Glastonbury Carnival – Don’t Rain on the Parade

Every weekend seems to be a celebration of something in Glastonbury – a Celtic fire festival, an Earth Mysteries Conference, a Hindu God’s birthday or the opening of another crystal shop. Many of these events see people spilling out onto the streets, and cluttering up the pavements in a generally colourful, often loud, sometimes freeform, and occasionally coordinated, fashion. The born and bred locals put up with it all, generally with good nature. Rarely do they take to the streets en masse, except for small and dignified civic processions to mark such occasions as mayoral inaugurations or Remembrance Day.

The one notable exception is the yearly Glastonbury Chilkwell Carnival, held in November, when anyone of too sensitive a disposition leaves town for the weekend, the crystal shopkeepers and vegan cafe owners close up at 3pm, the fairy folk retreat to their, well, retreats and Glastonbury becomes once again a small market town waiting for a very big, very loud, very brightly lit procession.

Glastonbury Chilkwell Carnival is the Grand Finale of the Somerset Guy Fawkes Carnival Season, the procession having already visited the towns of Bridgwater, Burnham-on-Sea, North Petherton, Shepton Mallet, Wells, and Weston-Super-Mare. These are the largest illuminated processions in the UK and Europe.

History of the Glastonbury Carnival

We know the Glastonbury Carnival dates back to at least 1854, when the High St was a dirt track with open sewers running down it. Originally the Carnival would have been celebrated on the 5th November with bonfires, a procession and a race down the High Street to the Market Cross holding aloft lighted Tar Barrels.

On the Glastonbury Carnival website I found this account from 1891:

“It was reported in the ‘Avalon Independent’ that two rival groups had been competing to organise the November celebration. These were the ‘Bonfire Boys’ who had been responsible for many years’ organising the Bonfire on November 5th, and a new a new group calling themselves the ‘Carnival Club’.  Agreement could not be reached and a public meeting was eventually called, attended by several hundred people.  Here it was resolved that a new Committee, to be styled ‘The Glastonbury and District Carnival Club’, would be formed to organise the event.  However, the ‘Bonfire Boys’ did not accept this and arranged their own huge bonfire at the top of the Town, while the new committee organised theirs at the Market Cross.  Two separate processions were held and they paraded along Benedict Street, Magdalene Street, Bere Lane, Chilkwell Street, Manor House Road, and Northload Street.”

This amused me greatly, having found myself witness to the gripes and grumbles of the two groups responsible for organising the current Beltain celebrations in the town, 126 years later.

The present-day Glastonbury Chilkwell Guy Fawkes Carnival originated in the early 1920’s, like all good ideas it started with a discussion in the pub, in this case, the Rifleman’s Arms in Chilkwell St. By 1928 the procession included horse-drawn carts as well as walking entries. The carts were illuminated with paraffin torches. In 1934 a Carnival Queen was introduced, and in 1946 (following a gap in the carnivals due to WW2) the Glastonbury carts were joined by others from Bridgwater and Wells. In 1964 farm tractors and small generators had begun to replace the horses and torches. The Carnival increased in popularity, by 1994 there were 80-100,000 spectators.

For more information on the history of the carnival do look at the Carnival Website.

The Carnival Today

“The floats or ‘carts’ have transformed over time into elaborate trailers up to a maximum of 100 foot long. Driven by highly-decorated tractors, the carts usually include a diesel-driven electric generator providing the vast amounts of energy required for up to 30,000 lamps around displays. Floats chug along at a snail’s-pace interspersed with walking exhibits of groups or singles, marching bands, majorette troupes, and charity collectors.” From Somerset Life, full article here

For this one day a year Glastonbury High St feels like a fairground at a seaside town. The crowd who start assembling from noon (despite the Carnival being an after dark affair) are dressed in anoraks and beanie hats rather than rainbow jumpers or felty frocks. A load of somewhat elderly bikers have parked up Harley Davidsons so large and crassly illuminated that they look like mini precursors of the floats. Vendors with handcarts sell, not handcrafted leather goods or jewellery made from feathers, but the finest plastic glow in the dark tat that Taiwan has to offer and Peppa Pig helium balloons.

The burger vans that pop up at malodorous intervals along the route aren’t serving vegan raw food hemp burgers with a side order of alfalfa sprouts. For this one day a year you can treat yourself to 4oz of flesh mechanically stripped from a cow carcass, formed into a patty and charred to perfection. All served in a cheap white bun with partially cooked ‘fries’ – chips little bigger than matchsticks doused in tomato sauce so vinegary it melts your tooth enamel.

While you’re at it, how about a bag of candy floss for the kids? From Wikipedia I learn that the mechanical process by which sugar is transformed into a substance that coats teeth (and small faces, mittens and faux fur collars) in an impossible to remove, tacky, pink or blue, coating, was developed by a dentist in 1897. On other nights hippy parents would no more let their children eat candy floss than let them loose in a paddling pool in Hinkley Point’s cooling tower.

Many of Glastonbury’s alternative community express indignation at the choice of themes, the most frequent complaints being of cultural misappropriation. Floats feature Somerset folk dressed as Native Americans, Maori Warriors, primitive Mayans and Voodoo worshippers.  Still, at least things have moved on from blatant racism. As recently as the start of the Millennium, the Black and White Minstrels were still a popular theme, the local rag proudly boasting on its front page that one of their journalists was appearing in blackface. 

I can’t help feeling that some of the criticism directed at the Carnival is down to snobbishness. We find common ground with tribal peoples, believing them to be inherently spiritual and wise, while we stereotype Somerset locals as uncultured cider swilling yokels. It was suggested to me on Saturday night that the carnival could be seen as Somerset’s Diwali – the Hindu Festival of Lights.

Besides, it seems to me that cultural misappropriation isn’t exclusive to the Carnival, any Glastonbury noticeboard will reveal people offering costly workshops and healing based on the spiritual practices of tribal cultures to which they don’t belong. 

There’s plenty more to take offence at if you are so inclined: a float adorned with adult babies, another with a Christmas theme featuring a sign about ‘Santa’s wrinkly sack’ and one featuring plump Somerset ladies dressed as schoolgirls. Generally, the floats are an interesting reflection of what has caught the public imagination over the last year – steampunk, Winter themes, popular films and musicals.

The carnival is very much a spectacle, there is very little audience participation, except the reaching into pockets for coins for the carnival charity collectors, and apparently there isn’t enough of that to ensure the carnivals’ continued viability. A few years ago when I lived in Wells Road we dressed up in frocks and feather boas and were threatened with arrest for dancing on the pavement while awaiting the floats. Years ago too, I remember the crowd would clap enthusiastically to show their appreciation at the best floats, or the most imaginatively dressed dancers in the parade. I heard very little clapping this year as I watched from outside St John’s Church. I wondered whether this was down to us being used to getting our entertainment from screens nowadays, rather than real live humans that might appreciate the applause, but perhaps it was due to the rain – it’s hard to clap when you’re holding an umbrella.

Articles in the local press have suggested that Somerset carnivals are in decline, beset by road safety rules, insurance issues and underfunding, as attendees don’t dig sufficiently deeply into their pockets to donate to what is, remarkably a free to attend event. One of the more unusual problems this year was when Carnival goers in Bridgwater were left with burnt eyes after a float was accidentally covered in tanning bulbs.

Although the ‘alternative’ community has traditionally had very little involvement in the Carnival, this year the procession was led by the Red and White Dragons which were created for the Beltane and Samhain celebrations in the town. It was a nice touch (which I missed because I was in the pub) but I don’t know how much more collaboration than this there could realistically be, as I rather think that us hippies might ruin it.

The carnival, with its electric lightbulbs, generators, tacky plastic tat, candy floss and meat burgers, un-politically correct themes and wide-ranging appeal, is the antithesis of everything that ‘Alternative’ Glastonbury stands for. In my hippy youth I saw that as a reason to hate it. Now the counterculture has become the dominant culture in this town, I rather like it. I find myself appreciating the vast amount of time, creativity and hard work that goes into building these enormous floats, and the dedication of the many people who take part, in all weathers, to create a remarkable and unique spectacle.

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