Learning Under Lockdown: Bridgwater Carnival

Artist & educator Shermaine Slocombe participates in Bridgwater Carnival every year. She chats to us about how lockdown has affected the event and the creative ways they are keeping their beloved tradition alive

13 August 2020

Tell us a little about the event

Autumn is the carnival season throughout Somerset. Typically, at this time of year the people of Bridgwater are busy preparing for their carnival, one of the largest illuminated processions in Europe. Bridgwater Carnival dates back to 1605 and the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The carnival is made up of clubs who construct carnival entries for a night-time procession which attracts more than 100,000 visitors and perform in a stage show which runs over a fortnight, is viewed by over 4,200 people, and involves 600+ local people. It was estimated in 2019 that over 2,000 volunteers (or ‘carnivalites’) were involved. 40,221 people from 123 countries logged in to the live streaming of the Carnival procession. Unique to Bridgwater is the squibbing display which runs along the length of the High street. A squib is an individual firework held by carnivalites and each one shoots up into the night’s sky.

Carnival floats are affectionately known as ‘carts’, as they were originally constructed on hay or log carts drawn by decorated horses and were lit by personnel carrying flaming torches. These days, each cart can cost in excess of £20,000 to build and is the result of thousands of working hours and fundraising throughout the year. Carnivalites and clubs do not do it for financial reward; carnival is reliant on its volunteers to create work and share skills and traditions on a voluntary basis. The skills required to deliver a successful carnival are wide and varied with huge benefits to the town, including giving young people a worthwhile means to do something positive in their community.

Children play a huge part in carnival – it’s how I started out – and it continues to influence my practice today. Since 2012, Bridgwater Carnival has run a successful schools’ outreach programme designed around the curriculum. The aim being to provide young people an insight into the heritage and culture of carnivals locally and internationally, and to spark their interest in the community’s largest and best-known endeavour. Activities include lantern making, performing, school competitions and creating model carnival carts to develop creative, technological, electronic and mechanical skills all of which are skills relevant to carnival, the local workforce, and the economy.

What affect did lockdown have on the event and those who participate?

The organisers made the difficult decision very early on during the COVID-19 pandemic to cancel the carnival in 2020 due to its preparation being an all year-round effort. Despite carnivals in general being about public celebrations, they can often be closed networks. It is not just about creating a spectacle for an audience, people who are involved do it for themselves as much as for others. The importance of carnival is not just the final product itself, but the effects achieved on the individuals who make it happen. It is not intended to be for the sake of pure entertainment but rather a burning reality that needs to be lived. This is living theatre; it is about how people act and have a common understanding of their own environment.

Bridgwater Carnival, the earliest original English carnival and, as far as we know, the largest illuminated carnival in Europe, is a group effort and we take for granted the extraordinary job it does for the people involved. Carnival all over the world is a space for role-swapping and mocking rules and conventions of hierarchy to break down boundaries and take up privileges not normally allowed in the real world. Carnivalites share and construct imaginary worlds and these stories create meaning in their lives. The participants become other than what they normally are and know that the audience see potential in themselves. It is about having an awareness of oneself and others, and a desire to be recognised and to receive recognition. The pleasures in this world of carnival are taken very seriously and suddenly that environment is not there.

Many of us are feeling sad and/or guilty for grieving lost plans and imagined projects, especially when people are losing their lives. Carnivalites, along with anyone involved in participatory and community practice, are missing human contact and we all know the benefits that brings. Humans are social creatures, and the people of Bridgwater, as a result of being involved in carnival, have strong connections. Community bonds are strengthened, and a collective shared reality conserves the cohesion of a town. Bridgwater Carnival is still a vital and significant part of our calendar as people love it. They know they are part of something special; a shared language that is historical and unique. The commitment of carnivalites is incredibly special; it is part of the town’s culture, tradition and expression.

What have been the biggest challenges in adapting the event due to social distancing and lockdown?

Bridgwater Carnival has been forced to shift its thinking to provide a different type of carnival to preserve community cohesion whilst maintaining its profile.

Volunteers are the life blood in keeping the carnival spirit alive. The main threat to future carnivals is if new members and volunteers are not recruited. The clubs raise funds to build their carts, whilst donating a huge amount of money to charity. Over the last five years Bridgwater Carnival has produced an income of £1.227m, an average annual income of £254,000, of which over £100,000 has been donated to local charities.

The small town in Somerset not only prides itself, but brands itself on being the ‘The Home of Carnival’ and it is estimated to bring in £4 million annually to the local economy.

What are the plans for the festival now it cannot go ahead as planned?

Carnival is extremely competitive amongst clubs and, ironically, one of the clubs called ‘Gremlins’ has lived up to its name and thrown a spanner in the works by achieving a succession of winnings. Therefore, what usually divides opinion amongst both carnivalites and the public alike is – what is the best entry to grace the streets of Bridgwater on carnival night? This year, there will be a unique opportunity to answer this question in a ‘best of the best virtual carnival’. Carnivalites will be able to identify, recognise and celebrate the best entries to have taken part in Bridgwater Carnival between 1982 and 2019 (the years in which the carnivals have been officially filmed).

Gremlins CC 3.jpg
The Gremlins club carnival entry

The organisers are working towards a live online screening of this ‘best of the best’ film on what would have been this year’s carnival night – Saturday 7 November 2020. All the nominations received will then be reviewed and shortlisted by the carnival production team, which comprises a mixture of carnival committee staff, representatives and carnival guests and stakeholders. All entries featured on the film on carnival night will then be entered into a public vote, at the end of which the best ever entry into Bridgwater Carnival will be announced!

Are you working on any offers for children and young people?

Bridgwater Carnival is currently trying to raise funds to build a carnival centre with facilities to introduce new programmes and creative workshops for young people of all ages and abilities. The aim is for the Carnival Centre to be a year-round attraction to draw local people and tourists to Bridgwater outside the autumn Carnival season, to enhance the carnival’s reputation and help people appreciate its heritage. It will enable the carnival to continue to grow and develop for the benefit of its thousands of participants, the charities it supports, schools, residents and visitors.

Do you think this experience has changed anything about how you will work in future?

The organisers will embrace technology and use online methods for meetings that have proved successful so far. After the film has been broadcast, it will be available to rent via Vimeo.

We look forward to welcoming the public back to Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival in 2021 on Saturday 6 November where once again the streets will be reclaimed and transformed by the people who own them!

What would be your 3 main tips to other cultural organisations for coping with lockdown?

  • Don’t be afraid to embrace new technology to promote your aims
  • Don’t get fixated on “we have always done it this way”, there is nothing that cannot be improved or varied
  • Don’t be afraid to diversify and try new ways of promoting your event – you may attract new audiences who have never engaged with your organisation before

You can find out more about Bridgwater carnival on their website.

Twitter: @BCarnival

Shermaine is originally from Bridgwater and now lives in London. She is an artist and educator, and a forever carnivalite! You can find her on Twitter at @shemyslocs.

Image credits: Timeless Images

RESET logo_RGB.jpg

Our Learning Under Lockdown blog series forms part of Reset – our programme of support in response to the pandemic.

find out more