A Touch of Frost

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A blog by Knowledge Guru Nicola Frost

Community Celebrations: from James Ravilious to the Eden Project

With another hat, I have a long-term interest in community festivals and celebrations, and recently took part in an oral history conversation with the wonderful Hidden Histories team at the Beaford Archive. Using a selection of the photographs of James Ravilious and Roger Deakin as a prompt, the conversation brought together stalwarts of several of North Devon’s long-standing fairs and carnivals (including Iddesleigh, Winkleigh, Chumleigh and Hatherleigh).

Start of the children’s race at Chulmleigh village fair James Ravilious - July 1982

Start of the children’s race at Chulmleigh village fair James Ravilious – July 1982

We explored what these events mean to the communities in which they are held, and how they have changed over time. Despite the arrival of a tap-dancing class in the adjoining hall (yes, really! Community space at its most versatile – shouldn’t complain), we recorded a fascinating discussion. You can read more about it here.

This all got me thinking about the role collective celebrations, festivals, fairs, and the like have in reflecting, presenting and shaping community life here in Devon. Devon Community Foundation is often asked to support groups of residents wanting to hold events of this kind, and while with competing demands on our funds it is often not possible to help, we do appreciate the contribution these events can make to the health of local communities.

Devon is well-supplied with a dizzying range of carnivals, festivals, fairs and revels, of all shapes and sizes. Some are very ancient – Chulmleigh Old Fair, as the name suggests, has a history stretching back 766 years! Others are much more recent – Crediton’s CredFest began in 2013. And still more are somewhere in-between, perhaps revivals of lapsed events, such as Budleigh Salterton Carnival.

Of course, there is also a plentiful supply of events based around a community of interest –a film festival, Pride marches and the like. These might well attract a wider range of participants than the specific interest group (someone who doesn’t usually go to an art house cinema, perhaps, or straight supporters of the LGBTQ+ community), but attention is focused on the group or interest in question. Food and drink and music festivals aimed at holidaymakers and out-of-town visitors serve a different purpose again.

Community events (the ones largely organised by locals, for locals) though have a special role to play. They are predominantly celebrations of place, aiming to provide something for everyone, and to bring people together. Modbury May Fair, for example, is a whole week of events, including the crowning of the May king and queen, complete with maypole dancing, pub quiz, treasure hunt, the famous Modbury Mile race, euchre, street market, duck race, and a carnival procession.

Not to be naïve – events like this can be flashpoints for tensions between ‘blow-ins’ and the ‘born and bred’ brigade as communities negotiate a balance between tradition and change (I’ve written plenty about this in a previous academic life; believe me, cream tea-based disputes can get really nasty). In general though, they provide an opportunity for folks to get together, renew connections, make new friends, and share a collective pride in their community.

Here are some other common elements:

  • Local institutions are often involved: churches, schools and pubs, but also the WI, Rotary, Young Farmers and more. Community celebrations bring organisations together as well as individuals.
  • They’re inter-generational. Families (actual or figurative) can be a more significant ‘unit of currency’ than individuals – children grow up in a carnival tradition, taking different roles as they get older; responsibility for a particular aspect of the celebration can be ‘inherited’ by the next generation, or an incumbent can decide who to ‘bequeath’ it to. And, of course, they provide a space for people of all ages to get together.
  • Expect plenty of in-jokes, and nods to local characters past and present. Being ‘in on the joke’ is a big part of belonging.
  • The use of public space changes. A parade or procession, or a temporary market-place often involves road closures, and ways of using local space that are different from the everyday. Roads which ordinarily bisect communities suddenly become ways of bringing people together, and in these days of ever-increasing traffic, this is quite an exhilarating step outside the ordinary run of things.

None of this stuff, even that with the longest historical pedigree, is set in stone. Celebrations are as sensitive to social change as anything else. The recent vogue for old-style street parties (à la the Eden Project Communities Big Lunch) is interesting. Twentieth-century Armistice and Jubilee events were held in the street because your neighbours were frequently those you shared your life with and were therefore the people you wanted to celebrate with, and where-else-would-you-do-it-exactly. Nowadays the impetus is precisely the fact that you don’t know your neighbours anywhere near as well as you would have done 50 years ago, and that there is a need to reclaim that neighbourhood space from traffic, suspicion, mobility, and whatever else it is that keeps us apart.

the-big-lunch-community

The Eden Project’s The Big Lunch neighbourhood get-together

However it’s done, there’s plenty more of understand about the place of celebration in community life in Devon. I’m very keen to keep learning. #retirementprojectsorted