The Midsummer Watch Parade took place last weekend, a fantastic community event dating back 500 years. I chatted to parade director Russell Kirk:
Russell studied at Dartington College, Devon during the 1980s and then on to Manchester Metropolitan University where he graduated with a degree in Integrated Arts – music, performance and visual art before spending a few years a painter, lecturer and musician.
“My first brush with the Midsummer Watch Parade (MSW) was in the mid 1990s when I was commissioned to build a piece called The Ship,” he says. “My colleague Mary Lewery was artistic director at the time, and it was working with her that got me interested in puppet building. I then spent a few years of being the drummer part of the Drummer and Child, and the elephant commission came after that. I took over as director in 2007.”
I asked Russell how long the parade takes to organise. He says, “I’m on it for about four weeks before and then a couple of days after. Considering the size of the event it takes a relatively small amount of organising. Unlike a lot of other comparably sized parades around the country, the MSW is a repeat performance so we’re not having to build from scratch each year.”
The weather looked like it was going to spoil the party as crowds gathered at Town Hall Square on Saturday, but by 2pm the sun had magically appeared and soon everyone had their phones aloft to the hypnotic drum beat of the Karamba Samba band.
What’s great about the parade is how so many people from the community are involved; I was spotting people I knew and followers who had become friends amongst the pirates, devils, giant fish and Vikings. A wave from Hugo and Deb on the Lord Mayor’s chariot, portrait artist Stephanie Burton running wild on her demonic scooter, the streets alive with sound and colour, Cupid stretching his bow from the top of a 13ft tall elephant…
Nala Rollo performed as “Balaam’s Ass” on both days. “I’ve been doing the parade for about six years as part of Karamba Samba,” he says. “Last year I was the devil and pushing around the hell’s mouth and last winter I was Jack Frost” Nala is full of praise for Russell
“He has a workshop in the old gateway theatre that’s like some sort of glimpse through a portal into the Faerie lands. Everything you see in the parade is made by him” He describes the experience of being in the parade as ” amazing. The adrenaline you get as you pass thousands of people all smiling and enjoying the parade is phenomenal. “
The long history of the parade dates back to 1498 and its famous giants were known all over the country. Running until the 1660s, in 1990 the parade was revived , with new giants being built and features being added each year.
“MSW is a perfect example of history, arts and culture working together,” adds Russell. “Local participation, home-grown artists, international audience, a unique and quirky event that doesn’t happen anywhere else”
I also spoke to the visual artist Jason Sheppard who was marshalling the parade on Sunday.
He says, “I help Russell with some of what he does, when I can e.g. St Georges Day, Winter Watch etc. It’s just a pleasure to be involved with some of the set-up of the events and I tend to learn a bit as well.
“I find the art of street theatre so enjoyable and it’s such a challenge because you never know what sort of audience you’ll find. Bringing such experiences to the public who may sometimes never see such events is brilliant. Seeing their reactions and hopefully, get involved themselves.”
I ask how he got involved with MSW. “Having worked for other festivals such as The Edinburgh Fringe Festival, this felt like a natural progression after moving back to Chester,” he explains. “There’s a great community feel about it all and a sense of unity which lacks a lot in our everyday lives, plus the enjoyment you give to others is priceless!
“The parades offer a cultural identity and a history which etches itself into the fabric of Chester. It’s been happening for hundreds of years and we can learn a lot from our past, which hopefully perpetuates our future. It gives a feeling of belonging too. I’ve seen other parades in other countries and a majority of them have the same basic form, but with different cultural and historic meanings. I feel the heart of it is the same, which is important.”
Russell organises a number of parades across the borough, 10 at the last count, including the Lantern Parade, Winter Watch, Chester Christmas Lights, Manchester and Chester Diwali, but he also works elsewhere. He says, “This year we’re up in Carlisle again, some work in Hull, Knutsford and Connah’s Quay. We’ll be popping over to Germany next year too, all being well!”
“I’m very proud of the whole thing, so it’s difficult to single things out, but there are a couple of puppets which work really well – Hell’s Mouth and Cernunnos to name but two. The elephant and ship are pretty iconic but that’s more to do with size I would guess.”
The parade is an amazing spectacle, and another puzzled shrug in the direction of those that say nothing ever happens in Chester. With a massive group of talented individuals driving a culture of street performance and community celebration, it is joyous to behold and one of the jewels in Chester’s crown.
The parade brings some magic to a sometimes plain and distant world, a dragon on the loose and the Romans on parade once more – long may it continue.
The final word goes to my old nemesis ex council leader Mike Jones, who was watching the parade with his family. “I think its really good for Chester,” he says. “I would encourage more schools and more young people to get involved because it really brings the city to life, along with the other parades, which is fab.”
With thanks to Russell Kirk, Jason Sheppard, Nala Rollo and Beth Kennedy.
History of the parade and how to get involved : http://www.midsummerwatch.co.uk/
More info on Russell Kirk : http://www.russellkirk.co.uk/
facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/448772875134592/