What we have lost, and what we hold to still

When John Fox and and Sue Gill, co-founders of Welfare State International, settled in Ulverston in the 1980s, they began an artistic relationship with their neighbours that continued until the company brought down the curtain with the Longline Opera in 2006. Many of the seeds sown in those years have taken and flourished, but few as well as the Ulverston Lantern Festival, which, as these things sometimes do, has become part of local tradition and memory. It is now run by volunteers. John and Sue Gill, and their children, Dan and Hannah, still live in the area, and always take part in the Festival. Until 2020.

In this guest post, Sue writes about this year’s ‘not-lantern-parade’. This is one event, in one place, but it memorialises all the hurt done to the social fabric of communities, large and small, across the UK and across the world by the need for ‘social distancing’. It speaks too of people’s commitment to rebuild and renew. The future will be different: it could be better.


Saturday evening, 19 September 2020. We’re driving towards Ulverston town centre, just before 8pm. Cones and barriers are being flung down to close the roads. On this same night for the last 36 years, without fail, these roads were being closed for the arrival of Ulverston’s Annual Lantern Parade. No arrival this year, no parading, no mingling, no crowds of spectators. It’s just the start of overnight shift for hi-viz, helmeted crews of highway repair workers. We duck and dive down back streets to find a way into town so we can walk to The Gill – the square which has been the hub of community festivals over the years. 

It’s eight o’clock and jiggling across the ground comes a metre-long millipede, fat and vividly coloured, to tease the squealing children trying to jump onto it. No danger – it’s a projected animation. Next come shrimps, a swarm of bugs, then a single butterfly.  

Dan dreamt up this intriguing, small-scale experience to share with the community — a tiny alternative, something to salvage from the void of our legendary Autumnal celebration. His two BoomBikes….. His two BoomBikes – mobile off-grid sound systems – are already thumping out a fabulous dancey playlist. Each has a digital projector mounted up high on a stalk, where it can be rotated, twisted and turned to light on any surface while on the move. 

Ulverston, September 2020 (Dan Fox)

A small tribe has gathered on The Gill. Twenty? Thirty? Maybe more…  emerging from the darkness, from different directions, to be here, to mark the occasion of the ‘not’ Lantern Parade. As usual, snug in our warm coats, scarves, hats and gloves – except for the children peeling off layers as they hurtle about. 

Government regulations forbid advertising this event – when and where it will take place – lest we muster a crowd. No social media, just rumour, word-of-mouth.  At least that means that the people who have beaten a path to be here are the people who need to be here. Deep connections built up over the years, shared memories, working shoulder to shoulder to maintain this important seasonal event. 

We walk into the square at the same moment as Rachel. We met her decades ago as an art student with impossibly huge, wild Nolde-type paintings. Then her world went smaller, her life changed: new mum, small daughter, father off over the horizon. Tough years, but here she is with her confident smiling girl, and striding towards us to say she had been thinking about John and me on this strange day and how we must be feeling tonight. 

Dan has created something unique. It’s fun and appears to have a light touch, yet reveals unspoken layers of meaning, a digital equivalent of a treasured community tradition, naming what it is that we have lost. Far, far better than anything we could watch alone on a screen at home, this is a shared experience out in the weather, in the right place, at the right time. He’s edited extracts from Peter Croskery’s documentary films of Lantern Parade over the years. Peter was a neighbour on The Gill when he ventured into professional film making. Dan is projecting it onto a three storey Georgian house – number 36 – the home of Fox Family for almost 25 years. The current owners are delighted by his choice. 

The film begins in the workshop where lanterns are being made. Artists and community volunteers run workshops to teach families how to make sculptural lanterns using willow sticks and tissue paper, and how to safely fix the candle inside.    

“That’s me….” we hear Kirsten laugh.

Then we’re into footage of the processions. Overhead shots show King Street filled with lanterns, the amber glow of candle light across the shopfronts, hundreds of faces close together as they walk towards the camera. Street bands play, crowds of spectators applaud. At the roundabout by Coronation Hall, one procession pauses while another crosses the main road and enters, huge lanterns carried and wheeled in. The event has grown so that four processions – each with a street band – converge from north, south, east and west to the town centre. Our band Blast Furness is on the sound track. Neil, bass drummer and neighbour, stands in the crowd grinning and waving as he hears my saxophone riffs. 

None of us anticipated this, but here we are flicking through this shared family album of our collective endeavours, unique to, and built by, these people, in this place. As the credits start to roll, I find myself saying aloud ‘Will we ever do this again?’

I am looking up at the third floor window of number 36 – smaller than the windows below. We know there is a window seat inside. It’s where the midwife sat, almost 18 years ago, as our daughter Hannah, in a birthing pool in the corner of the room, gave birth to Rosa May, her second child, at 6am on a clear spring morning. I was in the house, stationed on the staircase one floor below, outside the door of Reuben’s room, ready to scoop up this two year old should he wake early.  The sounds from Hannah’s throat on the final push dropped me to my knees. 

And here is Rosa, just arrived with her Mum to join us by the BoomBikes, scorching in from Leeds where the new term started today for her advanced contemporary dance course – 186 miles for a two hour long workshop. Tired, but they both wanted to be here. I watch Hannah point to the window and tell Rosa the story.

We set off through town, Pied Piper style, but socially-distanced. Images of herons and curlews from Morecambe Bay accompany us along the walls of Upper Brook Street and past the fish and chip shop. A few more curious people join us. It’s Saturday night and the town is thin. The few people around seem not to know or remember Lantern Parade. The bouncer outside the Sun Inn briefs a short queue at the door about how it works inside. A line of taxis waits in the empty street. One driver gets out to stretch his legs, wearing a blue surgical-style mask. Over there the boutique beer place BeoWulf references  Wulfstown, the ancient name for Ulverston. We can see a few seated customers upstairs. 

At the corner of Market Street, we pause to project the film again, this time on the end wall of the travel agent’s.  We jest about the Rule of Six. How many sixes can we count in this grouping?  We remember the news item about 29 businessmen paying through the nose for a day’s grouse shooting, defended because ‘It’s a business’. So is that hairdresser’s across the road, closed down months ago. It used to support a family, as did that sandwich bar that’s gone to the wall. Comedians had a field day about the grouse Shooting, making out that tweed jackets and deerstalker caps must be Covid proof. Our street band of 20 musicians has been unable to rehearse together for the last six months; suppose we change our name to Wee Willie and the Grouse Shooters then we should be OK.

Time to head off home.

We call into Tesco Metro to pick up a few beers and thoughtlessly shatter the mood. Never realised how shrill their  lighting is. 

Masks on, hand sanitiser outside the door to use before and after, contactless payment. We could be anywhere, in any town or city. Non-seasonal, non-real, non-local and meaningless.  

It’s all come to this. 

Must ring Dan to thank him. 

Ulverston, September 2020 (Dan Fox)

John Fox and Sue Fox co- founded Welfare State International, celebratory arts company in 1968. Nomadic life, site specific events etc.  Sue Fox was to change her name to Sue Gill in 1986. The company moved to Ulverston, a small market town in South Cumbria in the 1980’s. Lantern Parade began in 1983 and has happened every September until 2020. Artists ran workshops to teach local community to make sculptural lanterns – willow sticks, tissue paper, candle lit. The prototype spread worldwide as a community arts event. Ulverston’s 12,000 people made 1,000 new lanterns each year for parades enjoyed by 10,000 spectators. Volunteers continue to run Lantern Parade after Welfare State International was archived 2006.

The theme of the 2020 parade was set as ‘Birds & Bugs’ before the Covid-19 caused the event to be cancelled. 

2 comments

  1. Very nice to read your story. I am happy to hear, you all live stil an active and creative live. Love and greetings from Zeeland, The Netherlands Nick van Raaij

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  2. Well written and poignant – myself and the family missed the lantern procession this year too, I have been bringing the boys since they were small, for some reason, not known to me, Joe did not start coming with us until 2 years ago – needless to say, he realised what he had been missing all those years. wish I had known about this unofficial gathering – I would have been there in a socially distanced way – here is hoping for next year and seeing you and the family at this event and more besides. Best wishes, Sally Cowell

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