Slaithwaite Moonraking Lantern Festival: Event celebrating the 19th century legend of smugglers is back

On one night, every other year, the street lights of Slaithwaite are joined by many beautiful lanterns. These are carried down to the Huddersfield Narrow Canal for the Slaithwaite Moonraking.

Founded more than 30 years ago, the event celebrates the 19th century legend of smugglers bringing barrels of illicit drink by boat along the canal. On seeing a constable approach, they pushed the barrels over the side of the boat and, later that night, under the light of the full moon, returned to retrieve their haul. As they were raking the water to get the barrels on board, they were challenged by a constable and, to avoid arrest, pretended to be drunk, declaring they were raking the moon that had “fallen in the canal” – the moon’s reflection clearly seen in the water.

Locals re-enact this very scene during the Moonraking Festival, which starts today and runs until February 18. “For us arty people, it’s a good story, and the other good thing is it was still in the consciousness and DNA of the community that we had just moved into,” says Gill Bond, one of the festival’s founding organisers.

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Working in community theatre, Gill and husband Andy were involved with the former Welfare State International touring theatre group. Gill was part of the group’s community arts team. Andy, a performer and musician, joined when the group was based in Ulverston, Cumbria, and became involved in the lantern processions there.

Alan Scully and Frances Noon making a lantern for the 2023 Moonraking festival. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.Alan Scully and Frances Noon making a lantern for the 2023 Moonraking festival. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.
Alan Scully and Frances Noon making a lantern for the 2023 Moonraking festival. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

When the couple came to live in Slaithwaite nearly 40 years ago, the Slaithwaite Moonrakers provided the perfect story to re-enact through the lantern festival that would keep the legend alive and bring the community together.

Last year the village clinched the crown as the top place to live in the North and North-East in the Sunday Times Best Places to Live Guide. It’s easy to see why. Community spirit is in abundance here, and a fine example of this is the Moonraking Lantern Festival.

It includes a range of pre-festival activities including Sound Circle Singing, the Taster Samba Band, the opportunity to create a “Mumming” street play to animate the procession, along with lantern-making workshops involving the local community and schools. Working with artists, hundreds of white sculptural lanterns are created from a framework of willow covered with wet-strength tissue paper, soaked in glue and illuminated with church candles for the mile-long procession around the village.

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“The simplest lantern is the most effective, but what is great in the workshops is people do get inspired and make some wonderful sculptures, and that makes the procession itself. I always think the procession is a mobile installation, a wonderful element, that is telling the story. Everybody is making that installation and I think that is what people enjoy, and we encourage people to be part of it, to feel connected, to tell the story,” says Gill.

Lanterns for the Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival in West Yorkshire. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.Lanterns for the Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival in West Yorkshire. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.
Lanterns for the Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival in West Yorkshire. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

The festival it is a spectacle to behold which begins with the “raking” of the crescent-shaped lantern moon, mounted on a metal structure and equating to the size of a car. Accompanying it as it floats 100 yards along the canal from Carr Lane are 19th century costumed men and women who are an integral part of this community-spirited procession.

Since its inception in 1985, the biennial festival has evolved and developed – and also provided material for a book published to commemorate its 21st anniversary celebrations. Gill sayd they used to rake the moon on another part of the canal, but the reopening of a previously in-filled section of the waterway enabled them to bring it closer to the centre of the village.

Following a different theme, this year’s focus is water – and a legendary sea monster is expected to be part of the celebrations. For Gill and Andy, whose three children have played a part in the event over the years, the festival is an extension of the participatory arts base incorporating Satellite Arts, which they run, and Impossible Arts, all housed within the Old Watershed, a refurbished weaving shed in Bridge Street.

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In the Noughties Gill and Andy were part of the collective who set up a charitable trust to acquire the building where they are planning to develop a media studio. Crafting, making and music sessions are held in this creative space and, during the festival, it becomes a hive of activity with artist-led lantern workshops running from today until Thursday in preparation for the procession.

Yet, despite the festival’s previous success, and the support it has garnered over the years from local residents and businesses, it had a six-year hiatus. Gill sayd one of the reasons was the difficulty in attracting funding. The pandemic also put paid to the festival being able to take place as per tradition, but undeterred, villagers were keen for it to continuem albeit in a different format.

Gill says the festival of illuminated window art gave villagers a safe way to create and enjoy something beautiful together. “In 2021 the Covid lockdown meant we had to reach people to participate in a different way, and the role of Street Ambassador was born. It was a way for us to communicate, inspire and supply materials directly on the doorstep to enable residents to make their picture., something to shine out from their window in a joyful co-operative creative enterprise.”

The result was a stunning illuminated display in over 400 windows in homes and businesses throughout the village. “It was a magical thing to do that was in keeping with lockdown and it hit the nerve of connecting the community and we built on that,” adds Gill, who says she found the experience a ‘life enhancing’ part of lockdown.

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She says Street Ambassadors continue to play an important role in the festival celebrations as a point of contact. “The ambassador model has been a wonder as it provides us with a link to people in a very domestic way, local people inspiring and supporting each other in this great creative endeavour. It really is a grassroots grown and supported festival,” says Gill.

Echoing this is the community-wide fundraising initiative which has made this year’s event possible. This involved music concerts, a ceilidh and village-wide garage sale as well as hundreds of small donations. The festival also received a major grant from the Arts Council’sa lottery funding and donations from Kirklees Council’s Growing Great Places Fund and local businesses.

“What delights me is really growing those connections with people who love this village, who live here and have grown up here and their families are all part of this network. The village is blossoming and blooming and that is making it vibrant and attractive and a good place to live. We have a bit of everything,” says Gill, referring to the traditional enterprises, the butchers, bakers and greengrocers, along with other businesses in the village.

"You don’t need to go out of our village and, hopefully, that makes it an easier place to live because they do have all the facilities on the doorstep. You get a sense of generations living here – and enjoying it.”

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