After the Illuminated Carnival has passed through Bridgwater, the local tradition of Squibbing takes place. 160 brave volunteers line up along the crowded high street with fireworks strapped to a wooden stick known as a cosh. The fireworks are simultaneously lit, accompanied by much cheering and whooping from the spectators –

Although Squibbing may be unique to Bridgwater, the Illuminated carnival that precedes it is part of a regional tradition. There are around 30 illuminated carnivals in the South West, the most famous being the magnificent seven of Somerset’s November Circuit – Bridgwater (Friday 5th November 2010), North Petherton (Saturday 6th), Burnham-on-Sea / High bridge (Monday 8th), Shepton Mallet (Wednesday 10th), Midsomer Norton (Thursday 11th), Wells (Friday 12th), Glastonbury (Saturday 13th) and Weston-Super-Mare (Monday 15th).

The tradition of Bridgwater Squibbing is over 400 years old, stemming from the celebration of the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Tragic, explosive accidents related to the preparation of the Squibbing fireworks were recorded as far back as 1716. Costumed celebrations around the traditional Bonfire date back to 1847, and the first illuminated procession started in 1881 with light bulbs being used as early as 1903. One could wonder how much the Squibbing and Illuminated Carnivals are actually linked to the universal celebrations of the change of seasons and that of light and darkness…

Organised entirely by volunteers and involving an estimated 10,000 people in Somerset, there are more than 50 float clubs and around 100 other clubs that enter as walking groups or individuals – this year, the Bridgwater Carnival (which tours around Somerset) consisted of 124 clubs. Floats can cost around £20,000 to construct and fundraising occurs throughout the year to ensure the survival of the custom.

The carnival at Bridgwater is widely reputed to be the largest of all the illuminated carnivals. Indeed, accommodation in the town was booked up weeks in advance – so much that a lot of people were having to stay in hotels or bed and breakfasts in nearby towns or villages.

For the 2010 parade there was entertainment provided throughout the day around the town centre, starting at 10:30am up until the procession at 7pm. This included the local radio station, tribute bands, marching bands, samba bands and show choirs. Also included were clowns, balloon artists and stilt walkers.

From around 5pm older people and families were territorially setting up their deck chairs along the pavements of the High Street to ensure a good view of the parade while also acting as a handy living crowd barrier. Blankets were cast over laps and hundreds of thermos flasks set up as a mile-long set of skittles, complete with batches wrapped up in silver foil to act as bowling balls. Umbrellas were at the ready to defend against the heavy dark clouds swirling and rushing around in the sky above.

A jazz band played to the crowd at some point further up the High Street causing some of the crowd to start off spontaneous dance routines and their own little parades. Fluorescent marshals patrolled the streets selling fundraising souvenir programmes for £1.50 while keeping an eye out for hawkers without permits. Several rogue hawkers were found, after which they were told to go and buy a permit – or else they couldn’t continue selling their flashing rainbow-coloured wares. Waving their arms, the hawkers complained that they hadn’t made enough money to buy a permit at that stage – but had no choice other than to comply with the orders of the marshals.

The procession snaked its way around the town centre taking two hours to complete the route. Although it started at 7pm, it obviously took a while to reach the High Street – but this didn’t stop some of the spectators complaining by 7:15pm that it was already late.

After teasing the people in Bridgwater with a delicate, gentle drizzle over the last two hours, the Heavens finally opened just as the procession reached the High Street. A flurry of umbrellas were opened by the people sitting in their deck chairs without obstructing the view of the crowd behind them.

After comparing the pictures of the 2009 floats in the programme with those passing by, it was clear that some of the floats had received minimal modifications to make them look different. But to be fair – with a construction cost of £20,000 it would be unfair to expect completely new floats every year!

If you think you’ve seen a carnival, then think again. The Bridgwater Illuminated Carnival is a sight for sore eyes (probably caused by all the bulbs on the floats……). The floats were up to 100ft in length, 16ft high, and 11ft wide with some having up to 30,000 light bulbs. The basic design of floats today are similar to that of fairground rides, with some designers being more creative than others. Some floats had massive moving components and high platforms for the performers.

Each float had a different theme – Jesters (Fantasy CC, Bridgwater), Irish Dancers (2R’s CC, Temple Cloud), Dragons (Oasis CC, Frome), Gargoyles (British Flag CC, Bridgwater), Chavs (Mardons CC, Midsomer Norton), Spiders (C. Muspratt, Paignton), Woolly Mammoths (Griffens CC, Bridgwater) and movie themes (Mendip Vale CC, Wells) but to name just a few.

The performers on the floats were either acting as statues and holding one single pose for the entire two hours of the procession, other groups were performing synchronised dance routines. Music issued from loudspeakers on each of the floats – suited to whatever the theme happened to be.

Even though the performers were mostly sheltered from the rain, they were still getting a little bit wet. Some had been wiping the rain away, smearing their face paints. It was a cold evening – although not too cold for a November night, but some of the costumes were more suitable for a hot August afternoon on a sunny beach. Despite this, there wasn’t one performer that looked miserable. Every single person on the floats still had a massive beaming smile. The effort that the performers were putting in would make anyone proud. Congratulations to the designers of the floats and the performers that adorned them!

Every so often a collection truck would pass by between the floats, to which the spectators would throw their money. Collections were made to cover the costs of organising the carnival, but also to collect money for the charity ‘Help for Heroes.’ Four years ago approximately 15,000 people that attended the carnival in Bridgwater donated £31,000 but this has since dropped to £27,000 in 2008 and £24,300 in 2009. Given the popular revival of festivals celebrating local traditions – this would not be because attendance is dropping, but rather because of the declining economic climate.

The procession ended after two hours, but people didn’t disperse and go home – the majority of spectators stayed for the Squibbing. After an hour, a stream of people holding the coshes solemnly filed down the High Street. Some of the people who were now decked out in overalls or thick coats along with safety glasses and hard hats had only just changed out of their lycra and sequins that they had worn for dancing on the floats.

Some of the locals (and a guy talking over a P.A. system) were warning visitors to stand well back from the Squibbers. The locals reported that sparks from the industrial sized fireworks could really hurt, and were dressed as the Squibbers were themselves – with hardly an inch of exposed skin. Veteran Squibbers were warning virgin Squibbers not to look up at the fireworks once they were lit – as the falling sparks would really hurt their faces.

But the collection of locals and visitors were too excited and wanted to get close to the scene of the action. With plenty of cheering and whooping everyone crowded in close to one another. Once the 160 fireworks were simultaneously lit, those that had arrived without appropriate protection attempted in vain to protect themselves with their umbrellas (it had stopped raining at this point), but the sparks from the fireworks just melted straight through the plastic and onto the heads of those cowering below. The sparks even melted holes in the coats of some of the visitors.

Given the danger from the hot flying sparks (which only hurt for a second and didn’t even leave a mark on the skin), the crowd were still very friendly. Individuals at events where the activity in question is either dangerous or violent are often more friendly to each other. Maybe this arises out of a sense of solidarity? Everyone present at the Squibbing were all looking out for each other – as they themselves would probably hope that they would receive help from strangers if required. Plenty of people report that a great sense of community is achieved after attending such an event. The dangerous events reported here on this website often have less Police in attendance than the more serene and calm events that attract a large number of people.