On Saturday it was Hatherleigh Carnival; later than usual this year as the previous weekend had been taken up with various fire shows, fireworks and bonfire night celebrations.
As predicted the weather came in with vengeance on Friday afternoon…we experienced the full force of its arrival being in the middle of a training day we’d arranged for a large group of Natural England staff –in the field…naturally!
The morning had not been too bad, occasional drizzle and little wind. As we gathered in the barn for a lunch of homemade soup, local cheeses and warm apple cake spooned with thick clotted cream, spirits remained high and discussion animated. Even after the somewhat tempestuous wet-wild afternoon session folk appeared quite happy to drip, steam and chatter in the sheep shed whilst they drunk piping hot tea and ate more cake. As the last car left in the darkening daylight the weather worsened. The wind developed ferociously…ripping trees and gates, hurling buckets, screeching through the cow palace tearing viciously at haylage and straw whilst the rain whipped and lashed. Struggling to the house with the detritus of the training day I shout to no-one in particular “This doesn’t bode well for the carnival tomorrow. Reminiscent of last year. What a bugger!”
All that night the weather raged “Can’t believe it’ll be alright out there.” I whisper into Robert’s back snuggled warmly cosy in bed “Must go and see the sea” I mutter drowsily “Tomorrow. The waves, the coast…” I trail off “…it’ll be breathtaking” and I drift to sleep with visions of gigantic waves exploding against menacing cathedral-vaulted cliffs.
And we did…go to the coast. It was magnificent, thrilling. Waves towered and crashed like crumbling detonated buildings hurtling landwards, pounding the shore in a thick sea of whipped foam. Lundy butterflies flew in their thousands scuttering over cliffs slicked dark by the rain. The wind blew and tossed me like a worthless plaything, whipping my legs from under me and sending me skittering uncontrollably across the ground. I was blown hither and thither; my breath whipped away whilst bursts of staccato laughter escaped into the wind. The pocket lurcher, perplexed by this new game, pranced and twirled around me like a mongoose in front of a snake…and Robert behind me shouted, eventually managing to catch hold of my hand as we battled the next onslaught.
That evening, miraculously, the wind dropped and the skies cleared. Down in town, we made our way around numerous spectacular floats gathered in the market place waiting for the Carnival parade. Eerie lighting bounced from the floats across the crowd illuminating the sea of milling faces into weird grotesques. Stars pricked the sky as the Hatherleigh Silver band struck up; tractors revved and powered forward, generators thrumming; the procession, a cacophony of colour, smell and sound slowly ground its way along Market Street, pausing by the blackened burnt-out carcass of the George (the gales of the previous night had blown down the protective shuttering and boarding, leaving the ruins bare). The rubble of ancient brick, wood and cob demanded to be seen, not hidden and out of sight, and in its diminished state it was a stark reminder to us of the George’s former place as the heart, the hub, of the town.
After a respite for a warming whisky and ginger wine, we were at the top of the town, waiting for the tar barrels to be set alight. Paraffin fumes filled the air, penetrating deep into the lungs. Amid klaxons and earthy shouts the team of young men arrived. The mood was one of tangible excitement. The torch was lowered; the barrels flared and great wafts of smoke and flame billowed outward. With a strident “OGGIE, OGGIE, OGGIE” and the responding “OY, OY, OY!” they were off – barrels blazing. Speed, speed speed. Unintentionally I was swept along with the crowd running behind the barrels. For the second time that day I was totally out of control. Careering, shouting, calling…faster and faster they ran “Oggie, oggie, oggie” “Oy, oy, oy” louder and louder they shouted “OGGIE OGGIE OGGIE” “OY OY OY”. A hand walloped my back, I was falling; I had to keep my balance, whatever. My heart pumped, the ground swirled towards me, my legs buckled. Almost flying flat I was rushed forward ever faster but somehow, miraculously, like a character in an animated film, I spun off sideways managing to regain both my legs and my composure! With heart crashing at my narrow escape I took a short cut though the back lanes and waited to rejoin the barrels for the last leg of the journey to the bonfire.
We stood wrapped around each other watching the flames writhe and spit high into the darkness. The intense heat melted our faces and burnt our lungs. A shiver passed involuntarily down my spine. I turned, looked up at Robert; he tightened his arms around me, nuzzled the top of my head. We watched
It was a day of raw nature, of powerful forces beyond our control, of our Mesolithic ancestry. It was a day that stripped away the thin veneer of civilisation, the petty worries of everyday life, a day to remember the fleeting substance of man, our precarious existence.