John Craven: Somerset’s traditional carnivals under threat

Gloucestershire floods


The nights may be drawing in but during the next few weeks in towns across the West Country, the darkness will be illuminated by hundreds of thousands of dazzling, flashing, moving, multi-coloured lights – because it is carnival time.

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But this year’s festivities will be a little subdued as economic reality bites into a tradition dating back to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Fewer elaborately decorated floats will parade through the streets and I have heard predictions that some of the clubs that build them will have to merge or close.

There’s even speculation among long-standing supporters that, because of escalating costs and stricter regulations, some carnivals face an uncertain future. Yet when you watch in wonder as a parade goes slowly by – as I did in the Somerset town of Ilminster last October – it’s hard to comprehend that behind the raucous, glittering, fun-filled façade and fairground atmosphere there are real problems.

The enormous floats feature either tableaux, where the performers are ‘frozen’, or all-singing, all-dancing spectaculars – and in the gaps are cheerleaders and fancy dress teams on foot. It might seem a little old-fashioned, but not to the exuberant crowds who line the streets. And it’s all done by volunteers.

A rich heritage

Carnival clubs bring together rural people throughout the year in a way few other activities do. Should one close, a great hole is created in the social fabric of a community. Sue Stockman of the Cary Comedians Carnival Club told me: “We need to have links to our heritage, and this one is unique. People from all walks of life are passionate about carnival and it unites us in creativity as designers, set builders, painters, costume-makers and performers.

“Our club has around 35 members and is fairly secure, but money is getting tight. It costs £15,000 a year to build and run our float and some clubs spend much more. One source of income comes from members acting as stewards at rural events,
but this year we’ve been badly hit. Many were cancelled because of bad weather and the Glastonbury Festival wasn’t held, so we are £3,500 down.”

At least Cary Comedians will still have their 30m (100ft) long float this season – with a lumberjack theme that, if it’s anything like last year’s House of Fun, should be a blast. They will take it to 14 carnivals but sadly some other clubs don’t have enough money to take part. Dr Andrew Tallon, who is chairman of a group set up to promote Somerset carnivals, says: “The biggest one, at Bridgwater on 3 November, usually has about 60 floats, but I doubt whether there will be 50 this year.

“This is a crunch time for carnival and the wet summer has been bad news all round for money-raising. Unfortunately, clubs can’t qualify for grants because they don’t employ people and carnivals have been overlooked as a valuable community resource that voluntarily provides training in many skills.”       

Dr Tallon’s group is attempting to change attitudes and its eye-catching van tours local schools recounting the history of carnival and securing its future, they hope, by recruiting the next generation of devotees who’ll keep this joyous rural tradition alive.

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For details of the remaining
Somerset carnivals this year see
www.somersetcarnivals.co.uk