Also see Hatherleigh Carnival 2008

Last night we donned our warmest coats, scarves, hats, and gloves and set off for the Hatherleigh Carnival. A ritual.

All photos courtesy of Will’s (my son) mobile phone

Many, many years ago when I went to my first Hatherleigh carnival I was bowled over by the raw, pagan energy. The town pulsed and throbbed with a force that was completely alien to me. The cold dark night, the glittering spangled floats, the bands, the fire, the torches, the flaming tar barrels. Crowds of people jostling, calling and moving with an animal urgency. The youths of the town swelled and consumed the streets, fuelled by alcohol and adrenaline; they shouted and whooped, their faces grotesque parodies in the orange-yellow flickering flames. Enthralled and frightened, amazed and terrified, spellbound and gripped, I was transported back to the time of an age-old ritual, its meaning buried in the past.

Then there were no niceties. No health and safety, no police, no standby ambulance, no high-vis jackets, no cordon or barricades.


Talking about the carnival a few days later to my elderly neighbours, now long dead, they regaled me with stories of what is was like in their youth. Often speaking in unison, sometimes interrupting one another, their faces alive with distant memories, they told me of how “Folk come from all over, all over they would. Pour in…pour in, yes, from way up, maid, from up Barnstaple, I tell’ye, yes.. Banstaple.” “T’is nothing like it were backalong”. They talked of the bands, the street sellers, the food and of the pubs – of which there were many more than now – bursting to overflowing. Vast quantities were drunk, but still they could run dry though preparations had been made weeks in advance.

The floats… “Oh, they be a prapper job, maid! T’is true, you’m never seen a thing like it were”. Fantastical scenes, intricately made on farm drays and pulled by horses, heavily decorated with bobbing ribbons, hoops and a hundred lanterns. The thrill of the parade through the town lit by a million lanterns and blazing torches.

And, of course, the tar barrels. Each time my neighbours recalled the stories the barrels grew bigger, fiercer, hotter, careering more violently out of control, pursued by wild, half-naked, young men and hundreds of revellers to the culmination of an enormous bonfire.

The stories came rolling out: love won and love lost, old feuds re-kindled, fights fought, friends found and families reunited. There were many.
Sadly their stories are now growing dim in my memory.


So, back to our present carnival. People flock in from across the county.
The famous crêpe paper tableaux (assembled by families working in secret for months before) are pulled by gargantuan, metal-gleaming, multi-coloured, diesel-guzzling beasts, complete with roaring generators and bright white lights. Still, the streets thrum with energy. The light, the dark, the ritual of barrel and torch remains.
Heralded by our town crier and silver band the procession is led by a stick frame of twelve blazing torches and is accompanied by another fifty two. Though we have the modern accoutrements of police, cordons, stewards, health and safety, the elemental thrill I feel as I charge with the crowd behind the flaming barrels to the roaring fire is gut-wrenching.