Axbridge in Somerset is a town of some 2,500 souls and is confined to a narrow strip of land betwixt the Mendips and The Levels. It means for centuries the town’s social life is concentrated in the Square with little room for urban sprawl. The Square, the town’s condensed geography and its long history dating to its Saxon origins are all factors in why the pageant held every ten years works.
There are football teams, book groups, the carnival and the Sports and Social but only the pageant encompasses the whole community with all parts of society. Young, old, working class, land owners and the newly arrived – it brings everyone together for a mixture of reasons. One is that there is a part for everyone. Tractor drivers, horse riders, marshals, costumiers, actors, musicians are all needed. The football team being a ready-made unit form up as soldiers in the Monmouth Rebellion while the British Legion revels in portraying the Home Guard in World War Two. The school supplies the evacuees and so on. And there’s a precedent with community groups taking part in the annual carnival where clubs and societies are used to parading through the streets.
Another factor is the Square – already mentioned. It’s the focus of many of the town’s events from the carnival, the fun fair, the hunt, Father Christmas, street parties for Royal weddings and the monthly market. Then there are several long standing families who have connections going back generations – and by taking part in the pageants over the years there’s a certain pride that they may have been children in the first ones and their own children then take part in later ones.
And we must mention the bonding of the community through the tragic air disaster in Switzerland in 1973. The crash killed a large number of women from the town who had set out on a special shopping trip to Basel. With so many families without a mother the town pulled together to support the bereaved dads and children left behind. Part of that pulling together continues with the likes of the Sports and Social, the church community and other groups who help to form the core of the pageant.
And other factors include a near universal pride in the community’s imagined or real history, plus of course key individuals coming together to direct, write, produce and stage the pageant.
It all began in 1967 when the bypass took heavy traffic away from the town and to celebrate two residents with a background in theatre (perhaps looking to their own pasts) suggested a pageant. The first one now looks quite archaic with a procession of Romans and Tudors and Kings and Queens acting out dramatized sections of Francis A Knight’s 1915 book The Heart of Mendip. It purported to show in 15 scenes the history of the town but inevitably was in places quite inaccurate. In a way that didn’t matter as it was the taking part that seemed to be the main thing.
So it was simply good fortune and luck which delivered the pageant to the town. In 1970 it was updated with further ones in 1980 and 1990. In 2000 the original committee and people behind the pageant were retiring or leaving so John Bailey took up the task of reshaping what had by then become an established script with clubs and societies like the Crown Inn or the parish church laying claim to various scenes. That aspect was a strength and a weakness as some in the town were not keen on the updating of the pageant to include the 20th century. Working with Harry Mottram as script writer John Bailey updated the script in 2010 and again this year to at least make the scenes more accurately reflect the past and to increase the role of real characters from all our yesterdays and to present a people’s history – rather than a simple procession of Kings and Queens.
The pageant takes place on August 28-30, 2021.
For more details of the pageant visit http://axbridgepageant.com/index.html and
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For more from the journalist Harry Mottram visit www.harrymottram.co.uk