It’s Shaftesbury Carnival this weekend and for the 141st time, townspeople will be treated to a colourful procession of stunning, highly decorated vehicles and eye-catching outfits.
Throughout the day, the buzz and sense of excited expectation that Carnival brings will fill the streets of our hilltop town. For most residents, this is a brilliant one-day event. But as ThisisAlfred’s Keri Jones discovered, putting on this popular parade requires a year-round effort by a devoted group of volunteers.
“They see this three-minute window of Carnival and they think ‘that’s it’,” explained Stephen Appleby of the Kipling Carnival Club. “But there’s a lot of hard work that goes behind all of the carts, masqueraders and walking entries. It takes a lot of time for people to bring entries out. I don’t think the general public understand how much goes on behind all of the entries.”
For many months, groups of devoted volunteers have been juggling their work and family commitments so they can find the time to attend planning meetings, raise funds and create the entries that will delight thousands of locals and visitors on Saturday.
Stephen and his brother Matthew give up most of their free time to the Kipling Club. The 19-year-old twins are 90% identical. And when I met them at the Grosvenor Arms on Thursday, they were wearing matching clothes. The brothers were proudly sporting their burgundy Kipling hoodies. The club’s colours changed from black to this shade of red back in 2016. But the Applebys’ connection with the club goes back much further.
“Aged six, we did a little bit of fundraising and had routine practice for going on the cart and performing,” said Steve. The Kipling Club was originally created for young people. It was the Cub’s float. The name Kipling is a nod to Rudyard, because characters from that author’s most famous work, ‘The Jungle Book’ have been reflected in the Scouting movement for years.
There’s another important name reference to note. In North Dorset, carnival clubs remember their agricultural roots. So they are carts, not floats. Last year, the Kipling Club didn’t enter a cart in the Shaftesbury Carnival. It wasn’t because of a lack of interest or crippling insurance costs – that’s what the doom-mongers might expect. In fact, the club’s support and spirit remains strong, with some members travelling here from the Midsummer Norton and Melksham areas. There was no 2017 entry because the club was temporarily homeless.
“In 2016 we lost our shed. We need a massive shed to build our entry. The entry itself is around 11ft wide, 16ft high and 100ft long. So you need to be able to fit it into a space and work around it. Finding a new shed proved quite hard but we got there in the end and we are renting a building off a local man. It is going well,” said Matt.
I wanted to understand how much work, month by month, the Kipling team had undertaken as they prepared for their public return. “In a standard year, we would finish carnivals around the end of November and come up with a number of themes and ideas that we would want to do the next year. A theme would be chosen at the AGM in January or February. The cart is stripped just after Christmas. Moving parts and engineering are then chosen and the woodworking and painting starts after that. It’s really a one-year hobby,” explained Matt.
The brothers even book their leave from work so they can help out at the height of the carnival season. Taking a week’s holiday around Bridgwater in November isn’t everyone’s idea of the ideal vacation! “We both work for a local building firm. I am a carpenter and Steve is a bricklayer. Finding time to do it is difficult but with the trades we’ve got it is handy. Steve is a ‘dab-hand’ with a jigsaw and that helps,” added Matt.
There is a core of just under a dozen people who work regularly on the Kipling Club’s cart. “We usually have ten down the shed every weekend and we build on Saturdays, Sundays and also Thursday nights, as we get close to the carnival season. When we get further down the line there’s fifteen or sixteen of us,” said Steve.
When you add up time that the volunteers spend on crafting their entry, it’s easy to understand why the carts are so impressive. “One of our members counted the hours up one year, in the 2016 season. It was just over 4,000 hours between everyone,” Steve said.
You might expect that 19-year-olds would want to spend their weekends socialising, perhaps in pubs and clubs, rather than in build sheds. But Steve reckons the carnival club offers a great social interaction. “When we are down the shed we’ve got our carnival family there,” he said. “We are never too hard at work. We’re always having a bit of ‘craic’, while we are doing it,” he smiled.
Steve’s use of the term ‘carnival family’, helped me appreciated the strong sense of camaraderie and belonging experienced by members of the club and within the carnival circuit. “It’s not just in the club. It’s everybody that’s involved in carnival really. They all pull together and bring out a carnival each year,” he said.
Whilst you might understand the sense of satisfaction in creating an incredible cart, few people would find much joy in the red tape and regulations that eat into the brothers’ time and the club’s bank balance. “As a 100ft cart, you have to have public liability insurance which costs around £1,000. You also have to have three VSO inspections. It’s basically an MOT for a carnival cart. You need three inspections throughout the year by competent people. They make sure that the entry is safe to go out,” said Matt.
And there are more bills to pay. “The running cost of the tractors, diesel and the tyres can be very expensive. We had a puncture at Mere,” Steve frowned. Fixing that clearly had not been cheap.
Although the club has been successful in its fundraising, it has required hard graft. The club’s members have had to give up more free time, away from their build shed, so they can top up the kitty. “The club does fundraisers throughout the year. We do a lot of car parking and stewarding. We did some work at Powderham Castle for a concert with Little Mix and Bryan Adams last year. We do the Gillingham and Shaftesbury Show and there are tombolas and refreshments throughout the year,” said Matt.
So there’s all of that extra work in addition to building the cart and yet the club members are only paid in compliments. “We do get the enjoyment from what we put in, going down the shed every week. And then to pull out on the Mere Carnival line-up is just a wonderful feeling – to have it out on the road for everyone to see what you have produced. And to read all of the lovely comments on social media. It makes it worthwhile,” said Steve.
I have no doubt that the Kipling Club members’ timelines will be filled with positive posts when Shaftesbury sees their cart this weekend. Matt pulled out his mobile phone and showed me video footage from the Mere Carnival. What I saw, before the low battery warning flashed on screen, was stunning. They have created an illuminated Irish fishing village on wheels!
“It was Stephen’s theme this year,” said Matt. “It was chosen back in October when we found we had a shed. The music is ‘Nancy Mulligan’ by Mike Denver. The original was by Ed Sheeran. It’s imitating what we think an Irish fishing village looks like. A lot of research has gone into it. It’s based on the town of Wexford in Ireland.”
So, how did Steve get the idea? “We’ve got a canvas up in our house of a cartoon fishing village. I was looking at it one night and thought it might be a good idea for a cart.” This season, the club has attended two carnivals and the seaside scene has been very well received. “We picked up seven trophies in Mere and four in Frome,” said Matt, proudly. “A lot of the bigger clubs aren’t out yet, because they do the Bridgwater circuit. They watch a few of the smaller ones like Mere, Frome and Shaftesbury. A lot of the comments we’ve had from them say things like ‘your cart looks great’ or ‘brilliant’. That’s good from a bigger club because they’ve got sixty or eighty members. They have masses of people involved building their carts. We spend around £6,000 and the big clubs will spend about £30,000. When you hear comments from them like that, it’s a great feeling.”
Steve says he really enjoys the parade through Shaftesbury, his home town. “Shaftesbury’s got a very nice feel to it. That’s why we enjoy coming out on the earlier carnivals because we get recognition more than with some of the Bridgwater clubs. When we do the Wessex Carnival circuit – including Shaftesbury and Gillingham – we are getting anywhere between third and first place. We do half of the Bridgwater circuit at the moment – Wells, Shepton and Glastonbury – and we’ll be getting 14th and 15th out of 30 carts. If we brought them out at Bridgwater we wouldn’t get the recognition that we get now because the big boys get first, second and third place.”
The men still have a lot to do in preparation for Saturday’s Shaftesbury Carnival parade. “First of all we have to get the carnival carts there,” said Steve. “We’ll be starting from about 3 o’clock on Saturday afternoon. We will get the escort vehicles and the tractors ready and make our slow move to Shaftesbury. We travel at between 15 and 20 miles an hour.”
So what do Matt, Steve and the Kipling Club members hope to achieve this weekend in Shaftesbury? “We just go out to entertain,” explained Matt. “The trophies are a bonus. We go out to enjoy it and we go out to entertain the crowd.”
And if you’re impressed – and I expect that you will be – please follow Matt and Steve’s polite request to toss a gold coin, or two, or three into the collection. “The Carnival always say chuck a pound in per person. There’s probably going to be around 10,000 people watching in Shaftesbury, so if everybody threw in a pound, that would go a massive way. The money doesn’t go directly to Shaftesbury Carnival committee. The money goes to the local charities. So the more money we get for them, the better.”
The Kipling Club, Shaftesbury’s other carnival clubs and the town’s Carnival committee members give up hours of their time to put on a great event. When you think how much people will pay for a pint, a Netflix movie or a cinema seat, handing over a few quid for an evening of illuminated entertainment doesn’t seem at all unreasonable, does it?