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29 October 2014

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You are in: Somerset > Entertainment and Leisure > Carnival > News and Photos > Failed gunpowder plot sparks carnival history

Bridgwater Carnival squibbing

Squibbing - 1966 style

Failed gunpowder plot sparks carnival history

New to carnival? Find out how a failed gunpowder plot sparked the start of the world's biggest illuminted carnival.

Carnival facts

Some generators on the carnival carts can make over one megawatt of power.

Carnival carts can be 100ft (30m) long.

They can contain around 25,000 light bulbs.

The clubs score points in each carnival and the one who's racked up the highest number of points by the last carnival, Weston-super-Mare, wins the County Cup.

The events raise money for local charities.

Since 2003, around £115,000 has been raised at Bridgwater Carnival.

Somerset’s carnival season is an annual parade of illuminated floats.

There are three different carnival circuits; Guy Fawkes (the most popular), Wessex and South Somerset.

Bridgwater, North Petherton, Glastonbury, Shepton Mallet, Wells, Midsomer Norton, Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea make up the Guy Fawkes circuit, Ilminster, Chard, Taunton, Wellington and Yeovil are part of the South Somerset Carnival Circuit while the Wessex Circuit includes Castle Cary and Wincanton carnivals. Crewkerne is an independent carnival.  

Bridgwater Carnival was the first carnival to take place and is the biggest on the circuit, attracting over 100,000 people to the event each year.

It dates back to 1605 when Guy Fawkes infamously tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The annual event is always the first Friday after Bonfire Night, however this is a recent change as it used to be held on Thursdays. This brought about an end to a carnival tradition; ‘Black Friday’ whereby participants celebrated their hard work (with the consumption of alcohol) the day after the carnival.

Many carnivals are struggling to survive as a lot of money is needed to keep them going. Strict health and safety regulations have added to the cost. Yeovil Carnival has been cancelled since 2006 due to a lack of support.

Burning boats

The original Bridgwater celebrations featured a large bonfire built out of a large wooden boat to which around 100 tar barrels were set alight at the Cornhill. The tradition was stopped however due to the lack of old wooden boats to burn and because a number of good boats were thrown onto the fire and burned by revellers.

Phoenix Carnival Club's Vampires Wedding (2004)

Clubs spend all year working on their carts

Effigies or 'guys' representing the gunpowder plot instigators were added to the fire by local groups of people known as 'gangs'. This turned into a procession which became more elaborate over the years; featuring costumes and music until this became a key feature of the event. 

Today, carnivals feature a parade of floats which are called carts and have people called ‘masqueraders’ who dance on them.

They are large and elaborate and are built by local clubs that are individually funded by charitable donations and sponsorship.

The carts are built in members’ free time on a voluntary basis and can cost around £20,000. They are based on themes such as songs, Disney characters and popular books. They are driven by tractors and require a large generator to provide enough power to light up the carts.

Bridgwater Carnival is famous for ‘squibbing’ which is when fireworks are held aloft on the end of a long wooden handle called a ‘cosh’. The squibs give off sparks like a roman candle. They used to end with a loud bang however Health and Safety concerns have meant this does not happen anymore.

last updated: 08/11/07

You are in: Somerset > Entertainment and Leisure > Carnival > News and Photos > Failed gunpowder plot sparks carnival history

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