It’s all hands on deck in a barn in a farmer’s field on the eastern side of Jersey. A float is about to be launched. Let me explain. It’s 24 hours before the Battle of Flowers and things are getting serious down here in the Parish of Grouville. Thousands of fresh flowers (165,000, to be precise) have just arrived, waiting to be glued, each one by hand, on to Grouville’s float, which is taking final shape in the barn. There are hundreds of volunteers – from young kids to grandmothers – milling about, putting the finishing touches to other parts of the float, checking the mechanics and the sound systems. It’s all a bit manic, in the best tradition of ‘it’ll be all right on the night’. It’s Battle of Flowers time in Jersey and, boy, do they take it seriously.
Grouville’s entry is one of around 30 floats that will be battling it out in St Helier for top honours. There are various categories, including junior and senior floats, and most of Jersey’s 12 parishes have entered along with assorted clubs and organisations.
I’m at Grouville to find out more about an annual event that throws the whole island into a floral frenzy. It’s a good choice, for Grouville, much like a Premiership football club, is considered by Battle cognoscenti to be up there with the best.
‘We’ve got a long tradition of involvement. People know us very well and know we put on a good show’, says Mark Labey, the maestro in charge, adding: ‘We have won the Prix d’Honneur (the top prize) about a dozen times.’ In real life he is a postman, but there’s a parallel universe at work in Jersey based around the Battle, which can consume you for nearly 12 months of the year.
Mark is one of many islanders – and visitors from England, Holland and as far afield as Australia who turn up every year to help with the floats – bitten by the ‘Battle bug’. ‘For my first Battle in 1967 I was just six, so I’ve been involved for 44 years,’ he says, in between orchestrating the final few frantic laps of this long-distance marathon.
It all began last November with a blank sheet of paper. Helen Bliss, the float’s artistic designer, explains: ‘My husband bought me a laptop for my birthday and I found Google images. It came up with all these wonderful images which I thought would make a fantastic float. The whole thing evolved from there.’
That inspiration came from Thailand and the Buddhist Phi Ta Khon Festival, an event likened to our Halloween. She then called in her friend Alison Hicks. ‘We sat down together over a cup of coffee,’ recalls Alison, ‘looked at Thai temples and serpents and I went away and drew up the plans.’
The building work started in January when last year’s float was dismantled. At its core lies a tractor, hidden from view. Although the 40ft monster float only travels at walking pace, it’s slightly worrying to report that the tractor driver can’t see us either. But he is in constant radio contact with his surrogate ‘eyes’, people who walk in front of the float relaying driving instructions via a headset. It all seems to work: to date, Grouville’s No Claims Bonus remains intact.
Steering this behemoth is the easy bit. As I wander around the barn I’m amazed by the artistry and attention to detail. Already, many of the set pieces are complete. Although hundreds of hands are busy preparing and gluing them, fresh flowers aren’t the only decorative item. ‘With fresh flowers you can’t do detailed work,’ explains Mark. ‘That’s where the hares’ tails come into it.’
The hares’ tails are dried and dyed ornamental grass imported from Italy. Unlike flowers, they aren’t time sensitive and are used to create the float’s most striking and complex features, such as the demon guards, serpents, masks, temple adornments and Buddhas. And if you think that’s the end of it, oh no. I meet Silvie Marquis, who flew all the way to Hong Kong to buy 200 yards of Thai silk. ‘I designed the costumes from scratch,’ she says, ‘then seven of us had to make 32 costumes. It’s mad, I’ve got a life somewhere else, but I enjoy it.’
The juniors (under 18) are also busy with their more modestly sized Alice in Wonderland creation. They are currently having difficulty with their smoking mushroom, but like big brother opposite there’s a quiet – if that’s the right word for this mêlée – confidence that everything will come together for the big parade on Thursday.
It all amounts to a huge endeavour with the minutest attention to detail. But most of all I come away impressed by the sense of community. All ages were working together in a good-natured, harmonious way. There were lots of smiles on lots of faces. If they could bottle the atmosphere in that barn on the little island of Jersey they could label it ‘David Cameron’s Big Society’.
So how did Grouville get on? Arch-friendly rival the Parish of St Clement took Prix d’Honneur with their frankly amazing and fabulously surreal Alice in Wonderland-themed float which packed in everything from Lewis Carroll’s fevered imagination.
The Battle is a riot of colour and energy – the costumed performers accompanying the floats really play to the crowds packed along St Helier’s seafront. Personal favourites included the sexy, possibly sacrilegious disco nuns from the Parish of St Brelade in a float based on the West End musical Sister Acts, and the ‘Down Under’ float from the Parish of St Lawrence depicting a man being barbecued by a kangaroo.
Other figures from a bizarre floral cast included a Wild West runaway train, the Incredible Hulk, Abba’s Mama Mia, a 1960s pink convertible, ice castle and fiery ‘Heaven and Hell’ from the Jersey Young Farmers’ Club, who ‘always do something crazy’. Special mention should also be made of the ostriches and emus on the ‘Too Big to Fly’ float created by the indomitable 93-year-old Florence Bechelet, custodian of the Battle of Flowers Museum (see box), who has been exhibiting at the Battle since 1934.
Grouville’s float also looked great, managing to out-exotic its competitors with its Asian verve. It came a very creditable third in the overall ranking for its class, winning the Grand Prix des Paroisses (‘Competition of the Parishes’). This para sounds as though because they came third they won the Grand Prix . They came third in their class and they also won the Grand Prix des Paroisses. Could you reword slightly to reflect this. They’ll be back. With this particular battle you can honestly say it’s the taking part, not the winning, that counts.
History of the Battle
In 1902 to celebrate the Coronation of Kind Edward Vll and Queen Alexandra Jersey decided to hold a parade. The event was so successful that it was decided to repeat it the following year and a tradition was established. In the early days the floats were mostly horse-drawn and covered in floral decorations. The tradition was to tear a flower off the float and throw it to a lady in the crowd. Flowers were sometimes thrown back and hence Battle was born.
The Parade was abandoned during World War 1 but revived in 1926. During World War ll and the Occupation of the Channel Islands the Parade was again suspended. At the start of the 1950’s a group of businessmen decided that a revival of Battle was long overdue as a focus for the community and an additional benefit for the emerging tourism industry.
The event has gone from strength to strength and in 1964 it was decided to drop the ’Battle’ aspect of the Parade.
Grand Day Parade
Thursday 8th August 2013 (TBC)
Undoubtedly one of the most spectacular carnivals in Europe! Enjoy the spectacle of Flower covered floats, musicians, dancers and entertainers providing a tremendous atmosphere for one of the highlights in Jersey’s summer Events calendar.
Friday 9th August 2013 (TBC)
The Moonlight Parade is an amazing evening parade. The flower covered floats are festooned with thousands of lights to give a truly magical appearance and a fitting finale to this floral extravaganza.
Both Parades are ticketed events and offer two truly sensational and stunning Parades.
Tickets can be purchased in advance online from www.battleofflowers.com.
In the weeks preceding the event tickets are also available from Jersey Tourism and Marks & Spencers. Both these outlets will enable you to select your seat tickets and need to be purchased in person.