I just went to one of these last night. At Glastonbury, it was. Though thankfully it wasn't full of sloaneys and hipsters this time of year, but the rampaging woo emporia were still there. There was even one called "The Psychic Piglet" but we'll draw a veil over that.
Anyhow. Somerset carnivals. There's a number of them throughout November in Somerset. There's Glastonbury, obviously, then there's Bridgwater, Burnham on Sea, Taunton, North Petherton, and similar. They have been going for over 400 years now, but nobody, nobody, I have spoken to in London ever heard of them. To them, "carnival" means Notting Hill, smoking weed, and pretending to be Jamaican even though the only Kingston they've ever been to is the one in Surrey. I suspect an element of Samuel Johnson about this, but there you go.
The origins of the Somerset carnival lie in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. Faced with an insidious Catholic conspiracy to explode the Protestant king, the people of Britain took en masse to burning Guido Fawkes in effigy - and the Pope as well. However, Somerset was one of the most staunchly Protestant areas of the country, and they made a really big deal of it. They'd process through the towns with their horses and carts decorated and lanterns dangling off it. Over time, the carts became increasingly elaborately decorated, the whole Guy Fawkes thing was lost, the horses to pull them were replaced by tractors, and now, the carts (as the floats are still called) can be massive, 100-foot edifices with over 1.5 MW of lightbulbs, sound systems, motorised bits, dripping all over them. Aside from the carts, there are also "walking entries," which are people in costumes parading with the procession and often pushing or pulling a non-motorised vehicle as well.
Seriously. This was the first time I'd ever been to a Somerset carnival last night and I had not seen anything like some of the larger carts. They are pulled by tractors, but the tractors have all manner of things atop them so they now look like an extension of the actual cart. On the front are the names of the carnival clubs who build them and the name and theme of the cart. Notable ones this year were "Swarm Force" which had blokes in cyberpunk costumes firing dry ice cannons and huge robotic-looking insects; "XTinct," which had skeletal dinosaurs, "Stampede" which was a Wild West themed one, "Kabuki," a Feudal Japan themed one, and similar. Each of these carts had more lightbulbs on every conceivable surface than I'd ever seen and the sheer heat cascading off of it was palpable. There were also people perched at various places on each cart dancing and doing performances, or just standing in tableau, which was just as impressive as the more motorised "feature" carts. The tableaux tend to be based on a given film or novel or work as opposed to the general themes of the feature carts. This year, the tableaux included one based on Les Miserables, and another based on The War of the Worlds.
The carts are even more impressive when you realise that they are not built by professional engineers or consultants or such, but by ordinary folk over the course of each year. They organise themselves into "carnival clubs," most of which go back to the 1920s, to produce the carts, and raise money to fund their construction. Often sponsorship from local businesses is involved as well. They also get young people from the locality into building or performing on the carts and get them involved. It is also competitive. There are prizes, albeit only token ones, for the best cart in each category (feature cart, tableau, etc.), best group walking entry and best individual walking entry. The scores at each carnival on the circuit (although not everyone enters all the carnivals) are added up and the winner gets the County Cup, and bragging rights for the rest of the year.
The carnivals themselves are to raise money for charity, and as well as folks with buckets walking alongside the procession, every so often there are collection carts which are simply trailers with a board in the middle of them towed by a speaker van which people in the audience throw coins into from the roadside. The carnival circuit is also a draw to the local economy, and when I was wandering through Glastonbury town beforehand every single shop, cafe, bakery, and New Age shitshack was packed full.
So why, then, if it is all so impressive, is it so obscure? My view is that there is a bit of Samuel Johnson about this. "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." Metropolitan snobbery, if you will. The concept that anything from the provinces has to be second rate. Even though the Bridgwater and Glastonbury carnivals are the largest illuminated carnivals in Europe, they still don't even register on the radar of your average Londoner. Or indeed anyone outside the South West.
And that is a real shame.