“We’re empowering people and they don’t even know it.”

“Last week they cried when they saw Father Christmas in Cleckheaton. They wouldn’t go near him,” says Susan, as she leads her triplet daughters out of the Maze of Curiosity. “Now at least they’ve spoken to him.”

As part of the HeckmondLIGHT celebrations artist co-operative, 154 Collective have built a cardboard labyrinth of creativity, music and wonder in the old Market Hall.

Young adventurers and their grown-ups are gawping, crawling and bopping before they get to see the big man with his sack of festive goodies. “What did you make of it?” I ask Susan.

“Those artists have done an amazing job,” she says. “We didn’t expect it to be this good.”

With its 100-year tradition and billed as ‘probably’ the oldest Christmas lights event in the country, Heckmondwike’s switch-on is a big event in the local calendar.

For the last three years Creative Scene has been working closely with the town’s business community and in particular with festival director Simon Thirkill to make the event even better with art.

In Green Park Simon is fiddling with the connections to his Memory Boxes artwork before the stewards open the gates to the public. “The panels were going in the skip,” he says, “so we grabbed them and made these boxes.”

The illuminated cubes – Simon’s first artwork for the festival – feature recordings from local people recounting their childhood recollections of the lights and their hopes for the future.

The gates open and a curious crowd wander into the park to be greeted by large paper lantern sculptures and the LED clouds made earlier this week.

“I never thought I’d make a cloud,” says Batley School of Art student Joe, with clipboard in hand. “Doing something 3D was very interesting for me because I normally draw. It was really informative and great fun.

I nod towards his clipboard. Joe and his college mate Cameron are amongst the 20-strong band of volunteers for the night. “We’re going to be asking people about their experiences,” he says.

“I’ll come back later and see how you’ve got on.”

In one corner of the park dance music is blaring from a Portaloo-converted human jukebox. In another the Peace Artistes street band is assembling, resplendent in twinkly outfits to match the occasion.

“Crickey, how many are you?” I ask as players emerge from every direction.

“Today there’s about 18 of us,” says a clarinettist, “sometimes we have even more.”

Schoolmates Byron and Tom warm themselves near the huge propane gas flames that intermittently light up the whole park and everyone in it. “It’s always been a family tradition coming down to see the switch-on,” says Byron. “This year it’s brilliant.”

“We saw them putting up the clouds on our way back from school yesterday,” says Tom.

“They’ll be staying up until the end of the year,” I tell them. The boys nod their approval as enthusiastically as any 14-year-olds can.

A small crowd is gathered around Simon’s Memory Boxes. “When I was nine I’d walk from Gomersal with my friends,” they hear one voice say, “just to look at the lights.”

“Dad would take us down to see them,” says another, “it meant Christmas was nearly here.”

Across the road, in the Blue Moon Café, Creative Scene’s director Nancy is welcoming supporters with hot toddies and mince pies.

“It’s been a real joy over the last three years to be working with Simon and the Heckmondwike Community Alliance and a fantastic team of artists and volunteers,” she says, as the room quietens, “we’ve had the pleasure of helping to create a community event that, as you can see, is buzzing.

“Don’t forget to have a look at the Frontier Light in the bandstand that will soon be revealed. It’s from the original Batley Variety Club and has been salvaged and restored by Simon and Anthony, and brought back to life for HeckmondLIGHT this year.”

“I’ve had the most riotous time for these last three years,” declares Simon after Nancy has thanked artists, volunteers and sponsors, “and that has been down to Creative Scene. They’ve facilitated me with the tools I’ve needed but most of all they’ve given me the confidence to go out there and do it.

“The community is gathering behind us and the benefits for community cohesion are absolutely fantastic. We’re empowering people and they don’t even know it. Thank you to you all. It’s been a riot. Give yourselves a round of applause.”

On my way back into the park, I catch up with volunteers Joe and Cameron. “What sort of feedback have you been getting?” I ask.

“All positive,” says Cameron, checking his clipboard. “Either good or extremely good.”

“You don’t normally see this sort of event any more, do you?” says Joe. “This is all community-based. It’s really good.”

A huge crowd has gathered now. It’s the countdown for the lights switch-on and tonight’s special guest, ‘Gus Mantle’, clambers up to the podium. “Do you believe in spirits?” he says. “Do you believe in ghosts? Well, you’re looking at one here.”

‘Gus’ – the ghost of illuminations-past – recites a specially-commissioned tongue-in-cheek story recounting the town’s illumination history before revealing the pulsating Frontier Light to a fanfare from the Peace Artiste band.

Next, with blow torch in hand, he encourages the crowd: “Ten, nine, eight…” and lights the countdown fuse.

Fireworks fizz and cackle as the now famous Momentum Wheel of Light begins to spin faster and faster. And with a collective ‘aahh’ the park lights up, and this West Yorkshire town’s illumination tradition continues for another year, another generation.

The Momentum Wheel begins to turn

[Continued from “Wait for the WHOSSH, that’s your cue.”]

Inside the Market Hall Eleanor, Chemaine and Lou from The Brick Box have set up their Electric Fireside installation. Adorned with twinkly lights the three hosts have also created a ‘drawing room’ where rolls of wallpaper hang from the ceiling.

Five-year-old Thomas is doing his best with a length of bamboo cane with torch and marker pen taped to one end.

cs_261116_098“We only recently moved from Brighouse and I was determined to bring my grandson to the lights this year,” says his grandma Ellie.

“He’s going to have someone’s eye out with that,” I say as Thomas charges about with his giant pen.

“Bizarrely my old neighbour back in Brighouse, who is now in her 60s, recalls her father bringing her to Heckmondwike for the lights each year. He used to say it’s the best in the region. And I can see it’s still lovely.”

As Eleanor and Chemaine predicted earlier in the week, people are gathered around their glowing fusion of fireplaces and mantlepiece. The young people I met at the West Yorkshire Drama Academy are here with friends and family and the Salvation Army is setting up in the corner.

“We’re now going to watch a drama piece by Lucas,” Eleanor says into the mike, “so do all gather round, and next up we’ll have the joy of the Salvation Army choir.”

cs_261116_118cs_261116_140Back on the green the Skiband are whipping up the ever-growing crowd with a rendition of  I’m in the Mood for Love.

“Listen kids,” jokes one of musicians into a little megaphone, “when you go back to school on Monday, work hard and pass all your exams… or you’ll end up doing stuff like this!”

cs_261116_198Father Christmas and his single elf make their way through the tweating mechanical birds of the Aviary Arcadia towards the bandstand stage. The amazing digital projections from the 154 Collective give way to a mesmerising performance by Flame Oz, the warm up act for Santa.

“Hello Heck…mond…wike!” he bellows once on stage. “Did you know Heckmondwike has had Christmas lights for nearly 150 years?” A big cheer follows. “I think you should be especially proud of this great tradition of your wonderful community!” Another cheer.

Once Santa has promised presents to everyone who has been good, he is passed a blow torch to light the blue touchpaper. “Shall we all count down from ten? Ten… nine… eight…”

As planned there are HISSES and WHIZZES, CACKLES and BANGS. The Momentum Wheel begins to turn and a series of digital animations appear in its centre.

cs_261116_309“Ah look,” says a woman to her friends next to me, “it’s a bird. What is it called? It’s a flamingo.”

“A pelican,” I say from behind my camera.

“Oh yes, it’s a pelican.”

As the images complete their cycle the WHOOSHES provide the signal and somewhere in the background Ben switches on the Heckmondwike lights for the 148th time.

“ARHH,” says the town.

cs_261116_322Simon is beside himself afterwards. “Absolutely fantastic,” he says, as if he’s about to wipe away a tear. “People have just taken to it so well, it’s unbelievable. There are people down here from all over Heckmondwike. This is about building communities, this is the way to do it.”

“I thought it was really good,” says Sarah who is here with her friends, Sophie and Helena. “We’ve been coming since we were kids. It’s not the same as everywhere else, is it? And that’s good for Heckmondwike.”

Next I catch up with Pam and Bill from Southport who are down for the weekend staying with the grandkids. “Lovely, really lovely,” says Pam. “It looked amazing. You could really feel the togetherness of the community.” Job done.

“Wait for the WHOSSH, that’s your cue.”

It’s just after four o’clock and the bright, clear day is giving way to a cold, clear night. All the performers, technicians and volunteers are in place. The stage is set, literally, for HeckmondLIGHT 2016.

“So what can we expect?” I ask Simon Thirkill, stalwart of the Heckmondwike Community Alliance and local café owner.

“That guy on the bike is projecting animated images inspired by the Heckmondwike illuminations,” he says, “and over there are cages with animatronic birds that flap and tweet as you walk past. And then there’s the Momentum Wheel…”

“Which is the centrepiece for the lights switch-on,” I suggest, noticing the ‘blue touchpaper’ elevated by poles, linking the stage and the specially-commissioned sculpture.

cs_261116_253For Simon and his colleagues HeckmondLIGHT is more than just flashing lights and fireworks. “Creating a time and a space for people to experience things together is really important,” he says. “It’s a priority for me to help create those opportunities.”

cs_261116_235Volunteers Sonia and Zane are in position next to the tweeting birds. I’ve met these teenagers before. “So what makes you spend your Saturday evening volunteering at Creative Scene events like this?” I ask Sonia.

“It’s a great way to get involved with the arts, isn’t it?” she says. “There are so many interesting opportunities,” – she and Zane were both ‘lay performers’ at Batley Festival back in September – “and I like the way Creative Scene is making the arts accessible to people in this area.”

“It’s a good way to get to know all the other volunteers,” says Zane. “We’re like a big family, all supportive of each other. That’s why we keep coming back.”

cs_261116_054Zane has helped out at Batley Festival for the last two years, “… and I did  HeckmondFRIGHT last year,” he says.

“I missed that but I saw the film. It looked great.”

“It was really good. We had to carry a coffin around town and the police stopped us and asked if there was a body in it. That was funny.”

Still at school, fifteen-year-old Zane tells me he wanted to be a pilot. “But now I’ve seen what Creative Scene does, I think I want to do something creative like drama or contemporary art.”

cs_261116_222Back near the bandstand Chris from Impossible Arts – co-creator of the Momentum Wheel – is in animated conversation with hi-vis-clad local contractor Ben Hardcastle. Ben and his family have installed the lights in this town for years and it’ll be his job, behind the scenes, to actually flick the switch.

“The firecrackers are quite loud: BANG, BANG, BANG,” explains Chris, “but the final bit is the WHOOSH of the fireworks, that’s your cue to switch on the lights.”

“So when I see the WHOOSH and not the BANG,” reiterates Ben.

“That’s right. The WHOOSH and not the BANG,” says Chris. “Brilliant, that’s great.”

There’s time before the big switch-on at 6.30 to take a look around. Next to the park the bus hub has been transformed into a mini funfair with waltzers, a trampoline and vendors selling the obligatory flashing light sabres and battery-powered windmills. Excited children, wrapped up against the cold, grapple with bags of candy floss and dodgy-looking burgers.

Across the busy road artists Rozi Fuller and Liz Walker have taken over Simon’s Blue Moon Café. With a light box of sand and some technical wizardry they project festive animations onto the window of the caff.

cs_261116_062cs_261116_066“Would you like a go?” ask Rozi.

“No, thanks,” I say abruptly. “I’d love to but there’s so much going on, I’ve got to get round everything.”

[Continued in The Momentum Wheel begins to turn.]

“It’s familiar but also a little bit surreal.”

“Let your arms and legs relax… take some big deep breaths… begin to feel totally relaxed.”

cs_231116_038-editI’m at Heckmondwike Community Centre, host to the local scout group, karate club, and St John’s Ambulance. The after school club has not long packed up and now the younger section of the West Yorkshire Drama Academy has taken over the two-storey hall. It’s a busy place.

cs_231116_013-edit“Do you remember last week I gave you all leaflets about HeckmondLIGHT?” asks Academy head and Creative Scene supporter, Rebecca Foster. “Well tonight we have a couple of visitors who will explain to us how we might get involved.”

cs_231116_070-editEleanor from The Brick Box and her collaborator Chemaine join the circle and begin to tell us about their Electric Fireside installation that’s coming to Heckmondwike this Saturday.

“Light festivals often have something spectacular like fireworks or large illuminations – and HeckmondLIGHT has all of that – but we decided to create something more intimate,” says Eleanor. “So we’ve made something called the Electric Fireside.”

“When I was a kid – back in the 70s – we’d sit round my grandma’s electric fire, eat crumpets and listen to her stories.

“Back in the old days people would sit around an open fire, tell tales, play music and sing songs. Nowadays we gather round the telly, don’t we?”

Eleanor explains that the Fireside itself is made from five old electric fires with a mantlepiece in the middle and ornaments on top. “It’s familiar but, at the same time, a little bit surreal,” she says.

“We’ve taken it all over the country,” says Chemaine, “and each group has done something special that creates a spark around the Fireside. Already we can see this group has something special.”

“We’d like to invite you to come along on Saturday and perform whatever you’d like,” says Eleanor.

“It doesn’t have to be a drama piece,” reiterates Rebecca to the now fired-up young people. “It could be a poem – I know lots of you have written amazing poems – or a song or some sort of story.”

“Pick the thing that you love to do the most,” suggests Chemaine as the performers split into groups to conjure something up. “We work really quickly,” says Rebecca, “it’s all about improv.”

As the emerging performers bounce ideas around and rehearse cameos, I hear that Eleanor and Chemaine have already lined up other groups to host the Fireside this weekend. “We’ve been speaking with the Spen Valley Civic Society,” says Eleanor, “who will be sharing local history stories. And the Salvation Army will sing songs. Oh, and Father Christmas will make an early appearance.”

cs_231116_079-editcs_231116_077-editIn one corner of the hall, under the scout flag, Pheobe, Leah and Ariana are plotting to sing a Shawn Mendis song; elsewhere Spencer and Louis are meditating, thinking up ideas; and sat opposite each other Iara and Olivia are rehearsing a piece with Lucas’ help.

“What’s your idea?” I ask them.

“There are two characters but they’re the same person,” says Olivia whose ambition I’m told is to be the first female Doctor Who. “One of them is before the incident and the other is after it. It’s about what they are and what they’ve turned into.”

“And you’re just making this up on the spot?”

“Pretty much.”

hecky_dramaAfter about half an hour the circle is recreated, the lights switched off and the performers lit by a ring of mobile phone torches.

“So much love, so much light,” says Iara as she and Olivia take their turn to perform.

“So much pain, so much destruction,” retorts Olivia.

It’s a powerful, emotive piece. “Does everything we do have to be light and cheery?” Rebecca asks as the girls sit down.

“You can’t have the light without the dark,” says Eleanor.

The Electric Fireside will be in the covered market between 4-8pm as part of HeckmondLIGHT this Saturday, 26th November.

Elephants and gorillas roaming Heckmondwike

“That looks like a likely wall,” says Chris as we drive into town.

Simon and a couple of his HeckmondLIGHT volunteers are waiting for us in the Westgate 23 pub. There’s Liam – he has his own sound engineering business – and regular supporter Connor.

“So, what’s the plan?” asks Creative Scene director, Nancy as we all stand under a portrait of Queen Elizabeth.

“Tonight’s a test,” explains Chris from Impossible Arts, “I’ve brought a generator and large projector. Because it’s so wet, we’ll have to project from inside the van.”

This is the first of a number of ‘guerrilla projections’ where Chris parks close to a suitable ‘screen’, fires up his projector and advertises next week’s light festival to passers-by.

“So no gorilla outfits then?” jokes Simon, “I’m quite disappointed about that.”

Chris heads back to his van as the rest of us walk towards the bus hub. “Not long to go now. Is the excitement mounting for HeckmondLIGHT?” I ask Simon.

“Excitement and trepidation,” he says.

“Why’s that?”

“The Festival is much bigger this year. It’s a massive leap forward. When it all kicks off with the Momentum Wheel, I think people are going to be in awe.”

Simon and Chris have collaborated closely this year, wining an Arts Council of England grant to construct a bespoke structure that will make the switch-on go off with a bang.

Last week Simon visited the hilltop workshop of mechanical sculptor Andy Plant to check on progress of their giant ‘wheel’. “What did you make of it?” I ask.

“It’s far bigger than I’d imagined,” he says as we cross the A638. “With all the chains and pulleys it has that industrial feel, doesn’t it? It has one foot in the past but then, with all the digital lighting, it has another in the future. It works really well for what we’re trying to do.”

cs_181116_061-editA huge projector points out of the van. Chris taps on his laptop and, after some tweaking, a series of animations begin, promoting the Festival and stirring the interest of passengers coming and going. Nancy hands out leaflets to a mother and daughter as they get off the 268.

cs_181116_085-edit“What’s all this?” asks one of the teenagers killing time in a shelter.

“We’re advertising next week’s HeckmondLIGHT,” I say. “Will you be coming?”

“I go every year,” says Lewis.

“Make sure you’re there for the switch-on at 6.30. There’s something special this year.”

Our next guerrilla stop is Firth Park across the way. Chris is keen to see how the projection works on a darker wall. Within minutes an elephant is balancing on a circus ball on the side of the pavilion.

cs_181116_139-edit“That works,” says Chris to Liam as they sit together in the back of the van, working through the technicalities.

“Liam provides a lot of the lighting for the local amateur dramatic societies,” explains Nancy as we watch the elephant wobble. “We’re helping him develop his projection skills with this project. It’d be good for his business.”

The rain continues to lash. “Let’s leave it at that for tonight,” says Chris. “I’ll be back again next week. We’ll have another go then.”