Fireworks and fancy dress

Bridgwater's brilliant Guy Fawkes celebrations. By Brigid McConville

How has it come to pass that a small town in Somerset is home to the biggest illuminated carnival procession in the world? Perhaps because the brains behind the Gunpowder Plot was a local man: it should be "Robert Persons Night", not Guy Fawkes Night, though the staunchly Protestant West Country population were never too keen to lay claim to this subversive Jesuit priest.

Indeed, while the rest of the country went on burning papist effigies or rolling blazing tar barrels, Bridgwater people transformed the same tradition into a modern spectacular of light and sound that now attracts 100,000-plus spectators a year, and which locals claim is second only to the Rio Carnival.

We've lived here for 11 years and each year we weakly threaten our children that we may give it a miss. But we've never yet done so - and never regretted it, either. The Bridgwater Carnival, love it or hate it, is unique.

For two hours, a two-mile-long procession of tractor-drawn floats winds at walking pace through this market town. The biggest floats are 100ft long, brilliantly illuminated by up to 20,000 light bulbs. Most of them belt out deafening music, while carnivalites in fancy dress endlessly repeat a dance routine. At intervals a "walking entry", or push-cart, suggests how things used to be before the procession went hi-tech.

And the themes of the floats are chosen as if political correctness had not yet reached the West Country. Inevitably, there are hairy men in drag with balloons up their jumpers, and never a carnival goes by without a cart on a "jungle" theme with blacked up people brandishing spears. Blokes in nappies sucking on dummies is another recurrent motif - and often two or more floats have the same music. ("Tiger Feet" and "La Bamba" are perennial favourites).

Sometimes it's hard to believe you are in the middle of Somerset as Spanish- American, Egyptian - you name it - themes follow each other through the town. One minute you are looking at The Matadors with a dozen men in bullfighting outfits stepping out to "Viva Espana"; next it's the Boy Pharoah on a gilded throne surrounded by swarthy slaves.

Only these are all homogenised by modern carnival tradition into sub- Disney ciphers. By necessity there is a lot of nylon and plastic; by definition there is a strong show-biz flavour. You can look at it all as fantastically naff, American-influenced and derivative; or you can be awestruck by the sheer effort, creativity and commitment of the people who have worked all year to put this show together.

And make no mistake, half the town is involved. The carnival clubs, often attached to local pubs, spend all year running fetes, raffles, dances and concerts to raise the pounds 10,000-plus it takes to create a float. They do so partly because they love it, and partly to raise money for charity. This year Bridgwater College launched an NVQ in carnival skills (Certificate of Performance Art).

Often there is some ghastly, drink-related accident during carnival fortnight. Since we've been here there have been several deaths involving people falling off floats and getting run over. One year, a tableaux float (on which participants have to keep absolutely still) depicted the crucifixion. A local GP told us that the man playing Jesus came close to death, after two hours on th cross on a freezing November night.

The night culminates in the "squibbing" in Bridgwater High Street, when 100 carnivalites line up, each with a huge firework on the end of a pole. These are lit simultaneously, filling the High Street to its rooftops with huge eruptions of white sparks.

After the squibbing, the crowds wait outside the Town Hall for the judges' verdicts on this year's entries. "Black Friday" follows - named for the quality of the hangovers - and for many of the next 10 nights the carnivalites get back into their costumes to tour the neighbouring towns.

With many local friends, we tend to wait till the Saturday when the carnival goes through North Petherton, a few miles south of Bridgwater. As we walk across fields towards the start of the carnival we get a backstage view of the floats preparing for action.

Under immense kilowattage, the nervous spacemen and spear-chuckers practise their steps on the pavement. There is always one float condemned to last- minute generator failure, but these sad, darkened hulks get as much applause as any other - because the show must go on.

Not at all what Father Robert Persons and his cronies had in mind.

How to get there: Public transport/train to Bridgwater avoids pressure on parking spaces. Police close roads through the town at 6.30pm; the procession starts at at 7.15pm.

When to go: Thursday is Bridgwater Carnival day. The following Saturday it moves to North Petherton; Monday to Burnham-on-Sea; Wednesday to Shepton Mallet; Friday to Wells; Saturday to Glastonbury; Monday to Weston-super- Mare.

Details from Chris Hocking (01278 429288).

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Diana from the Great British Bake Off 2014
tvProducers confirm contestant left because of illness
News
Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie reportedly married in secret on Saturday
peopleSpokesperson for couple confirms they tied the knot on Saturday after almost a decade together
Sport
footballLive: Latest news from Champions League draw
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Graduate Sales Executive / Junior Sales Exec

    £18k + Uncapped Commission (£60k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Sales Exe...

    Web Developer / Software Developer

    £25 - 60k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Web Developer / Software Developer is needed ...

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Day In a Page

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?