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Bridgwater Carnival

Bridgwater, Somerset

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Bridgewater Carnival is a spectacular illuminated carnival which takes place annually in the town of Bridgwater in Somerset. It is the largest in the country and is the largest of the many carnivals which take place in Somerset  from September-November each year.  Since 2001 it always takes place on the first Friday following the first Thursday after Guy Fawkes night (5th November). As well as the Carnival procession which can take at least 3 hours to get through the streets, afterwards in the High Street there is an event called Squibbing, when 150 squibbs (special fireworks) are lit and paraded.

A Little Bit of History

The Guy Fawkes celebrations in Bridgwater originates back to the 1605 Gun Powder Plot, when Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London. It was Kings James I who decreed that November 5th should be celebrated by the lighting of a bonfire, and so on November 5th each year the residents of Bridgwater did so. Newspapers did not come to Bridgewater until the mid 19th century and the only records of it's existence prior to this can be found within the parish records. One such account being in November 1716 when a John Taylor and his two children were killed in a gunpowder explosion in their home, believed to be when they were creating the unique Bridgwater firework called the Squib, these are still a part of the carnival tradition today.

The first journalistic account of the carnival was from 1847, and celebrations in those days concentrated around a huge bonfire built in the centre of the town and from all corners townspeople would parade to the bonfire dressed up in costumes and masks. Once assembled at the bonfire effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope and others who had upset them would be added to the flames. From early evening hundreds of Squibs would be lit and merryment would continue into the early hours of the morning. However in 1880 it changed, the evening began in the usual good humour but this gave way to ill temper and acts of violence and eventually to riot. The following day a letter in the Bridgwater Mercury (local paper), focused peoples attention by proposing that a controlling committee should be formed and the annual procession should be organised so that all individuals within the town could take part, and in 1881 the first carnival committee was formed.

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In 1883 when a new bridge across the River Parrett was to be opened it was decided to be included as part of the November 5th celebrations and this resulted in the bridge being opened during the day, followed by the carnival parade and a spectacular firework display and of course the Squibs. It was also this same year that the fund raising element of the carnival took shape, as to fund this extravaganza was going to cost money and so a fund raising concert was staged in the Town Hall on 31st October. The procession of squibs nearly came to an end in 1892 when the Home Office decided that it was too dangerous to manufacture the squibs in peoples homes. Today the fireworks (squibs) used are manufactured specifically for Bridgwater. In 1902 they re-enacted the Royal procession of the Coronation of Edward VII with a long series of tableaux, including a replica of the State Coach drawn by 8 cream coloured horses. In 1903 electric light bulbs were introduced, up until then the carts were illuminated with paraffin lamps, carried alongside. 1909 saw the introduction of having the carnival on the nearest Thursday to 5th November and this was the case until 2001 when they decided to change it to the nearest Friday to the Thursday following the 5th November. 1925 saw the end of the bonfire in the centre of town when the roads were tarmac'd and no longer suitable for bonfires. 1948 saw the end of horses pulling the carnival club entry, being replaced by tractors. By 1958 with only 8 carts taking part it was not clear if the event would continue, but luckily for us it did and in 2006 over 163 entrants took part.

Today Bridgewater Carnival is still a fund raising event, for both itself and also for local community charities and in 2007 raised 27,993 with over 500 collectors out on the night.

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The Carnival Day

The carnival day starts at midday in the town centre, with entertainment provided by, bands and local schools, circus acts etc.  There is a carnival exhibition in St Marys Church, a fairground organ operating in Fore Street with the procession of carts and walking bands, costumed characters and displays, starting at 7pm, followed by Squibbing in the High Street to round off a fantastic day/evening out.

The street procession consists of over 100 large vehicles up to 100ft long with up to 22,000 light bulbs each. It follows a 2.5 mile route lasting around 2-3 hours, in fact it's so long that a break for the walking entrants is taken at the High Street. It attracts around 150,000 spectators each year, many of whom stand along the 2.5 mile route however since 2004 there have been grandstands with seating and these generally sell out weeks before.

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The Carts

Uniquely in the West Country they refer to a carnival float, as a cart. They are built by carnival clubs of individuals usually based around a local working or social group and are funded totally by charitable donations and sponsorship from local businesses, some carts costing in excess of 20,000 to build. Each year they are themed, and when one carnival season ends they are preparing and building ready for the next. It is a year long passion for those involved. To see a list of some of the Carnival Clubs that take part, from all over the West Country, see this link on Wikipedia which looks specifically at the West Country Carnival.

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Carts include both music and costumed people to complete their theme. People and items on the cart can either be moving, or static in tableau format. Some of the larger floats not only have moving people, but also moving parts some can be 2 or 3 trailers long, and can be two platforms high. The static displays with costumed people, the individuals do actually keep still and it is sometimes difficult with their elaborate costumes and makeup to determine if they are real or statues. Today the carts are pulled by tractors, or even lorries and as well as the trailers, also tow a large diesel driven electricity generator to provide the huge amount of power required to power the carts. Some generators used can provide over a megawatt of power, with 10,000 to 30,000 light bulbs not uncommon on a modern day cart. The tractor or lorry is also usually decorated to match the rest of the display. The maximum length of the entire cart is 100 feet (30m), larger than this and they just wouldn't negotiate the towns streets, even then it is difficult to see how some manage anyway.

Squibbing

This is a unique event to Bridgwater. It is the simultaneous firing of lots of large fireworks (squibs) at the same time. Today in the region of 150 Squibbers take part, they are usually carnival club members. In 1929 over 2,000 squibs were ignited. They line the High Street in a line of two wide and all light their squibs at the same time. The result is a long trail of fire along the road. The Squib is a large firework, especially made for Bridgwater, strapped to a cosh (block of wood) which in turn is attached to a long pole. It is held by the Squibber at arms length above their head with the firework facing toward the sky, giving a unique colourful display.

Other Events in the West Country

Bridgwater Carnival was the first carnival of its type, however throughout the South West other carnival processions take place from late August until late November. They are split into 3 circuits to allow carnival clubs to take part in a number of them.  Splitting it this way means that each venue has their carnival on a different day and many of the carts (floats), but not all can take part - some are too large to take part in some of the smaller locations. See our Illuminated Events list  for links to other West Country carnival details.

Final comment

I have been to Bridgwater a number of times, and each time it is awe inspiring. The amount of dedication and work that goes into the floats that take part is mind boggling. They are a spectacle and the number of people who visit, although usually a chilly night, it is warm, even if you are in front as you get warm from the illuminated floats in front of you and from the large crowd behind.

It is well worth a visit, but get there early so that you can be near the front of crowd, next to the barrier. It can be tricky at times to take photographs even if you think you are in the best spot. Although the carts are large, there are lots of walkers which get between you and the barriers, this are made up of collectors of small change, the police, and those individuals who continually move around. As well of course the sheer size of them, when up close can you get them in the viewfinder. But a great spectacle and a good night time photo opportunity. See our article on photographing illuminated carnivals for a few pointers on what to prepare for.

DATES FROM 2012. The carnival has always taken it's date as the nearest Thursday to the 5th of November, this changed a few years ago when they decided to hold the event on a Friday instead, so it's now the Friday after the Thursday nearest to 5th November. However from 2012, while they hold a 3 year trial of having the carnival on a Saturday, and for these 3 years it will be on the 1st Saturday of November. So for the next 3 years the dates will be:-

2012: Saturday 3rd November

2013: Saturday 2nd November

2014: Saturday 1st November


Further information Grid

 

Location:

Bridgwater Carnival, Bridgwater, Somerset

Ceremonial County: Somerset

Grid Reference:

ST297369

Map Link:

GoogleMap      StreetMap 

Aerial photo:  

Route(s):

See Location page on their website for details of route and parking.

Best Times to Visit:

 

E-mail:

 

Website:

www.bridgwatercarnival.org.uk

Other useful websites:

Wiki

Nearby Locations:  
Other Relevant pages:

Illuminated Events

Photographing illuminated carnivals 

 

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Planning Grid

Location:

Bridgwater Carnival, Bridgwater, Somerset

Grid Reference:

ST297369

Getting there:

From the M5 J23 and J24. If you are coming via the M5 please note the road into Bridgwater from junction 24 will close at 6.30pm, if you are likely to arrive later than 6.30pm you should proceed to J23 as this road into Bridgwater will remain open all evening.

Access:

Main town centre. The procession route starts in Bath Road, into Monmouth St and Broadway before taking a circle route taking in Taunton Road and High Street.

Parking:

There are various parking points around the town, as well as on industrial estates just outside if you don't mind the walk into town.

Facilities:

There are various toilet sites provided as well as refreshments from venues within the town.

Things To Do, See and Photograph:

Large illuminated carts with moving and static displays. Also people in costumes, bands, dancers and more.

What to take:

wrap up warm, spare memory cards if you don't have large ones.

Nature highlights:

 

Address:

Bridgwater, Somerset

Postcode:

TA6

Telephone:

 

Opening times:

2011: Friday 4th November. Street entertainment starts at midday. Illuminated Procession starts at 7pm.

Charges:

FREE. It is a charity event and people with buckets collecting donations are about all evening.

Photo Restrictions:

None

Other Restrictions: There will be barriers on the roads to keep control of the crowds whilst the procession is moving.
Special Needs Access:  
Special Needs Facilities:  
Children Facilities:  
Dogs Allowed: Yes - but it will be kinder to leave them at home.

Please let us know any other information that we can add to the Further information and Planning Grids or page and any errors that you discover. Before making a long trip to any location it is always wise to double check the current information, websites like magazines may be correct at the time the information is written, but things change and it is of course impossible to double check all entries on a regular basis. If you have any good photographs that you feel would improve the illustration of this page then please let us have copies. In referring to this page it is helpful if you quote both the Page Ref and Topic or Section references from the Grid below. To print the planning grid select it then right click and print the selected area.

Please submit information on locations you discover so that this system continues to grow.

 


By: Tracey Park Section: Illuminations Key:
Page Ref: bridgwater_carnival Topic: Activities and Educational  Last Updated: 10/2013
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