Did you know that St.Werburgh is the patron saint of Chester? No? Not surprised...me neither. Not until I did a little research; curious as to why geese were so well represented in the parade. Apparently, the goose represents this Anglo-Saxon princess who died in 700AD. That’s quite some time ago.
A little more recently, however...around this time last year, I ventured into Chester for a bit of Street shooting and saw a huge throng of people amassing by the ‘Cross’ of this old Roman City. When I say ‘huge’, I mean by Chester’s standards. It’s a city on account of having a cathedral, rather than it’s size. Anyway, I digress...
Seems I’d turned up just in time for the Midsummer Watch Parade; celebrating the Summer Solstice. One of the country’s oldest and most colourful Street celebrations.....
Got a load of shots and a bruise just above my left wrist. Seems I couldn’t believe my luck and had been pinching myself.
This year I planned it. Put it in my diary, so to speak. Panicked on the 26th; thinking I’d missed it..until a friend pointed out we were still in May at the time. Oops. So...good fortune again.
Drove to Chester in good time, opting to use just my 18-200 lens to get me right in the action. I had no idea of this year’s route; turns out, neither did most of the performers. Never mind...I found some of them congregating down a back alley that opened out onto a reasonably wide but little used thoroughfare.
It was here I caught up with the band of percussion musicians who marched behind the towering Devil effigy. Despite the large band of Samba drummers, this group was, for me at least, the most dynamic at last year’s parade. They didn’t disappoint this year either.
Having established where the procession would head initially, I went to the old City Cross and waited. I’d heard a little warm up drumming and whistling, reminding me of the excitement I felt last year but .....sheesh!
The goosebumps still rose when they marched down from the Town Hall. Primordial, insistent drumming: Bmmbmm (lead drum), Bambam (responding troop). Bmmbmm, Bambam! I’m excited again now, just recounting it. Bmmbmm, Bambam! Live, dynamic music, coupled with the adrenal surge of Street Photography. Hard to beat!
As I said earlier, I’ve done a little research as I was curious about this event’s origins and characters. Not only that, I was kind of interested in how long it had been going.
I soon discovered that it started in 1498 and was a popular public event, with occasional disruption, until the 1670s. It’s written that one puritanical Lord Mayor banned it, back in 1599. But such was it’s popularity it was soon reinstated. Apparently, he objected to the frivolous nature of it; encouraging ordinary folk to enjoy themselves on the streets. Ooof! Whatever next?!
300 years on, the City decided this was a venerable slice of history and it started anew. I’m so glad. What started out as exhibits of the City & Guilds craftsmen, became something that schools and community centres got involved in. The standard of the banners and figures is wonderful. I know from my time as a Governor in a small village Primary School, that this sort of involvement is a fantastic way to bring history alive for kids.
So...brief history lesson over, back to the procession.
Last year the route was a fairly wide tour within the city walls, encompassing several major streets. This year, however, the organisers opted to send the marchers down from the Town Hall to The Cross. From there down one particularly narrow Street; looping back up. Then on from there down a wider street; looping back up to The Cross again. From there, a short march to the finale outside the Town Hall.
Given that only pedestrian precincts were used, the organisers were, it seems, wary of traffic issues. Funny how a change of route can make such a difference to the dynamics but never mind...those congregated in the city centre certainly benefited from repeat sightings.
Strange though...mayhem could have ensued as the wonderful and somewhat unwieldy ‘creatures’ passed each other in these ancient streets. But fortunately the only scuffles were good natured and no one tripped over anyone else. The march became almost a Pavane in places; so slow the pace and dance-like in nature.
“Aaaarhh, there be those that make music with the Devil!” cried the pirate.
In response, the tambourine player smiled her beautiful smile and joked; whilst the lead drummer turned to face them defiantly. Hammering out that mesmeric rhythm even harder, ever louder. Bmmbmm..Bambam, Bmmbmm..Bambam!
These were just two groups of many. There was an incredible array of characters in evidence. Little wonder really, given over 500 years of history. There were:
Woodfolk and the Tree of Life...not specifically associated with Chester but something that runs through the veins of British myth and history.
Many bright yellow suns. A reminder, if we needed it, of the long summer days to be enjoyed.
Angels, including some on maniacal looking chariots. An obvious inclusion, given Chester’s impressive cathedral and many an opulent church.
Dragons...oh, yes...dragons! Significant on account of Chester being just a few giant hops from the Welsh border.
Sailing ships, pirates (aforementioned) and fish...reminding people that centuries ago, before the sea receded, Chester was a more important port than Liverpool. Yeh...it’s true.
Vikings..no explanation required. Party animals right?
Geese...representing St.Werburgh. Remember her?
Ravens...celebrating the fact that wild ravens (unlike the wing-clipped versions in the Tower of London) have chosen, since 1997, to nest on the Cathedral and raise 4-5 fledglings each year. You know, there are wonderfully dark images associated with ravens (and carrion generally) on account of Edgar Allen Poe...amongst others. They added a certain gravitas to the proceedings.
Giants...who were around long before Roald Dahl’s big friendly one. Always the stuff of myth and folktale. Aside from a family of giants, Chester boasts the Unicorn, the Elephant and the Camel.
The Devil...enough said
So...there you have it. A wonderful, action packed, noisy and colourful spectacle; concluded all too soon. I particularly enjoyed the finale. A trooping past the Town Hall before the age old struggle between good and evil was re-enacted. This year the leader of the parade was killed, whilst trying to protect the city from the dragon. His son took up his sword as he lay dying and slew the powerful beast; much to the delight and relief of the amassed onlookers.
It was a nicely choreographed piece but alas, the shorter route meant that it was over all too soon. Unless, you happened to be one of those kids covering their ears or crying.
Certainly the musicians wanted to keep it going and members of the ‘cast’ revelled in the opportunity to dance. Even the lead drummer of my favourite group was there, adding weight to the drumming:
Bmmbmm...alas no response.
Bmmbmm...unwilling to let the party end.