Stella Hall's Droving School
The annual email from Eden Arts heralding Penrith’s Winter Droving arrived in September and this time nothing would stop me going! Previous years had seen tiresome things like other people’s significant birthdays get in the way of joining in the fun. This year, I resolved, we would get our provisional droving licenses and go! Not only would we go – we would join the parade and, even more, we would sign up to carry flaming torches! My partner Ken and I were planning on the Full Droving Experience!
First stop, the masks, that Winter Droving essential. We already had some sparkly cat masks left over from aforementioned birthday do – but looking at the pictures of previous Droving parades they seemed strangely tame. Wild creatures, golden helmeted Vikings and Fabulous Beasts seemed to be the order of the day. We searched online and found Steve Wintercroft’s fabulous downloadable mask kits; Ken went for an impressive horned Bull and I chose a Unicorn. An entire weekend went by in a blur as we cut and glued and taped and reinforced our creations out of recycled cardboard. We tried them on and took flattering pics of each other. We practiced walking round the house carrying a vacuum cleaner tube standing in bravely for our flaming torches – we were ready!
On October 26th The drive from the North East was glorious! Great scenery all the way to Penrith where we were met with the exciting spectacle of roads closed to traffic and a town completely taken over by fairground, stalls and stages.
We arrived at lunchtime and parked easily in Bluebell Lane in the town centre, then spent a glorious afternoon exploring the town and the hundreds of fabulous stalls, jostled by happy mask wearing festivalgoers. We were saving ours till the evening for max impact but discovered that meant we failed our first droving test and had to pass through the mask barrier in the slow lane!
Whilst sampling Jamaican jerk chicken and festivals (a kind of dumpling) from one of the stalls, we watched enthralled as intrepid teams competed in tugs of war , straw bale hefting and egg throwing and cheered on our favourite at the intriguing costumed dog show ( he lost – clearly the underdog! )
Later, we were inspired by an extraordinary perambulating show about migration from Kamchatka and then danced off our lunch and the obligatory home made fudge (we have to compare it to our locally made stuff!) to fabulous musicians Gaita band and Bluejam.
After a short rest we collected our masks and headed to the assembly point to join the parade! Gathering in our hundreds in a school playing field in the early evening gloaming, we got a sneak preview of the fabulous floats. Lit from within we saw a horse, a ram and the most beautiful giant stag carefully carried in and set down to await their part.
Joining our new best friends in the torch carrying part of the procession we listened carefully as the expert droving instructor guided us in how to hold our torches safely.
A megaphone announcement and we were off! proudly holding our newly lit torches aloft, stumbling a little on the uneven ground.
Help! Were we completely nuts?! Walking with a flaming torch in a full face mask in the dark is an entirely different experience from wandering round the house with a piffling piece of vacuum cleaner! At first I couldn't see a thing through those tiny eyeholes! Would anyone come to our maskeraid ?!
A fireman whispered words of encouragement and advice, then after a few moments I got my balance, clutching the hand of that handsome red bull in the leather jacket, we were off! Parading through the cobbled streets of Penrith. It was brilliant! The expectant crowds, the appreciative children (Ooh! Look! A Unicorn!) I proudly stepped, nodded gravely towards the voices and cantered on.
The noise, the smells, the music in front of and behind us created a magical atmosphere. I felt as if we could have been part of this hundreds of years ago, shepherds, (uniherds?) drovers, come from our work in the fields to celebrate in the town.
It’s only been running for a few years, but Eden Arts have created a wonderful new tradition. Authentically local, built on historical experience, but encompassing all of the elements of a contemporary Festival, the Winter Droving feels like the real deal.
After nearly an hour of parading through densely packed and cheering streets, sadly we handed over our torches to be doused and thankfully took off our masks. Time for a mulled wine and a sampling of French raclette (potatoes and melting cheese) before dancing again, this time to the fabulous finale band KOG and the Zongo Brigade.
Now back at home I am pondering what elements of the fabulous experience we can incorporate into our fledgling Festival of Thrift procession in September in Redcar. The dates for next year are in our diaries (October 24th since you ask) and we are already planning our masks for 2020.
Am thinking something floral maybe next time .... Droving Miss Daisy ? (groans off!)
Eden Arts certainly (sur)passed our Winter Droving Test! In fact, I think they could be about to get their Advanced Droving certificates!
Stella Hall, FRSA, is a freelance Festival producer, working across all artforms. She co-founded the Green Room, Manchester’s first arts centre, and has worked in a number of high profile roles since, including; Director, Warwick Arts Centre; Festival Director, Belfast Festival at Queen’s; Creative Director, NewcastleGateshead Initiative and Festival Director for the year-long Preston Guild 2012 for which she received an Honorary Fellowship from University of Central Lancashire.
In 2014/15 she was an inaugural “Canny Creative” advising the British Council on Arts programme development and international connections in Turkey, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Alongside consultancy and mentoring of young professionals across the UK, she is Festival Director of Festival of Thrift in Redcar, which won Best Event Teesside 2017, Tourism England’s Best Event NE in 2016 and the Observer Ethical Award for Arts and Culture.
Read the Ullswater and Winter Droving Evaluation here