Thursday, 9 July 2015

Water Slides, Giant Inflatables and Fireworks - It's the Norwich Lord Mayor's Celebrations

Although the Lord Mayor celebrations were only revived relatively recently, in 1976, they have been an important part of the Norwich summer ever since I moved back after university. Unfortunately, being a pharmacist meant that most years I would be working on the Saturday, and therefore unable to come into the city in time to catch the procession, and we usually then did not make the effort to come in for the evening fireworks either. In fact, I cannot remember ever bringing my children in to join in with the festivities. What a lousy parent!

Having now given up full-time working I am in the enviable position of being able to fully enjoy every aspect of the Lord Mayor's Celebration, and this year, with the weather being so fine, I was parked up by lunchtime and exploring what was on offer. Inevitably, in order to lay on a full programme of events there are bound to be a lot of road closures and suspension of parking bays in the city centre, and motor cyclists are affected just as much as ordinary motorists. Both of my usual motorcycle parking areas close to City Hall were out of action, but the bays by Castle Mall were still open so that's where I left my trusty Piaggio for the day. From here it is just a quick cut through and down Timber Hill to Orford Place and Rampant Horse Street where one of this year's new attractions, the giant water slide, had been installed.

Operated by Cancer Research UK, this was the first time the water slide had been installed in a city centre. For a £10 donation you were able to ride the slide twice upon an inflatable ring from a point almost level with the Chantry car park right the way down as far as Marks and Spencer. There were no changing facilities, so careful choice of clothing was required, although at least a scorching sunny day meant that you dried off really quickly.

Although it seems churlish to offer criticism of an attraction designed to be a fun way of raising funds for a worthy cause, it is fair to say that the ride would have benefited from a bit more water. Although the pumps were working flat out there were parts of the slide that remained dry - the water tended to run towards the sides of the three lanes leaving the central portions exposed to slow down, or even stop, the inflatables on their downward journey. It is also true that the water, although clear and fresh at the beginning of the day, was looking a bit murky by early evening. Still, those using it, and those looking on, seemed to all agree that it was something a bit different.

Which is more can be said for the giant inflatable octopus draped across the Guildhall. It's re-appearance is a bit like getting the Christmas decorations out of the loft in November, and deciding that we will use the old ones after all. It is not even as though their is any obvious connection between Norwich and the cephalopod molluscs, unless you think of all those main roads radiating out of the city as being somehow tentacular. Also putting in a familiar return was the flaming arch on Chapelfield Gardens, although Fred Flintstone, the giant figure outside City Hall (Gulliver?) and the inflatable dog (Gromit?) contributed further this year to the random nature of the decorations. Did someone in the council purchasing department purchase a job lot of these inflatables a few years back? Are we to expect to see them re-emerge next June, and the June after that...? Are there even more of them lurking in the basement of the municipal stores awaiting to be used, and if so, do any of them have any connection with each other, or even any significance to Norwich?

  As well as the usual street closures, visitors to the city centre over the weekend also found that the Chantry Road car park had been taken over by local good-time promoters BoNanafana, and a group of Graffiti Jam artists were preparing a series of panels for the St Stephens underpass. The smell of spray paint was quite intoxicating, but the results were impressive. Although the heat of the day meant that the temptation to stop and dance may have been tempered by the scorching sunshine, coupled with the absence of any accompanying bar or catering facilities, it was good to hear yet another source of music adding atmosphere to the day. I also caught a show by the two members of Team Power Stilt springing their way across the car park dressed as giant basketball players. Later in the evening a performance by The Shooting Stars would have appealed to anyone in the mood for a bit of Rockabilly Western-style Rock'n'Roll.

A makeshift stage at the bottom of London Street was created by comandeering the popular busking spot close to the old entrance of Habitat. During the day a succession of world music acts performed under the umbrella of 'Going Global', and later in the evening Norwich Arts Centre rolled out their grand piano and invited a succession of local musicians to entertain us with a tune. It was a feast of colour and rhythm during the day, and a gentle delight to hear the tinkling of the ivories in the evening, but such a shame that the performers had to appear in front of the giant board proclaming the imminent arrival of an 'all-you-can-eat-buffet-style' restaurant. Surely this could have been masked over for one day, or an alternative vista found?

The funfair rides in Chapelfield Gardens offered plenty of white-knuckle ways to pay good money to feel like throwing up, or a chance reminisce up on the gloriously traditional merry-go-round. Busy queues at the food and ice-cream stalls never seemed to shorten quite enough to tempt an indecisive punter like me, even though those over the age of eighteen could pass through the flaming arch and enjoy a pint of Woodfords from the beer tent, unconvincingly themed as The Flintstone Bar. I churlishly settled in the end for a £1 goody bag from one of the EDP sellers, which provided me with something to read, something to eat, and a bottle of water.

Outside the Forum the main stage was playing host to a variety of entertainment, and at times it was difficult to find a spot to stand, let alone sit, and watch. This is exactly what the organisers were hoping for and, with glorious weather lending a hand, everyone was clearly enjoying either being a participant or spectator. I watched the Rock Choir, Gandini jugglers, and a selection of young dance acts, and the mix of local and national talent gave a lovely balanced feel to the day. Coupled with a compere, and a video link to the big screen, the whole programme seemed to run extremely professionally and almost produce a 'festival' feel. Top marks.

Simply walking around the city led to more acts and surprises. In Gentlemans Walk a stage had been erected in front of the old HMV store, with about a dozen tall poles and a variety of foliage. We later watched as a couple of young acrobatic dancers performed an interpretation of Kate Bush's 'Red Shoes', which was a s mesmerising as the music itself. Later, several street theatre groups mingled with the crowds to provide pop-up performances, and even the Gandini jugglers returned to entertain with another dazzling display of precision and synchrony.

The highlight of any carnival is traditionally the carnival procession, and whilst Norwich does not have anything as politically incorrect as a 'Carnival Queen' we do have a gender unspecific 'Lord Mayor', who is elected in June and is celebrated with a procession through the city streets as the shops close for business at the end of the Saturday afternoon. Starting in Newmarket Road, the floats make their way down St Stephens Street, passing Debenhams and The Bell Hotel before circumnavigating Castle Meadow and ending up in Tombland. Picking a good spot to watch is key, and many people start to arrive, complete with folding chairs, several hours before the procession is due to start. I settle for a place on the slopes of Timber Hill, adjacent to the Bell, and know that it must be a good place when the Mustard TV crew arrive and set up their cameras directly in front of where I am standing.

After the extremely fit and dedicated runners participating in the Lord Mayor's 5km road race had done their thing, which explained why we had been unable to cross the road even at the designated 'crossing points' from just after half past four,  the tension mounted as we awaited the arrival of the procession. We heard the unmistakable sound of the bagpipes even before we saw them, but sure enough it was the pipes and drums of the City of Norwich Pipe Band that first came into view, and stopped just by us. It must be thirsty work, and one of the pipe players must have been celebrating his 70th birthday, judging by the helium balloon attached to his pipes. After a rousing chorus of 'Happy Birthday' he was presented with a pint from the crowd, which he willingly emptied.

After the pipers came the town crier, our traditional Whifflers and Snap Dragon, followed by the civic dignitaries including our new Lord Mayor, Brenda Arthur, and then it was the variety of dancers, floats and local clubs and organisations that make up the annual procession. Thanks to a campaign by our own local Eastern Evening News the number of floats had been boosted a recent high of 70, and included a complete cross-section of Norwich life, businesses, and clubs and societies. Many clubs had acquired the use of trailers pulled by HGV cabs - the sight of a convoy of lorries with so many people on the trailers had a surreal topicality after all the recent television pictures of the M20 in Kent, and the approaches to the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais.

Congratulations to the winning floats, but a special mention to local company InTouch Systems for their magnificent pirate ship. Correctly placed right at the rear of the procession to create maximum impact, this float has now become an annual favourite, and really lays down the gauntlet (or cutlass) for other local companies to get behind the Lord Mayor's Celebrations. If InTouch can come up with something that spectacular just think what our larger local businesses could contribute if they had the will.

As the crowds dispersed at the end of the procession and the streets filled with the hordes in search of refreshment the pubs did a roaring trade, as did the food stalls on Theatre Street. One of my favourites, the Bite The Bullitt mobile BBQ, had completely sold out by the time we arrived. Even Tesco Metro on Guildhall Hill was doing a roaring trade in take away sandwiches and wraps. The demand for beer had left even The Garnet struggling to meet demand, they could not chill down the white wine quickly enough, and had run out of ice. By contrast, The Murderers on Timber Hill served us up with a chilled Chenin Blanc and a refreshingly cold pint of Peroni without any delay.

There still seems to be some confusion about public consumption of alcohol on the streets of Norwich. The majority of Norwich city centre is covered by a Designated Public Place Order, which gives police the power to confiscate alcohol from anyone behaving in an anti-social manner, or from persons under eighteen years of age. Alcohol purchased from pubs and clubs most probably has to be consumed on those premises under the terms of their license, but alcohol purchased from 'off-licenses' and supermarkets can, in theory, be consumed in public if you are over eighteen so long as you are not behaving in an anti-social manner. What constitutes 'anti-social' has to be argued on the spot with a police officer or a Police Community Support Officer (PCSO). Not a particularly satisfactory arrangement, especially on a gloriously hot Saturday evening when many law-abiding citizens would like the freedom to drink responsibly without having to endure the long queues and pay the high prices at some of our licensed premises. Rant over!

So it was, then, that we ended our day watching the firework display from the top of Timber Hill, a fantastic burst of colour and noise to end a marvellous day in this fine city. Crowds thronging, drinking in the streets, dancing and music, and everyone enthused about the summer vibe. If only we could get the same thing going throughout the rest of the year, and if only we could have that weather all through the summer.

Congratulations to Norwich City Council, and the people of Norwich. You done good, boy.

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