A few years ago when we lived in Huddersfield, the Husband and I used to go to the annual Imbolc Fire Festival in Marsden, a small town south west of Huddersfield, on the edge of the moors. We haven’t been for a long time but it was taking place this last weekend, so we decided to take the girls for a visit.
Imbolc is the pagan festival of spring at the beginning of February – not the the blooming daffodils, baby birds and bunny rabbits of an Easter greetings card kind of spring, but the first tiny signs of new life in the belly of Mother Earth during the darkest depths of winter. Marsden is on the edge of some pretty bleak Pennine moorland – a part of the world where daffodils are blighted by the howling wind, and bunnies get put in pies. It’s a mere twenty miles from Haworth where the Brontë sisters tramped through sodden heather and poured the wild drama of their moorland surroundings into their fiction. So when I tell you they have a festival to celebrate the coming of spring, you can put any ideas of frolicking lambs and and bunches of daffs right out of your mind. This is tough-as-old-boots West Yorkshire.
We pile into the car after tea on Saturday night (and by tea, I mean our main evening meal – like I said, this is Yorkshire) and head off in the driving rain to Marsden. The kids, who almost never go out in the evening, especially during winter, are bemused but excited. The sky above us is black and stormy once we’re away from the light pollution of the motorway and heading out on the long A-road to Marsden.
We pull up in the centre of Marsden just in time to join the gathering crowd. There’s a beating of drums and lanterns held aloft. Ahead of us we can see flaming torches, and we fall into procession behind them, over the bridge across the canal and railway and out of town along a narrow track. It’s a friendly crowd with lots of children, and the beating drums and glowing lanterns give it a carnival atmosphere.
After half a mile or so, the track heads steeply downhill and the crowd gathers at the bottom, with the canal basin to our left while on the right the hillside is ablaze with light. Black clad figures are whirling flaming torches above their heads, sending sparks spiralling into the night sky. We watch until the torches are extinguished, and then through the gloom the giant figure of Jack Frost appears, shaking his blue and silver icicles. From the other side of the hill the Green Man approaches, they go head to head with the drums beating, and the crowd cheering on the Green Man and booing Jack Frost. The rain is lashing down by this point, and I’ve got 11YO and 5YO wrapped in a bear hug to try and keep them warm. When the Green Man drives Jack Frost back where he came from, the crowd roars its approval and a dazzling firework display rounds off the show.
With only camera phones in the dark and rain, it’s difficult to get any photos that really capture the scene, but here are a few:
For a better flavour of the event, there’s a YouTube video of the 2014 event, with thanks to Gord2510 who uploaded it, here:
And then it’s over, time to hoist the tired 5YO onto aching shoulders and steer 11YO by the hand up the hill and back to the car. Once upon a time we’d have joined the throngs heading for the pub, for a couple of pints of the real ale for which Yorkshire is rightly famous, in front of a roaring fire, but now it’s time to head back home with wet and bedraggled children asleep under a rug in the back of the car.
Next day, 5YO asks: “Did the Green Man really beat Jack Frost? Does that mean spring is really coming?” We find the answer later that day, on a walk in the woods:
The Marsden Imbolc Fire Festival is a free event organised by and for the local community. They have set up a GoFundMe page to help with the costs of putting on the event, if anyone who has ever attended it would like to make a contribution, please do!