The marshal: it's a thankless task but somebody's got to do it

PUBLISHED: 11:39 30 December 2008 | UPDATED: 14:48 20 April 2010

Belinda Bennett, chief marshal of last year's Honiton and District Carnival, gives a fly-on-the-wall account of her night and appeals for more marshals.

BEING chief marshal at Honiton's main carnival last October wasn't quite the breeze I expected it to be. A veteran of illuminated processions across Devon and Somerset, I was half hoping to be able to watch the show - one eye on the entries and the other on the crowd. It didn't quite work out like that... Crowd control and keeping entries to the correct route are all-important parts of carnival. It's an element of the big night that can't be left to chance. Public safety is the be-all and end-all. Police spelt it out following our first stint in the hot seat, as a new committee. We needed more marshals and we needed them at specific points along the route, between Ottery Moor Lane and Monkton Road. Neighbourhood Beat Manager PC Ian Atyeo was a fantastic help, liaising closely with carnival chairman Bill Austin on a regular basis throughout the year. More marshals were required at Rookwood flats, the traffic island near the police station and at the junction of Ottery Moor Lane where spectators have, in the past, trampled private gardens. Although marshals are all volunteers, they take their role in carnival very seriously. Without them, carnivals simply wouldn't go ahead. The team at Honiton comprised Yeovil and District Marshals, Wellington Carnival Committee, members of Bridport Carnival Committee and local residents, including Councillor Vernon Whitlock, a former policeman. I led the marshals' briefing in Ottery Moor Lane an hour-and-a-half before the procession was due to start. I gave every marshal a written copy of instructions, acutely aware that Jo Chave, chairman of Wellington Carnival, is a total expert and a true professional when it comes to carnival organisation. The main points I raised were: l Marshals were to stand apart but within sight of at least one other marshal. l Those not issued with a communications radio should make sure they knew where the nearest person with a radio was - in case a problem needed to be reported back to base control or assistance was required. l Particular attention should be paid to children, who may run into the road to retrieve coins. If a marshal came across a lost child, they should move into a safe position but where they could be seen with the young person. The child should not, under any circumstances, be removed from the area. l Marshals must remain vigilant at all times, taking particular care outside public houses or where the consumption of alcohol is evident. l Keep exits clear for emergency vehicles. l If, horror or horrors, the procession had to be cancelled en-route, marshals should direct entries into the left-hand lane and ensure floats hold their positions until the public have dispersed and the all-clear to move off has been given. Briefing over, around 24 of us walked to our posts. Councillor Whitlock took the traffic island outside the police station, Yeovil and District Marshals covered from Dowell Street to The Bed Expert and from Honiton Wine Bar to Honiton Evangelical Congregational Church, and Wellington Carnival Committee marshalled an area from Montgomery's Hotel to St Paul's Church. Volunteers from Bridport and Honiton filled in the gaps. I positioned myself at the top end of the town, providing roving cover from W H Smith to Honiton Pottery. It took less than a minute for me to encounter a problem. As the procession approached, I gestured a crowd standing outside The Red Cow to move off the road and back onto the pavement. The response? A few token shuffles. As the flashing lights of Honiton's fire engines drew closer, I spotted a serious danger. Peddlers were standing directly in front of the engines, in the middle of the road - and young families were crowded around them, buying balloons and novelty toys. Why are fire engines always at the front of carnival processions? In case they need to race off to an emergency! "Don't speak to us like that!" - the response I got when I told a group of around 12 street peddlers to move to the side of the road. I counted a total of almost 20 of these peddlers in Honiton that night. How many were genuine holders of a peddler's licence, I don't know. What I do know is that they are the parasites of carnival and need to be regulated. They make no contribution towards the event, unlike burger vans, and, judging by the response I got from them, have no desire to keep carnival safe either. As the night wore on, my heart sank even lower - when I observed parents actively encouraging their children to run into the road. Had they not read the warnings, printed in this newspaper before the big event? Carnival chairman Bill Austin was also concerned. He spotted areas along the route with no marshals and feared the lack of flourescent jackets could have contributed to gaps in the procession. I had my head in my hands more than once during the night. It seemed to me that some members of the public had little respect for safety. They are quite happy to turn out to watch the show, but don't want to do their bit to keep it safe. Yet their co-operation is vital to safeguard the future of illuminated events. By the end of the night, I was so disheartened that I almost lost my enthusiasm for the highlight of the carnival - the awards ceremony at Honiton Motel afterwards. From somewhere, I found the energy to make it and, as always, it was a well-attended affair; bursting with enthusiasm and the true spirit of carnival. Watching the gongs being handed out to the great, the good and the new, I remembered why I'm a carnivalite - I'm inspired by the dedication of those who enter processions. I'm a marshal for them A week after the big night, Honiton and District Carnival Limited held a debriefing meeting - to discuss how things can be improved for next year. It was unanimously agreed that Honiton desperately needs more marshals. Twenty-four is nowhere near enough. A group of up to 100 is required. How can we attract that number? How about forming Honiton Marshals? If you want to help keep Honiton and District Carnival on the road, now is the time to come forward. As with all marshal groups, the one proposed for Honiton would be required to provide cover at carnivals in other towns - to ensure volunteers from those areas support Honiton's procession. Yeovil no longer hosts an illuminated carnival yet without the support of its left-over marshals Honiton would have struggled this year. If you think you've got what it takes to keep carnival safe, join Honiton Marshals by giving me a call on (01392) 888488. Marshalling is a great way to keep fit and meet new people. It can be a thankless task, but, hey, somebody's got to do it!

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