The magic of carnival: Why Somerset's spectacular parades are so special
A relative newcomer to the spectacle of the Somerset carnivals, the novelty has still not worn off for Western Daily Press reporter Tristan Cork...
There was a moment when the icy wind intensified and a gust coincided with an extra-fierce pulse of sleety rain. It was probably at that moment that the members of the Vagabonds Carnival Club seriously regretted their choice of theme for this year’s season.
Their title was ‘Aloha’, a Hawaiian theme which meant they were dressed in grass skirts, lei garlands and not much else. While some of the chaps on board the brightly-lit cart sported six packs, a number had obviously worked hard over the years on the ale and cider training regime, and a few bellies poked out below the flowers.
At this moment, the carnival carts had passed their last ‘rest area’ – a spot without spectators which allows them to either rest or, for the tableaux statues, stretch and move – and to the north west of the A39, out of the built up area of North Petherton but before the huge dairy, there was a low hedge, a field and then pretty much nothing but flat fields between there and the Quantocks and the sea.
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An icy wind whistled in off the Bristol Channel, blowing the sleet straight into the bellies of the Vagabonds standing on that side of the cart. Perhaps in more sheltered spots, the warmth of the thousands of light bulbs produced a Ready Brek-glow around them, but here it clearly didn’t.
They gamely pressed on with a simple but effective dance routine, perhaps reminding themselves why they were there in the first place. Maybe they had earlier looked wistfully at the Huckyduck Club from Radstock. A tableau cart, which meant they could not dance like crazy to warm themselves up, they recreated Hannibal crossing the Alps. This saw them wisely dressed in huge woolly shawls, heavy tunics, helmets and scarves, wrapped up from the worst the wind and rain could throw at them. They flinched not.
Outdoor events after dark in the depths of November might sound a silly thing to do, but the lights, the music, the dancing and above all, the fun, usually create a linear bubble-like shield which takes in those lining the streets as well as those on board. Which is what I told the family as they shivered.
And this year’s carnival season, which draws to a finale on Saturday at Glastonbury, has once again proved an amazing success. Thousands turned out for each one so far, and each time I think the carts can’t get any better, each year they do.
Each year the standards get higher, and perhaps there’s a tendency to take for granted just how good they are. How the judges make their decisions I can never understand, although for the first time this year, rather than gazing open-mouthed as I have done in the past, I started trying to compare and contrast.
Some carts obviously have expensive animatronics – the moving polar bears were astounding on the Masqueraders’ cart, for instance – while others have more light bulbs than the rest. But you can have all the whizzo gizmos and brightest lights you like, but a powerful beat, a good song and a rocking or eye-catching dance routine will always win out in my book.
That’s why, I reckon, the Gremlins CC won North Petherton – their third victory in a row – with their Revolution entry. It had everyone dancing to the max, perfectly in time, and was so captivating I wanted to be on there with them. They looked like they meant it, while some others, sadly, were going through the motions by the time they reached this windswept corner.
Music is important too, in my limited experience. So while I absolutely loved Griffens’ entry of a Dickens Christmas, complete with youngsters in nightcaps leaning out of upstairs windows and still doing the dance routine, the Globe Carnival Club’s Rock Vegas entry instantly made me ask myself why they were dressed as Kiss but rocking out to Guns n Roses. It was still good though.
A great comedy idea also wins my heart. Newmarket’s ‘Strictly Not Dancing’ got sillier and more hilarious as it went past, from ballroom dancing at the front through to people dancing with the likes of Ali G and Bin Laden at the back.
The Nutsford Nutters, all the way from Colyton in deepest Devon, had the best tunes and the best laughs – a pumping remix of the Wurzels on their ‘Properrr Job’ cart made everyone around me smile the most.
But criticising a carnival cart, any cart, is unfair. They are all brilliant really, it’s just that some are more brilliant than others.
I know thousands of people go to watch each carnival, but it always astounds me when I meet people who have never been to one, despite living a short drive away from the Somerset circuit. It’s the best entertainment of the autumn, it’s free and it lasts for hours! If you’ve always meant to go but haven’t, do it this year: it’s one of the best so far.