A look ahead to the 2017 Dickensian Festival
- Credit: Archant
The good people of Grassington are banning humbug with a fabulous festival. God bless ’em, every one, says Jo Haywood
With a little over 1,000 residents, Grassington is the Tiny Tim of the Yorkshire Dales. It’s a weeny little place with a big heart (and ambitions to match), hosting a massive Dickensian Festival every Christmas that attracts around 5,000 visitors a day.
The festive extravaganza, which starts on Saturday December 2nd and runs for two consecutive weekends, transforms the cobbled streets of this picturesque little place into a living 19th century Christmas card with costumed characters, traditional pastimes and even the odd hurdy-gurdy.
‘It’s a wonderfully traditional event,’ said festival coordinator Angela Jackson. ‘We have Victorian dancers, a Dickensian walkabout (with lots of slapstick – something the Victorian pretty much invented), re-enactments of Victorian games (all very wacky), stilt-walkers, acrobats, Punch and Judy, Santa in his grotto and roll-a-penny. Basically, we transform the whole village into what it would have been like in Dickensian times, including pickpockets and open braziers that fill the air with smoke.’
This is the 36th annual Grassington Dickensian Festival, now firmly established as a must-visit on many a coach party’s Christmas itinerary, attracting 110 coaches a day at its peak but now settled at a more manageable 60 or so.
‘It’s massive for such a small village,’ said Angela. ‘The event engulfs the whole of Grassington – everyone gets involved.’
And that’s the way it’s been from the start, when a few local traders set it up to eke out a little extra business over the winter.
‘A few of the high street shop-owners decided the only way to keep going was to put on a bit of a jolly,’ said Angela. ‘Other cities, towns and villages have Christmas markets, but ours has always been very specifically Dickensian. It made us stand out from day one.’
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She ran her own interiors and gift shop in the village for seven years, so she knows how important the festival is for attracting visitors – and their wallets – to Grassington.
‘The takings from the two festival weekends keep people going over the winter,’ she said. ‘Usually around 15 or so local causes benefit from fundraising over the four days, and I know the town hall wouldn’t survive without the money it makes from hosting a festive indoor craft market.’
But it’s not a money-making exercise. The festival costs about £40,000 to stage every year and usually just about breaks even when the last coach pulls out of the nearby quarry car park. As Angela rather wonderfully puts it, ‘it just about washes its own face’.
‘It’s worth it though,’ she continued. ‘There’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve done your bit. It’s very rewarding, even if you’re just in the background, manning the car park or something. We usually have a debrief between Christmas and New Year and then crack on again in January. There’s never any shortage of volunteers.’
This year, as well as the good folk manning the car park, redirecting traffic and picking up the litter, there are ‘front-of-house’ opportunities for the town crier, community carol singers, players in a torch-lit nativity, shopkeepers, stall holders, street food chefs, crafters, ghost walk hosts, wine experts (offering typical Victorian tipples), folk musicians, morris dancers and, of course, Santa, who will be safely ensconced in his grotto.
So, with a local population only just tipping into four figures, how do they do it every year? Is there some sort of Dickensian conscription scheme in Grassington or do they all just secretly hanker after playing dress-up as Mr Fezziwig, Mr Pumplechook or Lady Honoria Dedlock?
‘It works in such a small place because we’ve got such a strong mix of skills and everyone shares the same can-do ethos,’ said Angela. ‘If you need someone to sort out some bollards or put up a few posters or whatever, there’s someone here to do it. We have a strong community – everyone does their bit. Logistically, it just works and there’s usually no hassle on the day.
‘It could easily become a full-time job, but I find if you organise everything meticulously beforehand, you can get away with just troubleshooting on the day, so you’ve got a bit of time to enjoy yourself.
‘It’s wonderful seeing people have such a marvellous time, and when you see people getting back on their coaches and into their cars at the end of the day in such high spirits, nothing feels more Christmassy.’
For more details about Grassington Dickensian Festival, visit grassingtondickensian.co.uk.