Carnival Time

Chard Carnival celebrates its 50th birthday on Saturday 14 October with a cavalcade of colour, lights and action. If you’ve never been to any of the carnivals on the Somerset carnival circuit, make a date now.

You’ll not be disappointed, says Margery Hookings

I’ve always been immensely proud of the carnival traditions in my home towns of Ilminster and Chard. The carnival clubs and individuals put in so much effort, so much hard work. The results are spectacular, even though the parades are not as big as they once were.

Standing in the crowd as huge, illuminated floats trundle past, it feels like Mardi Gras descending on my little bit of rural Somerset. Awesome is such an overused word these days, but it’s such an accurate description of the things going by, whether they be inter-connected trailers with gravity-defying moving parts, or incredibly imaginative walking entries, all processing to a range of loud music blasted through powerful speakers.

I remember being on a carnival float once, in the late 1960s or early 1970s. It wasn’t very sophisticated, compared with the other entries in an era which was something of a carnival heyday in my neck of the woods. We were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I magnanimously offered to take the part of Grumpy, because I knew none of my friends wanted to do it. And, besides, I thought, this was a dwarf with great character. Mind you, keeping a miserable face all around Ilminster was quite a tall order, although the role of Happy, with a silly, fixed grin, might have been marginally more difficult.

I am recalling my first and only taste of being in a carnival parade as Doreen Toms and Gwyneth Jackson show me around the wonderful costumes on show at Chard Museum.  Many of the costumes were donated by the Toms family, and celebrate four decades of carnival.

This year, the museum is putting on a special display in the big barn at the rear of the main building to mark 50 years of carnival. The exhibition will run until the museum closes for the season at the end of October. Shops and businesses are being asked to get into the carnival spirit by dressing their windows along the route. On the Monday of carnival week, the beacon in Mitchell Gardens (near Sainsbury’s) will be lit and local youth groups will be able to enjoy hot chocolate and marshmallows.

All past carnival royalty—queens and princesses—have been invited to afternoon tea in the Guildhall and will ride around the route in an open-top bus.

Last year could have been Chard Carnival’s last. The future of the event was in doubt after a large number of committee members stood down all at once. Doreen, who has been involved with Chard carnival from the outset (she was Tawny Owl when the Brownies’ entry was Puppet on a String in 1967), was almost one of them, but she decided to stay on and fight to save it from dying.

“Most of the B&Bs are full,” she says. “The carnival is great for young and old alike. It’s a community event and everyone can take part, watch or collect along the way.”

The carnival has raised more than £100,000 for local charities and organisations including Chard Christmas Lights, Children’s Hospice South West, Chard Hospital and all the local schools. Carnival is a huge night for the town. People of all ages look forward to it with great glee.

Chard’s current carnival started in 1967 when representatives from the League of Friends and Chard Youth Centre met to discuss ways in which to raise money for the respective groups. Gerald Quick, Mervyn Ball, Tom Miller and Wendy Clulow decided that the best option would be to revive Chard Carnival, after a break of 13 years.

In the early 1970s, Chard, Ilminster, Wellington and Taunton formed the South Somerset Federation of Carnivals, with Yeovil joining at a later date. This provided a competition for the best entries from the five towns taking part. Yeovil Carnival has since ceased to exist, but the federation of four towns remains. It’s the sterling work of the carnival clubs that lead to some pretty spectacular floats which would not look out of place in Rio.

Chard Carnival Committee is made up of several volunteers who meet every month. Some are very actively involved, others help when and if they can, but all work very much as a team, and are all enthusiastic about staging the carnival,

It costs about £6,000 to put on Chard Carnival. The committee raises funds throughout the year to cover these costs, so that everything raised on carnival night can be donated back into the local community.

The Somerset Carnivals, of which Chard is one, are highly regarded as the largest illuminated procession in the world.

The carnival season takes in the Wessex Grand Prix circuit, the South Somerset Federation Carnivals circuit, and ends on the largest Somerset County Guy Fawkes Carnival Association circuit.

The carnival floats are designed and built by dedicated carnival clubs around the West Country. These clubs have many members who raise money throughout the year, and work relentlessly to achieve the spectacular carnival entries. Each club’s entry then takes part in the carnival parade along with many others, putting on a show to the public, and competing with each other to impress the judges. The illuminated floats can be up to 100ft in length, 16ft high, and 11ft wide, and some have 20-30,000 light bulbs.