Thousands of visitors come to Shaftesbury every February to view the beautiful white, seasonal blanket of snowdrops. The Snowdrop Season’s main event, the Study Day of expert speakers and specialist bulb sales, draws snowdrop lovers, or galanthophiles, into our town from all across the country. But for many youngsters and proud parents, the snowdrop lantern procession that ends the event is a highlight.
If you didn’t know about the lantern procession, you probably didn’t venture down the High Street on Saturday. Town Crier Cliff Skee was announcing the evening event. And a few hundred yards away inside the Trinity Centre, artist Des Alner was demonstrating how to fashion the lanterns from different materials.
“Willow, from the Somerset Levels, paper, wire and bamboo. All kinds of materials are put together to make a lantern that you can carry in the dark safely. It has a torch, so it’s not actually using any flame,” said Des.
Des has overseen these lantern workshops before. And he’s taught art to hundreds of Shastonians over the years. “I’ve been an art teacher most of my life,” said Des. “I worked originally as a designer in the pottery and glass industry and then I migrated into teaching pottery and eventually became Head of Art. Then King Alfred’s, the middle school, closed and I got early retirement. So we bought a derelict farm which we’ve turned into a community art centre.”
Des runs community arts projects at Higher Green Farm at Twyford. He’s still teaching there. And during the lantern making sessions he’s taught the children of people that he once taught as school pupils. “There are even teachers that I used to teach,” laughed Des.
Des says it can be awkward when former students don’t know whether they should use his first name. “At Abbey Primary, there was one mum who found it very hard to not call me Mr Alner, when all the children call me Des. So I had to convert her,” he smiled.
Some of Des’ lantern making students had travelled down to the area for half term. Imogen, who attends Blandford School, had enrolled on the workshop so she could learn from Des and complete her bronze arts award. “I have to do a course and study an artist and help and have pictures for my portfolio,” Imogen said.
Together with her friend Izumi, Imogen showed me how to create a snowdrop shape by stretching paper over the willow framework. “The petals go around the lantern, so you have to get the tissue paper and then paint the glue on and then put it around the petal,” said Imogen.
It was 3pm and I wondered whether the damp paper was going to dry in time for the 6pm procession. “We’ve got dryers and heaters to dry them and it did dry in time last year,” said Imogen.
The lanterns were taking shape and they did look good. “There are three petals with a light inside and a green top. When hung up, because they’re dangling downwards, they actually do look like snowdrops,” said Des.
Six o’clock soon rolled around. The lanterns dried, thanks to a great deal of hairdryer action, and the procession group formed outside Trinity. Verity was leading from the front. “We’re going to walk out in a procession. It is really important to hold the lanterns high, so you can see underneath where you’re walking. The other thing is we want a space between every person of at least three metres,” shouted Des.
The group was told that their route would pause twice – at Castle Hill House and the Westminster Memorial Hospital. It meant that residents and patients could enjoy the sight.
There was also going to be a show at the end of the route. “Onto Park Walk and then we progress down through the steps into St James’ Park and that’s where, for visitors looking upwards, they will see this wonderful precession of the illuminated things coming down the steps. We meet at the bottom where Galanthus the Dragon appears and the story unfolds,” said Des.
Down on St James’ Park, Shaftesbury Arts Centre actor Jerome Swan was standing at the side of a small marque as the group of lantern bearers stood around a semi-circle, casting their white light across the greenery and trees. Jerome narrated a story that tied the snowdrops to the Abbey and King Alfred’s daughter, the first Abbess.
“As the months passed, winter drew its chilly arms around the town and the scattering of little bulbs sprouted the most beautiful white flowers. Eventually, these snowdrops covered the Abbey grounds in a shimmering blanket. But one bulb grew taller and bolder than the rest. As Ethelgiva tended it day after day, a dragon’s sleek head bloomed out of the earth,” boomed Jerome.
Galanthus, the glowing dragon, later came to life. “Galanthus now awaken from your sleep,” chanted the crowd.
“Galanthus is the Latin name for snowdrop,” said Des. “So it’s mixed into the mythology of Shaftesbury and the Abbey. It is a sleeping dragon, living underneath the hill, which appears at certain times. That story is a fairy story, but at the same time, it creates a bit of colour to the whole image of the Snowdrop Festival,” he added.
The dragon wasn’t fire breathing, but after some dancing in the lantern light to the folk music of Steps In Time, there were flames. Two fire jugglers, Lizzie McKeevley and Katie Dobson mesmerised the crowd. “I used to work for a kids’ adventure holiday company overseas and someone played with fire. I thought that was fun and it escalated,” Lizzie said. So she decided to teach her fire juggling skills to youngsters. “I’ve been teaching kids how to do it. The youngest was ten and it’s just great. They love it.’
Katie was crouched down in the darkness, pouring smelly paraffin into a container. At one point she was rubbing the flaming torches across her exposed midriff, but she said it doesn’t hurt. “No, it doesn’t strangely enough although you have to do it right, obviously,” she added.
Katie enjoyed the spectacle of the illuminated snowdrops. “I’ve enjoyed tonight. I absolutely loved it. It’s been lots of fun and it’s a really beautiful parade. Really pretty.”
You can never predict a North Dorset winter. Snowdrops committee member Tim Cook was relieved that the conditions had been mild for the Snowdrop Season wrap-up event. “I’m very happy with the weather. I’ve always been so surprised that, in the middle of February, we’ve always had good weather for this festival and especially this finale and the lantern parade. It’s been wonderful again and not as cold as it has been in the past,” said Tim.
And after seeing his arts students pack up and head home, Des could enjoy the satisfaction of knowing he’d created a special memory for many of the children. “It’s something that I’m pleased to be part of and to be able to give skills to other people that they can then carry on. I do feel quite proud,” Des said.