and after the dust has settled, the Mayor usually hosts a presentation evening in the Town Hall. "It gives the people an opportunity to talk to each other, and they're always quite surprised at the number of charitable organisations that there are", says Nancy Dodd.

As the clamour of the last float dies away, the crowd folds into the roadway behind it. Small boys search the gutters for stray coins, and happy faces head towards Market Place, to spend their new-found treasure at the fair.

Bridgwater Carnival dates: Bridgwater, 6 November; North Petherton, 8 November; Burnham-on- Sea/Highbridge, 10 November; Shepton Mallet, 12 November; Wells, 14 November; Glastonbury, 15 November; Weston-super-mare, 17 November.

Tourist information: Wells: 01749 672552; Weston-super-mare: 01934 626838