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).