Volunteering: Newbury Festival of Light


In mid-2018 I went to the library to scan a page from my notebook for another post on this site. On my way out I saw a leaflet from the Newbury Corn Exchange with a rather charming picture of a giant glowing squid; I grabbed it and started reading through it once I’d got in the car. I was instantly interested in the Lantern Making for the Brave and booked it for me, and my parents! This involved making a lantern while being instructed and assisted by experts, then marching in the street with it accompanied by others during an event.

This post describes the work that was involved in making our lantern, as well as the main event.

Lantern Making for the Brave

We arrived at 10 in the morning, and were met by a gentleman in glasses with dreadlocks. His name is Martin and lantern-making is his thing! He introduced himself and explained the process to us. We were unsure as to what we were going to do, but when my dad suggested a hot air balloon we all agreed it would be fairly easy, and Martin suggested a design. But before we started, Martin took us to the back of the workshop and showed us lanterns from previous festivals. The bee has flapping wings, and took 3 months to build. You can see how the skeleton of the lanterns was used to create advanced and interesting shadows in the lanterns.

We agreed to build the lantern in three parts:

  • The main balloon
  • The basket
  • The flames inside

The main balloon was made by creating rings of willow that start off narrow at the bottom and widen as the contours of a hot air balloon. Four straight willow beams were placed vertically from top to bottom, then more willow was spiraled from top to bottom. This had a light fused and hung through the middle and was then cladded in special tissue paper using PVA glue. A small opening was left at the top for hanging and wiring, while a large opening was left in the bottom.

The basket was made from two equally sized rings, with a few () shaped struts connecting the top and bottom ring. This was cladded from the bottom and sides, and attached to the balloon using four ropes that were taped into a loop around the vertical beams and their parallel ()s.

Caveat: I searched everywhere to find what the name of the () shape is, and still genuinely don't know! Extra smarty-points to anyone who can tell me the name of this shape in the comments.

The flames were made from several randomly angled pieces of willow connected to each other with the largest in the middle and the smallest going along the outside. This was then cladded, and the cladding was dried and spray-painted red. It was then stuffed with Christmas lights. The Christmas lights and red spray-paint were purchased during the lunch break of this event.

The Procession

The lantern was transported to the procession in pieces and assembled on site. This would have been easy, if it weren’t for the fact that it was pouring with rain that night; there were inches-deep puddles, the lantern weighed a tonne, and the carrying pole kept slipping out of my hands, but we were surrounded by hundreds of others with the exact same problem, so we powered on! We all gathered in the town square and waited eagerly to begin. When the drums started playing and we all started marching you could really feel the community spirit!

Possible Improvements

We definitely want to return to this event next year, and this year has taught us a lot:

  • When wet, the glue started to loosen and the lantern got heavy, perhaps next year we’ll spray varnish it after it’s finished
  • Using the pole at an angle (suspending the lantern from the top) was cumbersome and it would have been easier to have the pole going up through the middle of the lantern from the bottom
  • The lighting was impressive, but using halogen lights was not only quite a fire risk, it was also inefficient and could have been brighter. Maybe next time we’ll use LEDs instead
  • Maybe next time we should make it smaller; it was very hard to transport and carry.