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A look ahead to the Garstang Victorian Christmas Festival

15:47 27 November 2015

Punch & Judy man, Martin Scott Price

Punch & Judy man, Martin Scott Price

Archant

This pretty market town was a shining light when it came to attracting Christmas crowds. Sue Riley reports

Stilt walkersStilt walkers

THE small market town of Garstang is a trailblazer; it’s well documented that in 2000 it became the world’s first Fairtrade town, but decades before that it was making another name for itself for its Christmas decorations. It’s one of the first towns in Lancashire, if not the first, to put up Christmas lights in the shopping streets – and not just any lights, these were ones used in the Blackpool Illuminations.

‘It started off as something that could not be done,’ said David Carr. ‘An electrician told us it was not possible to light up the town and when someone says that to me it’s a challenge. I went to Blackpool and hired the lights from the corporation and borrowed a trailer. We did it.

‘They were very, very heavy old lights but they lit the town up. Nowhere else was doing it and Preston Chamber of Trade came to us and asked how we did it and they followed suit.’ Now David’s son Damian heads the 12-strong Christmas committee which puts on the popular Victorian Christmas Festival every December.

In its 33rd year, the festival started a year or two after the Christmas lights first went up and has become a huge attraction in its own right. The excitement starts on the evening of Monday December 7, as Father Christmas parades through High Street to his grotto, conveniently close to the Kings Arms pub.

Thousands of people descend on the market town to see the stalls, stilt walkers, live music, Punch and Judy show, food outlets and other family entertainments. Stallholders and shopkeepers often dress in Victorian costume and welcome their customers with mince pies and drinks and local community groups including the Lions, Soroptomists and Scouts also get involved in the two-day event.

‘People come from far and wide to see it, it’s such a lovely family event. We bring so many people into the town centre. It’s a fabulous window of opportunity for the businesses to show their wares. We have got a vibrant town centre and a good community in Garstang,’ said Damian, who has been in the family jewellery business for the past 30 years.

New Chamber of Trade president Luke Pollard says this year there will also be new attractions, including a craft market in Thomas Weind with face painting and live music. He is also encouraging more traders and businesses to dress up in Victorian costume as they used to years ago when he attended the festival as a child.

‘I remember going around with my mum and dad. It was very cold but as a kid you love looking at the lights, it was always a fun evening.’

Throughout the year the community raises more than £12,000 to pay for the lights. Christmas officially starts in Garstang at 4.30pm on November 23 when the lights are switched on with lots of schoolchildren singing carols adding to the festive atmosphere.

Someone who will probably be joining in is Paul Mallon who runs the cheese stall in the Market Hall. ‘We raise a lot of money for charity paying Paul not to sing carols,’ said his wife Maureen, who also works in the market. ‘He is known to sing carols in February.’ Paul says because they serve food they have to adhere to Health and Safety regulations so are not allowed to dress up in Victorian garb. ‘Mind you most of my clothes are Victorian anyway!’

He added: ‘The Victorian Festival is massively successful, there are walking bands with drummer boys and girls, brass bands, a real festive feel.’

Christmas is just of one of many festivals held in the Lancashire town. The largest, by far, is the Children’s Festival in the spring. It’s a testament to the community spirit in Garstang that the events are such a success.

Some of that energy is being channelled into Action Garstang where hundreds of residents are up in arms over plans to build a five-storey luxury apartment block and retail outlet on a prime riverside site with views to the Bowland Fells. Newsagent Richard Whyman described it as a ‘thoughtless development’ as vital car parking and one of the best views in the town would both be lost. ‘We believe this sale has to stop and a proper consultation take place,’ he said. At a public meeting in October more than 300 people attended and donated £800 to the fighting fund. Protestors are planning a meeting with their local MP Ben Wallace.

It’s that independence and community spirit that attracted former English teacher Sally-Anne Fraser when she was looking to set up an independent bookshop in the summer. She left her teaching job in July and the following month Skippy in the Well opened, selling books for children and adults.

‘I chose Garstang because of its strong independent ethos and everyone has been really supportive, I’ve had lots of repeat trade.’ Hers is just one of a handful of new shops which have opened in recent months, including Nestling gift shop and Tack which specialises in upcycling.

Another recent venture in the town is a link up with offenders at Lancashire’s Kirkham Prison. A customer at Kate Rowe’s vegetable stall in the market recommended the produce grown at the open prison; Kate went to have a look in the jail’s farm shop and now sells a range of their fruit and vegetables including big bunches of fresh carrots, tasty cherry tomatoes and dirty beetroots. ‘The customers like the idea that it’s coming from the prison, that it’s a good thing for the prisoners to be learning skills they can use when they come out,’ she said.

Garstang Victorian Christmas Festival is on from 6-9pm on December 7 and 8.

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