Reflections on the 2011 Bentham Lantern Parade

Peter Swan, a PhD student in the Geography Department, writes: The highlight of my research with Pioneer Projects in Bentham has to be experiencing the town’s annual lanterns parade, which occurs every year at the end of the October half-term holiday. The use of handmade lanterns for community celebrations dates back to the early 80s in the UK (See Mike White’s book Arts development in community health: a social tonic for a history of the processions), and came about largely because of the work of Alison Jones, who went on to co-found Pioneer Projects. Lanterns are constructed out of ‘withy’ – strong, flexible willow stems, which can be easily bent into a variety of shapes. The frame is then covered with a layer of thick tissue paper soaked in latex paint, which protects the candle inside from the wind and rain. The beauty of this process is that designs can be as simple or as complex as one wants them to be.

Pioneer Projects hold a series of lanterns workshops in the week before the parade. These sessions are family oriented, attended by both locals and visitors alike. This year’s theme was ‘boots, bonnets, pedals and wheels’, and encouraged people to imagine future alternatives to the petrol engine. There were two large, community lanterns – one of a child riding a tricycle, the other a ‘walking bus’ built in collaboration with pupils at High Bentham Primary School. The smaller lanterns were equally impressive – gypsy caravans, penny farthings and gliders all made an appearance in the parade.

The team at Pioneer Projects put in some late nights in the run up to the parade, but everything was completed in time, albeit with minutes to spare! The parade itself is headed by the ‘fire spirit’, a moving, dancing figure, closely followed by a samba band and the lanterns. The whole community lines the streets as the parade makes a circuit of Bentham, finishing in the town’s auction mart where the community bonfire and fireworks display begins.

The lanterns workshops and parade can be seen to facilitate ‘social capital’ in the Bentham area. This can be ‘bonding’ in the sense that the participants in the workshops all work together in pursuit of a common goal – a finished lantern. It also facilitates ‘bridging’ social capital, as the whole community, both young and old, line the streets to view the procession and soak up the atmosphere. Increasingly, people from outside the community have been coming into Bentham especially to see the parade. Ali hopes that the seeds of social capital can be sown more widely, and that visitors to the area can bring something back to their own communities after participating in the lantern workshops and parade for themselves.

As ever, this year’s lantern’s parade was a resounding success, despite the torrential rain on the night. The photos I took do not do it justice – it is something which you really have to experience for yourself.  Bentham is lucky to have such an event, and will be one which I remember for years to come.

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