Slaithwaite to launch 'al-fresco art gallery' in streets inspired by legend of smugglers and illicit liquor

A legend founded on folklore and old smuggling tales has long inspired a Colne Valley tradition in a festival to capture the moon.

Gill Bond, producer at the Moonshine Project in Slaithwaite
Gill Bond, producer at the Moonshine Project in Slaithwaite

Now, with celebrations of Slaithwaite's moonrakers on hold, villagers are readying to honour their heritage in illumination instead.

Tomorrow (Feb 18) sees the launch of the first Moonshine event, described as an 'al-fresco art gallery' which lines the residential streets of a West Yorkshire village.

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The festival of light, said organisers, has united a community as processions and parades are replaced by glowing window displays.

Artist Rachel Ellis looking at one of the illuminated pictures

"It goes against the grain for us not to be social and together," said coordinator Gill Bond, who helped to found the first Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival back in 1987.

"What we are trying to find is ways that we can still reach out to our community. With Moonshine, we can still harness some of that energy. People have been really inventive."

The first moonraking festival, with processions and lanterns, was based on ancient tales from the village of adventure and daring.

Legend has it that smugglers would hide illicit liquor in the canal and, when caught by the exciseman, had claimed simply to be 'raking the moon'.

"It's probably a story that many villages have, that is quite common in communities that have a waterway," said Ms Bond.

"We wanted to turn that story on its head and say 'yes, we really do rake the moon'. It really took off."

The bi-annual event, last held in 2017, usually sees villagers celebrate the legends with music, stories and lanterns, crafted from willow and tissue paper and lit with candles.

The grand finale sees a giant moon 'raked' from the canal, ahead of a lantern procession through the village.

This year, for the first time, the festival of light will shine from homes instead.

Some 50 streets have signed up, so many that street ambassadors have been appointed to coordinate displays, telephone trees, and socially distanced leafleting.

Illuminated images, in window displays, will be lit as it gets dark over coming days, to bring cheer to residents on their daily exercise around terraced streets and quiet cul-de-sacs.

Artists Frances Noon and Rachel Ellis have been guiding families, with templates and how to guides and videos published online.

"Moonraking has always been an opportunity for people to come together, be creative and have a sense of pride in their community," said Ms Ellis.

"This time is, of course, slightly different but those underpinning values remain the same.

"We can't be together in the traditional sense but we can light up our houses sending out a message of love, hope and togetherness."

There are families in the village who remember the festival from their own childhood, said Ms Bond. The tradition here has taken root over three decades of celebration.

While this year is a little different, she added, the ethos is the same.

"The festival itself is all about creating a small element to a bigger picture," she said. "The effect is magical. It might just be a neighbour that sees the illuminated artwork, or a whole street, but it's sharing a little bit of the moon dust.

"It's about the power of creativity. People here always knew the story, and they associate as 'moonrakers'. It's the power of community in bringing that together."

The Moonshine Project in the village of Slaithwaite near Huddersfield runs from Feb 18 to 20.

Residents and businesses have created brightly lit artworks for their windows, in building on a 30-year tradition of lanterns and parades.

Grants from the Arts Council, Kirklees Council and One Community have helped to fund resources and how to guides for residents to create their own displays.

Videos are to be shared online with communities further afield.