There is a small town in South Lakes in Cumbria known as ‘the festival town’. It has a festival for almost everything.
Ulverston, situated at the base of a peninsula surrounded by Morecambe Bay and the Irish Sea, celebrates Flag Fortnight, a fashion festival (in which people stand in shop windows, modelling the latest outerwear), Breastfeeding Fortnight, WalkFest, The International Buddhist Spring Festival, Printfest and the infamous Dickensian weekend, when even the shyest of locals dons a top hat or a bodice. I even attended a special ‘apple’ weekend one sunny September day in which you could sample all things applely and children could create mess out of apple related toys. But the biggest one for me is the Lantern festival in September.
I don’t know why, but the Lantern Festival feels like a secret. A cult almost. But anyone can take part. And they do. Thousands of them.
It’s a parade that runs throughout the streets of the town, carrying handmade lanterns of wicker and thin paper, the candles inside bobbing and splashing wax on shoulders and hats beneath them.
If you want to be involved, you pick your lantern making kit up from the Lanternhouse (weeks before the parade if the notion takes you). You are given a paper bag filled with Withies (willow sticks), thin white tissue paper and a jam pot of glue. As to what you decide to make, well, there is a theme every year but it can be manipulated into whatever you want to create. The theme could be Inventions, or Under The Sea, or Alice in Wonderland. You could build a spitfire, a teapot, a hot air balloon (the latter is always an easy one if you’re starting out.)
There are four processions from each corner of the town, with four bands leading the event. You arrive at one of the starting points, such as the Cattlemarket or the Parish Church, when the light is still strong, to be given a pole with a hook to dangle your lantern from. As it gets dark, people start to light their candles. Children carrying lanterns of stars, cat’s heads, or even dinosaurs, run around shouting out the creatures and creations they can spot. Each procession sets off at the same time, like a military operation, planned to the minute. The bands at the front, banging the drums, sounding the horns, playing the violin, leading the collection of people and their lanterns into the centre of town, snaking through the cobbled streets, under railway bridges, past the canal. The houses on the route, (lights off inside; all the better to see you with, my dear) spy the procession from their highest windows. Some lanterns need six people to carry them. They can be a huge heavy things, such as a buses with metres and metres of wicker and a tonne of glue or a seven foot otter or even the Gruffalo. Anything is possible with a bit of planning. Some families have one hot air balloon between them and pass it between them, sharing the glory. When you hear someone say, ‘Wow, look at that!’ you feel the unmistakable glow of pride.
As you reach the centre of town, the streets are full of spectators and you’re are carried along with a sea of lanterns, the different bands still setting contrasting beats amongst the cobbles. The growing procession finds its way to the top of the town to Ford Park, a field below the Hoad Moment. The monument, in the shape of a lighthouse (although it never served that purpose) is a 100ft tower on top of the hill above Ulverston. Built in 1850, it commemorates Sir John Barrow (born in Ulverston in 1764) who was a founder member of the Royal Geographic Society. In some way, the monument seems to embody the festival spirit of the town.
Well into the evening now in Ford Park, the gathering of people swells to almost breaking point. In corners of the field, local bands and dance groups act out ritualistic dances, fire eating, fire dancing. In the dark field, with only the lanterns to light your way, it’s really quite spooky. When everyone has reached the park, lanterns are abandoned as candles splutter out. And the fireworks are lit. A 20 minute explosion of colour and light, with the Hoad monument looking down on them with pride.
The crowd start heading home, some leaving their lanterns in the mud for the diligent team who organise the parade, always hell-bent on collecting every last one at dawn the next day. The pubs start to fill up and the kettles start clicking on at home. The children, full of past-their-bedtime sleepiness and rosy cheeks, drag their legs home.
Does the Lantern Festival celebrate anything in particular? Who knows? It’s a wonderful night, being carried along with a community, through streets and alleyways to a field under a fake lighthouse, lit by the glow of a thousand candles. They love a festival here in Ulverston and why not? Why not take pleasure in the more beautiful, creative things in life? Why not indeed.
Did I say the town had a sense of humour too? Note the faint handwriting to the left of the headline…