Category Archives: Illuminations

Custom revived: Ripon’s Candlemas Festival of Lights

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“having visited Harrowgate for his health a few years before, he resided for some time at that pleasant market town Ripon, where, on the Sunday before Candlemas day, he observed that the collegiate church, a fine ancient building, was one continued blaze of light all the afternoon from an immense number of candles.”

So wrote a 1790 account in the Gentlemen’s magasine. Yet despite this note reference to this rare survival is no existent. Candlemas is a curious feast which went through a revival in the mid-20th century in a number of churches. The feast celebrates the Presentation of the Infant Christ to the Temple, and traditionally marked the end of the Christmas season (and when the Christmas decoration could be removed). As a custom it is a very curious hybrid of Hebrew – in the remembrance of the tradition of presenting children to the temple and pagan sitting as it does upon the old pre-Christian Imbolc, the coming of spring. The name Candlemas is of course itself rather odd. Most other masses relate to saints or biblical events – this does not.

En-lightening origin

In those dark days of winter, the lighting of candles marked the beginning of the days getting lighter and the rise of spring and the strength of the sun. All pure paganism. At some point the Christians adopted this ancient event and looking at the timing associated it with presentation, a facet still remembered in Blidworth with its unique cradle rocking. The association with candles was convenient as Christ was seen as ‘the way and the light’ and as candles were such a valuable commodity against the evils of darkness the needed to be blessed and be thankful – hence a mass for candles. As the tide turned against such curious Catholic practices at the Reformation, many died out. It survived Henry VIIIth’s purge, but was reformed the blessing of candles was thrown out and so was the Mary’s role focusing on Jesus solely. The custom continued until the late 1700s and as Hutton notes had died out by the 1800s. It is not surprising the North clung onto Catholic traditions longer than elsewhere finally dying out and being revived in the 20th century.

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Candle in the wind

A description by Dean John of the church records on the church website sums it up perfectly:

“Many of you will know that here at Ripon Cathedral the Candlemas Sung Eucharist has long been established as one of the most spectacular services of the year. The light from five thousand candles, the glorious music, and several hundred people gathering from across the region all combine, with the grace of God, to make this a great occasion of celebration and spiritual encounter.”

5000 candles surely that must be a record? Where as many churches and cathedrals now mark Candlemas none do it in a way as spectacular and uplifting as Ripon. As one enters the cathedral on the night one’s senses are assailed. Cathedrals in the night are dark, gloomy, foreboding places. The chill runs down the spine…especially on those cold snow laden February nights. As one enters from the crisp air, one enters a glowing magical place of warm both physical and spiritual. There’s the smell of wax and the hushed sounds which only can be heard in some august edifices.

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The full wax

A few years ago when the 2nd arose on the weekend I made my way to the service to see this great festival of lights. Throughout the service all modern forms of lighting are vanquished and only that of the flickering candle. Throughout the whole building there appear to be candles, hither and thither, placed feverishly earlier by the church’s vergers and lit equally efficiently no doubt.

The triumph of their work is a giant cross arranged in the chancel with the date arranged in candles, fortunately roped off though but easily observed. The service is of course a traditional one of Evensong, but during it the congregation is invited to process around the Cathedral holding their candles lead by the Bishop. This was a magical moment as we processed around remembering the importance of this great building to the spiritual needs of its community and how it had sat as safe refuge from Saxon times and beyond. There also is something quite magical about the sound of evensong sung under the dimness of a candle. Indeed, Ripon’s Candlemas service can give us a real insight into what the pre-Reformation church would have been like. A mysterious evocative dark world lit only by the candle.

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Custom survived: Edenbridge’s Guy Fawkes Night

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Sussex is famed for its impressive celebration of Guy Fawkes in a season which runs from August to Mid-November! Wrapped into this so called Sussex Bonfire season is Edenbridge – which is in Kent! However, this and just over the border Hawkhurst, are the only two Kent commemorations worthy of inclusion in this cannon…Many Kent villages and towns have bonfires and fireworks. None by this village go all out with processions and giant effigies as does Edenbridge.

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Fired up

Edenbridge has been commemorating for many centuries this unsuccessful attack on democracy. Records in the 18th century record:

“Paid for guarding the bridge at Gunpowder Treason 10/”

Why? For many years it was the aim of those organising the event to light the bonfire in the centre of the main bridge into the town! An expensive business all around – especially for the authorities who paid £3 15s 2d was spent on liquor for the guards in 1709. Clearly this method did not stop the riotous aspects for by 1886 there is a record of:

“lighted barrels with turpentine balls”

being rolled down the town. However, as such dangerous behaviours were causing out and out conflict and the curtailing of such commemorations, Edenbridge formalised their procedures in 1928, forming like others a Bonfire Society…their first event attracted 700 people and made 25s. Basically all that has changed over those years is the numbers of attendees and the money raised. A report in 1946 by a John Pudney in The Illustrated called BIG BANG AT EDENBRIDGE notes:

“If all the three thousand inhabitants of a township in the county of Kent were to emerge from their homes waving lighted torches upon a November evening, it would be considered quite a party. But I have to report, better than this. In the midst of our autumnal austerity there is to be a great outburst of light: and happiness which will shine throughout the weald of Kent. Ten thousand torches, made of tow wrapped upon the ends of stakes and dipped in waste oil are to flare for fifteen minutes each in the enterprising township of Edenbridge on the evening of November 5.”                                                                                    

What has changed is unity. Back in 1946 as noted:

“The township is divided into three rival sections: Marlpit Hill, Church Street and Lingfield Road. Each of these sections works, in the friendliness of deadly rivalry, to produce the most fancy and colourful procession.”

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Now only one procession travels through the town. I arrived a few minutes beforehand just as the crowds were building up and lining the road through the town from the bridge to the main road which passed around. There was a tangible feeling of excitement in the air, children hang onto railings swinging their glowing swords, adults peered down the road…could they hear something. There was a slight muffled sound of a band which could be hear ahead in the gloom, but soon a glow…a glow which became brighter and brighter…the flaming torches were coming our way. Soon they were hear headed suitably or ironically enough by a fire engine. Behind could be seen the Gunpowder Bishop and his assembled priests, who chanted “what shall we do to him?”…”burn him”. Just behind him were large walking effigies of Guy Fawkes, local Catholic although rather an innocent in the whole affair, Anne Boleyn (headless with her head tucked under her arm) and probably at the time, the biggest culprit Pope Paul IV. According to Tony Foxworthy’s Customs in Kent these were on spikes but they certainly looked more impressive as walking giant puppets. Behind Cowboys and Native Americans and then there were the familiar Bonfire boys in their black and red ‘smuggler’s” attire also carrying torches. It was pleasing to see a number of other teams joining especially as some such as Ifield do not have their own processions so nice to see them included, then some Mexican day of the dead characters. Then came the themed floats – children’s TV and games old and new – to which we saw Pacman, Endoman, Ghostbusters and some rather incredible Alice in Wonderland characters, Cheshire Cat, Playing cards etc…the parade passing by with much noise and cheering on its way to the fireworks field.

What strikes you is that compared to other Bonfire processions, this is very clearly a community event. Especially children, indeed the majority of floats contained cheering children who were clearly loving every minute. Even the local Catholic school used to get involved. An account by Jon Mitchell amusingly recalls:

“One of my funny memories came a couple of years later, when I asked dear Reverend Mother Barnes of St Andrews Convent whether she thought it would be appropriate for the convent school (now sadly closed) to enter a float in the procession. After all, bonfire is about celebrating the failure of the Catholic plot of 1605 to blow up Parliament and all the Protestants within it. She had a very broad mind, a sense of humour and thought it would be good for the School. Our first float at St Andrews celebrated the opening of the new Dartford Crossing in 1991.

After that came a succession of floats and walking parties including the Election of Bill Clinton (with Leslie Dix dressed as the Statue of Liberty 20 feet up in the air), The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express (it was amazing to watch parents scrabble to be in the team and learn to roller skate just so that they could take part in the procession), and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

 Today schools, scouts and many local firms get involved in the colourful procession.

One hell of a Guy

The huge congregation poured into the field..the grounds of which were muddy to say the least. We all waited facing the gloom and in some distance could be seen faintly the effigy of Guy Fawkes and his companion. Edenbridge is justly famous for producing the country’s largest Guy a two dimensional wooden caricature. However it is the companion as which has become the main reason why Edenbridge’s commemoration has become world famous..and yes I mean world famous..as it was reported in all the national and many international websites and papers as far as Japan. There might have been a bigger reason for the coverage this year. These have ranged from Jacque Chiraq in 1997, Gordon Brown in 2000 and Blair in 2004. However, previous ‘victims’ have generally been parochial – such as soon to be forgotten Katie Hopkins – in 2015 it was FIFA president Seth Blatter.

Pray for fine weather?

Every bonfire organisers scans the local weather for a promising, hoping and praying for no rain or strong winds. In 2015 the weather was quite mild. But of course there is another prayer – the bonfire prayer. The account from 1946 reads:

“Here beside the bonfire, ‘the Bishop,’ Harry Oliver; who in calmer times paints houses, delivers the traditional set-piece address, which goes like this:

“We are assembled here tonight to try the arch-traitor, Guy Fawkes – a renegade Yorkshireman, soldier of fortune, who fought for Continental, overlords, who paid him the biggest remuneration, regardless of religion, breed or political faith. In 1605 he was eventually commissioned by Lord Percy and Catesby, chief conspirators in the Gun Powder Plot, brought back to the country and ordered to blow up the King and Parliament.

“A message was, however, sent by one of the conspirators, a double crosser, to a peer of Parliament when this dirty deed would be perpetrated – on receipt of this message the cellars were caused to be searched, with the result that the dastardly plot was frustrated.

“Guy Fawkes was arrested and, in the face of all these facts. I ask you. girls and boys-shall this traitor die?” (Response):” Yes!” “What shall we do with him?” (Response): “Burn him!”

This is the climax, dedicated to the evil memory of a gentleman \undoubtedly brave, and by many accounts honest, who desired to blow up the very substance of English liberty.”

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As we waited for 8 pm the allotted time for the fireworks, the Bishop with his congregation eerily carrying their flaming torches marched across the field to an illuminate area and more importantly a microphone to read the so called ‘prayer’. In 1946 the account records:

“Every time the Edenbridge “Bonfire Boys,” as they delight to call themselves, meet together they conclude their proceedings with a solemn recitation of the Bonfire Prayers, These prayers are a bit of that stubborn Old English magic, whose purpose’ is almost forgotten, whose exhortation is almost irrelevant, but whose words somehow stick upon the young tongues of our children, even in these atomic times, when barrels of gunpowder would seem to be almost an old-fashioned remedy.”

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Yet 60 years later they hadn’t changed and despite some of the audience being unaware of the words and even in one case criticising the historical accuracy of it, the main parts were still gleefully recited:

“Remember, remember the 5th of November The Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, I see no reason why gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot. Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent To blow up the King and Parliament Three score barrels of power below Poor old England to overthrow, By God’s providence he was catched With dark lantern and burning match Just about to light the prime Caught him in the nick of time. Holla Boys, Holla Boys, ring boys ring, Holla Boys, Holla Boys,God save the King.”

DSC_0432At the very moment as the crowd cried ‘holla holla boys holla’ there was an almighty bang and Guy’s face was blown off. Then began one of the most impressive and loud firework displays I had ever heard. After about half an hour of bombarding..silence descended and a voice could be heard over the speakers introducing their next victim – Seth Blatter…at this point he was lit up and the ‘Bishop’ cried out ‘what shall we do with him?” “Burn him!”…then there was another enormous explosion and Seth lost his head! This heralded even more fireworks! Soon the large flurry of sound and light ended and the town’s commemoration of this event 400 years ago ended for another year.

Custom transcribed: Leicester’s Diwali festival of lights

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Light idea

As the cold midlands skies are lit up with a wondrous array of lights in attendance of 60,000 people…it is remarkable how this custom transcribed from far away has established itself so firmly in Leicester. These celebrations, which stretch along the so called Golden Mile, are the biggest outside India started modestly enough. Decorations were first erected along the Belgrave Road in 1983. These were simple illuminated rings attached to columns between Dorset Street and Loughborough Road with illuminated festoon between the lamps. By 1986 it had extended to Olphin Street and the Belgrave Neighbourhood centre façade was included. Melton Road by 1989 and then 1995 extended to join the Belgrave Flyover until its recent removal. Over 4800 lamps being used over the years

The demolishing of the Flyover in 1994 and subsequent redevelopment of Belgrave Road gave the organisers the chance to extend. A report in 2015 noting:

“The display will now extend along the full length of Belgrave Road to Belgrave Circle, with column-mounted decorations on the 18 lamp columns around Belgrave Circle itself. More lights, illuminated signs and energy efficient bulbs will feature heavily in this year’s display. Our senior lighting technician Joe Clay outlined the plans in more detail. He said: “In the centre of Belgrave Circle there will be a 10 metre wide ‘Happy Diwali’ LED illuminated crossing, installed on two 12 metre high support poles. “The expansion of the display this year will add a further 1,200 multi coloured lamps. The lamps we have used from 2014 are LED lamps, which offer a dramatic reduction in energy usage. “On Belgrave Road there have traditionally been three different types of decoration fixed to lamp columns. For 2015 there will be a fourth design incorporated for variety and these will also be included around Belgrave Circle.”

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Out of darkness

The festival, principally a Hindu one, but also recognised by Sikhs, is a New Year celebration based on the lunar calendar and this falling between late October and early November. Significantly for this time of year, when clocks go back and the feeling of darkness is ever present, the festival celebrates good over evil – light over dark.

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The true origins of Diwali are lost in the mists, but the commonest legend tells of when the demon King Ravan was slayed by Hindu Lord Ram, crowned King of Ayodhya, after 14 years of exile. People celebrated by lighting lamps along the street. To Sikhs it was the time when in 1620, 52 Hindu princes were released by the sixth Guru, Hargobind Singh. Lights being lit at the Golden temple to welcome their return.

There is without doubt a feeling of expectation a joyous holiday atmosphere amongst the crowds awaiting the switch on. Cheers and fireworks fill the skies and dancing and music fills the spaces between the lights. The crowd can be a bit intimidating but that in a way is part of the event. Around in small areas small street displays of candles can be made…and as the town’s mayor steps up to turn on the lights with a great count down..everyone is waiting with great anticipation. Then the moment and the sky is lit up with wonderful lights. Then there’s the great aromas of food beckoning and the sounds of dancing and music filling the eye.

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In essence one couldn’t get a better foreign custom to establish itself in England than Diwali, despite its varied claimed origins (itself a trait shared with many British customs) its wanting to banish darkness from the skies in the cold autumn nights echoes native traditions of Bonfire night and Christmas…but its idea of sharing and celebration what many races and religions have in common is something quite central to the core of many British customs. A need for community to include everyone…indeed it is worth noting that:

“Once the Diwali celebrations are complete, parts of the display will be converted to display a festive message, as we take down the Diwali decorations to put up our Christmas lights.”

In a sense only really by changing the words only perhaps!

 

Custom survived: Blackpool illuminations

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Last year I discussed the lesser known but nevertheless picturesque Matlock illuminations, this month it’s time to talk about the grandfather of illuminations: Blackpool. In 2012, the town celebrated 100 years of lighting up and so I felt it was fitting to return back.

Walking on artificial sunshine

Blackpool is the queen of all seaside resorts, a well established resort long before the illuminations begun. In 1879, the local council decided to invest £5000 into converting the gas lights to Dr Siemen’s 8 dynamo-electric street lighting, the first electric street lights in the world. This new scheme attracted near on 100,000 visitors to see the promenade lit up with 48,000 candles worth of ‘artificial sunlight’!

Like Matlock, royalty was again the influence and the regular lighting up was established after the first Royal visit, by Princess Louise, to the town and the renamed Princess Parade in May 1912 with its ‘novel fashion of garland lamps’.

So impressive were the 10,000 bulb display that it was they were set up again in September and large crowds assembled. So successful was the scheme that local businesses persuaded the council to repeat it in 1913 and despite the inevitable stoppage for the First World War, their revival soon cemented their fame and became an established tourist attraction and in 1932 animated tableaux was added. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the area covered by lights extended six miles from Squires Gate to Red Bank Road. Indeed, although a preview was made on the 31st August which ironically included a searchlight on top of the Tower, the blackout soon enveloped the town and it was not until 1949 that the brightness returned.

Many hands make light work

The switch on has been a big thing, from the big attraction of Lord Derby in 1934 to more recently Gary Barlow, a lesser attraction. In 1949, actress Anna Neagle pressed the switch, and this established the pattern from then on. Celebrities have become associated with this switch on are a barometer for then current fads and celebrity custom. From great Lancastrians such as George Formby, Gracie Fields and Ken Dodd to oddballs such as the Canberra Bomber and Red Rum, the horse!! Who could forget Rear Admiral Sandy Woodward in 1982 sandwiched between the Muppets and Cannon and Ball? One of the most memorable, being the 1975 Doctor Who switch one advertising the town’s long running Who exhibit. In the 00s we may remember The Stig from Top Gear, Keith Lemon and Steps, but come a hundred years on, they’ll be as well known as Jacob Malick and John H. Whitney! Who…? Look them up. Indeed the switch up has become an event in itself, yet with tickets at £34 and massive losses running into the £100,000s (is there a connection?) this may be in danger.

Strike a light

Despite the rain and the wind, which can make a visit at this time of year so bracing, somehow the bright lights raise the spirits. Walking from the guest house towards the Tower I awaited the allotted time when the lights were switched on. There was no countdown and I almost missed it only realising it was happening when I could hear the cries of the assembled people as we watched the lights go up, down and up, flash and a large heart light up.

Of course the other great illumination features is the one which could inflict injury: the trams, although these are surely during the illuminations safest they could be, being lit up like fireworks and resembling something Santa would dream up to transport himself. Catching them is another matter, for everything I managed to get to their depo, I’d just missed one!

Then 66 nights latter, it’s all switched off, taken down and put into storage for another year as this jewel of seaside towns beds down for the winter.  The crowds disappear, ready to return next year for these bright garish lights are still a great attraction even over a 100 years later and long may they blaze on.

Custom survived: Matlock Illuminations and Venetian fete

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The splendours of Matlock Bath are perhaps difficult to explain to anyone not familiar with English eccentricity. Bereft of the seaside, Midland’s people appear to have created one inland, with its fish and chip shops, stick of rock emporia, amusement arcades and kiss me quick frivolity. If one looked at the main parade of shops which not only regale in these but are joined by an aquarium, rides, ice-cream eaters and rows of motorbikes..one could see it easily transferred to face some salty sandy strip, waves breaking and long pier but no..turn around and you’ll see the great river Derwent slithering through this valley of vicarious vicissitudes instead. This was and is a spa town and like many spa towns it had a defined season. Defined seasons are all very well when we are by the sea, when sun bathing is a bit problematic in Autumn…but I get the impression that for spa towns, especially those in the decline in the late 1800s, any way of extending this season and bringing more tourists in would be welcome…so as the summer season comes to an end, days shorten, Matlock Bath invites you to its most colourful attraction…the Venetian illuminations.

Bright idea

The event dates back to 1897, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, which is interesting as Victoria was said to be the inspiration. She recalled that when staying in Matlock Bath, she remarked how she saw the candle lights of the town reflected on the Derwent when staying there and thought the mist over the river was magical…and so the town decided to capitalise on this description. These were the days when everyone hung on the thoughts of the monarch…has little changed!?

Tripping the light fantastic

So in 1897, a selection of fairy lamps, Chinese and Japanese lanterns was used and a torchlight procession was undertaken through the village. Coloured bonfires lit up the gorge and illuminated boats floated down the river. So popular was the event, that the local trades people invested in glass bucket lanterns to illuminate the parade during the first Saturday in September every year. The growing popularity resulted in the formation of a ‘lamp committee’ which organised these displays but it was not until 1903 that the decorated and illuminated boats became a regular part of the event with a competition for the best one established called the Arkright Cup. This competition continues till this day, with a longer month or so long festival being established in 1952.

The delightful Riverside gardens are the venue for this curious custom. No better location can be found which typifies the Victorian splendour of old. Here everything trees, fountains and wells, are adorned with old fashioned bulb lighting which as dusk envelops gives the area a magical enchanted feeling.

Light up!

I arrived at the opening ceremony to watch, the councillor to officially open the illuminations. The switch on in the 1970s and 80s was done by people as varied as children’s artist Tony Hart to Doctor who’s Jon Pertwee, disappearing in the 1990s in a way competing with Blackpool’s famous switch ons, which still continue. Two small children were selected and I was amused to watch another have a hissy-fit when they were not selected: I do hope they have the same view after seeing the Blackpool lights switched up by some celeb?!Ten-nine-eight-seven-six-five-four-three-two-one! Now with the help of these two small children selected from the audience, the delightful fairy-tale delight was switched on for another year. In reflection perhaps a celeb may raise the profile of the event, but understandably absence considering the appearance fees those celebs charge.

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Float away

The main attractions here of course are the boats. During the day, these I must admit look unimpressive, but under the cover of darkness, their magnificence comes to life, especially when they are lit up all at once on their first outing. What is impressive, aside from the hundred and possibly thousands of bulbs, are mechanisms used, this year having a working Ferris wheel, swaying Chinese Dragon, and blinking eyed Thomas the Tank Engine Lorry. The first float however comes out solely being lit by candles as traditional, a custom which begun in the 1980s I believe to show what the original floats look like, in 2013 it was a bomber..impressive but not ad the main show and difficult to get a decent photo!

Light relief

At the end of the first evening, it was called upon for the councillor again to give out, the prizes. A strange collection of people clumped near the bandstand: Chinese mandarins, Smurfs, Willy Wonka! Four prizes were on offer in this Arkright cup. This competition has attracted some regular entrants, such as electrician David Gregory, who since 1971 has entered every year and won the cup 11 times.

With over 1800 coloured bulbs per boat, and over 100,000 visitors, Matlock’s illuminations are certainly in the big league when it comes to customs but outside the area little known especially compared to Blackpool.  Fortunately, for anyone reading this unlike when I describe these customs, they have finished, but in this case, the Illuminations continue every weekend until the end of October, so there’s still time to experience them if you are in the area.

On certain weekends, the night finishing with a spectacular fireworks.  A strange melancholy amongst the obvious vibrancy of a sky scattered in fireworks. The fireworks themselves subtly telling us that winter is on its way, time to tidy up and put the shops to bed..close down and finally reconcile oneself to the quieter winter ahead!

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