Great Outdoors Friday, April 29th Words by: Lauren Rogers, pictures by: Paul Jackson

Folding fish and building floats: meet the team behind Hereford River Carnival

Great Outdoors Friday, April 29th

Folding fish and building floats: meet the team behind Hereford River Carnival

For a lot of people in Hereford the river is just something you sit in traffic to cross. 

There’s little connection with this constant flow of water, the fifth-longest river in the country which travels – the name Wye in Latin is Vaga, to wander – 134 miles from the Welsh mountains to the Severn Estuary near Chepstow.

Talk about Symonds Yat or the river at Glasbury, and the Wye is something wild and alive. Not so much in Hereford, a city that has literally turned its back on the water.

Not this weekend though. Tomorrow, thousands of people will turn to face the river, some with clamber into makeshift boats, floats and rafts to paddle down it.

Hereford River Carnival, now in its third year, is convincing the city fall back in love with the Wye.

The volunteers who run the carnival are those endlessly energetic types who at first make you feel bad for not getting off your arse and organising a festival for thousands of people, and then inspire you to join the cause.

Over lunch on the day I first meet Polly, Bex, Stuart and Gemma – just some of the volunteers who organise the whole thing – I’m impressed with their worker-bee ethic, and their honesty.

"If something falls off the bottom of the To Do list, then it falls of the list," said Polly Ernest, who lives in a big Bohemian house on the river’s edge.

"The first year we started my job was just sending press releases out. That and hoping people would turn up."

They did – 10,000 people poured onto the streets and riverbanks in 2014. It was a revival of a carnival last held 40 years ago. Blindingly good weather helped, of course, but it was a nice reminder that the city hadn’t altogether given up on the Wye.

View from the Wye during 2015's Hereford River Carnival.

From Polly’s house, near Greyfriars Bridge, you can watch canoes paddle past, dog walkers on the footpath and – in the distance – an info board recently installed by the Environment Agency that reveals the wealth of wildlife living in the city river.

"The thing I’ve never understood is why Hereford is not Hereford on Wye," said Polly.

"I would like to start a campaign to be Hereford on Wye." Ross-on-Wye, Hay-on-Wye. It’s good that 'on-Wye'.

"What we felt very strongly is that the city wasn’t proud of its river. We hoped by putting the carnival on it, we’d focus people’s attention on it and they’d realise how beautiful it is.

"We’ve got otters, we’ve got kingfishers. It’s the best stretch of barbel fishing in the country, I think. It’s the fourth most popular river. Everyone has heard of it.

"We have a B&B guests here and they’ve been all over: they’ve been to Venice, Paris, London and Edinburgh. We say what are doing in Hereford? They are going to Hay-on-Wye and this is as far as the train will take them.

"I would just like Hereford to love the river more. Be proud of it." 

The next time I meet up with Polly and Bex we are making origami fish.

For the past few months carnival supporters – at school, in coffee shops and at kitchen tables - have been folding squares of paper, so that a 10,000 strong shoal of paper fish can be assembled on Bishop’s Meadow on carnival day.

It’s a clever way of getting the community engaged with the carnival, and with art.

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Bex, who runs Carnival Arts with fellow volunteer Leo Caithness, is passionate about engagement, diversity and accessible art. She wears a little Frieda Kahlo pin badge and talks about carnival-goers not sitting on the sidelines, but getting involved and being part of something.

“One of my favourite things from last year,” she said, “was one of the workshops in the run up to the carnival which we held for people to make thing. I worked with a group of men with learning difficulties after the staff from their home brought them along. I’ve worked a lot with adults with learning difficulties and I really didn’t know if they’ve turn up on the day.

“They did. They joined in with the foot procession, they brought all the beautiful things they’d made and the staff loved it too. It was their community coming out and being part of a bigger community. When you see kids joining in, and adults joining, you realise you’ve done something. As cheesy as that sounds.”

Bex and Polly are well aware the words “community engagement” and “art festival” can send a shiver down some people’s spines, so they’ve been choosing their language carefully.

“If we are not careful it can end up being a bit…,” … white, middle class and middle aged, I offered?

“Exactly,” said Polly.

“One of my 15 year old son’s friends said ‘Why don’t you just call it a big party in the street and then everybody will come’. We’ve realised that we have to use different language to appeal to different people.

“So a very big party in the streets is what we’re doing.”

After spending time with the River Carnival volunteers it’s pretty clear who the festival belongs to, and it’s not the council or a committee.

"It belongs to Hereford," said Bex.

"Whatever people offer, however they get involved, it’s invaluable and appreciated.

"It can get a bit mad behind the scenes," said Polly.

"There’s a lot of that boring time consuming stuff, email after email after email.

"Now we’re in our third year we’ve got more help, from blokes making raft bases to Gemma, one of our newest volunteers, doing invaluable admin.

"We have all these people doing their bit. So when we’re exhausted, when Bex and I get to the point where we are just gibbering, knowing there people willing to get stuck in and help, it’s… well, it’s brilliant."

Carnival day - the when and where

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Hereford River Carnival 2016 is an all-day affair, starting with a champagne launch the Left Bank – one of the few city venues to make a feature of the river, at 10am on Saturday, April 30.

The street carnival starts at 12.45pm, with hundreds of people parading those paper fish and giant puppet creations from Castle Green, through High Town and over the old Wye bridge to Bishop’s Meadow.

The procession is open to anyone – just turn up, and walk to the beat of a drum band.

At 2.15pm, decorated boats and rafts will paddle, row and bob down the Wye.

At 3.30pm, it’s the Rotary Club duck race - the plastic bathtub kind.

For all the extra information, head to www.rivercarnival.org. You can download the map here.

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The Hereford River Carnival is the launch event of the Wye Valley River Festival, celebrating the Wye from Hereford to Chepstow. 

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