I ventured into the city of Chester this last weekend to watch the Midsummer Watch Parade. Beginning in 1989, and inspired by the 16th and 17th-century pageant of nationwide renown (the earliest reference is from 1498 and it was abandoned in the 1670s), it was a fun and memorable spectacle celebrating midsummer and involving music and giant contraptions inspired by Chester’s history and legends, as well as broader stories and mythologies from across Britain. The parade took place on both Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd June 2019.
Beginning at the town hall, the parade was led down down to the market cross, down Watergate Street and back, then down Bridge Streets and back, picking up extra elements as it went. It then headed down Eastgate Street and up St Werburgh’s Street back to the town hall. This was followed by a shorter circuit down Northgate Street, Eastgate Street and St Werburgh’s Street.
Full details of the history, gallery of photos and videos from past parades, and the cast, can be found here (although note it is out of date without full 2018 and 2019 details).
Here I wish to make 4 observations about this recreated Tudor and Stuart pageant. First, regardless of the historicity of the parade in relation to its 16th/17th-century predecessors, the parade encapsulated a bricolage of pasts both fantastical and historical reenvisaged and juxtaposed in a procession speaking to the present-day city’s tourism and identity. Processions included many members of the city’s council (CWAC) and the University and school children and their teachers. Among the mannequins and models were the Bluecoat Boy, Suns, Hippogriff, Cernunnous, the Pike, Camels, a Pirate’s Ship, the Elephant, St Weburgh and her geese, The Ravens, The Family of Giants, a Hell Mouth, various Dragons, and the Devil and his band of demons. Apparently on the Saturday there were Vikings too, but they were absent on the Sunday when I was present.
Second, an obvious point it might be, but all these different times and places mashed together in the procession very much mirrors the backdrop of the streets and buildings, many ancient with reused Roman stones and medieval basements, many evoking the past in their de novo 18th- and 19th-century architecture. The surrounding architecture is no less fantastical than many of the beasts on parade!
Third, I noticed quite a few archaeologists participating in the parade! Archaeologists have been long-term dimensions of the city’s heritage tourism success and its civic identity, and have been working passionately to promote engagement and appreciation of the heritage of the city and the region. It was great to see them out in force!
Fourth, the most Archaeodeath element was the presence of not hell mouths or a Roman general (or is it Hannibal?), or indeed the presence of the holy St Werburgh, but actually the presence of a king’s head. Yes, Charles I is part of the procession, held aloft by his executioner, and ‘celebrating’ the 17th-century English Civil War and the city’s long siege by Parliamentarian forces. A grisly 17th-century century dimension, is darker and more deathly perhaps than any demon or Celtic deity…