Extended History of Bromyard Christmas Lights

Last year, we celebrated fifty years of Bromyard Christmas lights.  Here Roger Wilkins reflects upon the past……..

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We did indeed think it was 1965 when the lights started, but we were not sure. Anyway, it was a good excuse for a celebration. Since then, evidence has come to light of some earlier goings-on.  We have examined the old Bromyard News and Record files, and see that as far back as 1963 it was decided to try and erect some lights.  Dave Tinton, of carpentry fame, also recalls hand drilling some holes in the square area around then, so it is possible that the real start was a couple of years earlier than we thought.  However, for the lights right through the town, I don’t think we were too far out.

There is no-one left in the team who was working then, and I commenced in 1967, when the crew I remember were Les Day, Bill Morris, Peter Garrett (I have had some lovely memories from him in particular), my father John; there were others, I am sure.  We must pay tribute to Tony Watkins of Bromyard Electrics, then known as Watkins and Delahay, who oversaw the electrics and was, until recently, available behind the scenes for when a fully qualified electrician was needed.  He also built the first animated set pieces; items well remembered and much liked.

John Wilkins, who was to be for very many years the driving force behind the lights, was moved to the town as manager of the National Provincial Bank in the new year in ’67.  He, and Bill Morris, that huge character who instilled a fearlessness in tackling any project, and masses of common sense, plus endless supplies of ginger biscuits, were the leaders of the gang for many years.

Bromyard in the 60s was a very different place to what it is today; around one third of the current population, still a market town, the railway just closing, little industry and no industrial estates.  The future certainly looked bleak, and it needed a lot of vision for the future. Like the Gala, starting in 1967, the lights were conceived to try and put the town on the map.

Bill Morris (father of David) was for very many years the proprietor of Morris’s coaches.  Pretty eccentric, he was a large man, given to launching into jobs with aplomb, and when told “Rome wasn’t built in a day” replied with, “I wasn’t Foreman on that job”.  He could lift enormous weights, and got away with murder, it seemed! But he was the person who drove the team on, always up the top of the (usually massively heavy) ladder.  My introduction to the lights was that sight.  But there were also others; at that stage Les Day was running Maynes Ironmongers in the Square, and the equipment was all stored in his stores which are now the Garage in Rowberry Street. Peter Garrett was there working away; he went up one side of the street with a ladder, Bill on the other.  There have been so many people over the years, and I have listed all the members we can recall elsewhere on this website.

[VIEW A LIST OF MEMBERS OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE]

It may be worth describing the first installation in some detail, as it formed the backbone of the system for years, in some ways until the present day; indeed, we are still using some of the lampholders, although that is all.  It was well engineered.

Basically, it consisted of a zigzag of galvanised steel span wires (the stuff which is used in Hop Yards to suspend the strings) hung off galvanised hooks, rawlplugged into the walls.  The festoon cables were of rubber, with “Ashley” lampholders.  These are screwed onto the cable, and have pins which dig into the conductor wires.

The lamps were fifteen watt Osram lamps, smaller than ordinary lamps, and incredibly rugged; they lasted longer than any filament bulbs we have had since, or probably which have been subsequently made.  There were three feed points; on the old electricity pole in the Square, one in the basement of Pumphries (the department store; that part of the property is now the Indian Restaurant) and, lastly, in Lila James’s greengrocers – now Caleb Roberts, and indeed the only one of the old feeds still in use.  There are, by the way, now eleven feeds, the others being specially installed feeds from streetlight supplies..

The basic system for suspension is not unlike the original, only now we use shield anchors or resin bonded hooks (which are physically tested on a three year cycle) with new work in high tensile cable.

One memory I have of the early days is that of the switch-on.  Until quite recently I never witnessed the speeches and event in the Square, but was usually somewhere up town, on another feed. I was often in the cellar in Pumphries; someone in the square was on the phone to the shop cashier (Mrs Thomas) who shouted downstairs, and the manager jumped up and down on the floor to signify that I could throw the switch!

And so the system was born. It was all erected off ladders; every fourth holder had a wire on it which was looped around the span wire, and when there were enough loops hung on the cable, they were pulled across.  So dud bulbs could not be replaced, unless they were reachable from a ladder.

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Around 1969, I think, Hereford (not for the first time) abandoned their lights, and we purchased some of their cable, and three very basic plastic crowns. The cabling was extended into Cruxwell Street, and the crowns hoisted across the street in three places.  The cable was not of the best; it had moulded-on lampholders, which had a habit of breaking off the pins on lamps, and also shorting out.  But we did persevere with it for a while.

One other early memory was that of the three-day week.  Christmas 1973 was not a good time, and electricity production was cut as a result of industrial action.  Using mains electricity for Christmas Lights was banned.  As ever, we had a plan; a PTO-driven generator was set on the floor in the workshops of Bromyard Electrics, and Tom Bemand’s little Fordson Super Dexter tractor coupled to it, and a pipe led the exhaust outside.  We had our switch on, even though we could only generate enough power to illuminate the square and immediate area, and the lights were also powered up on a few more days as well.

It was pretty clear that we needed some form of cherry picker.  Our first ones were neither elegant nor particularly safe!  The first was a very large set of steps on the back of Maynes Bedford truck.  It was never quite high enough. The end of it came when we were progressing up High Street, when the steps hit a long projecting bracket. I was between the legs, the steps collapsed, and I was stuck in the middle of a wooden sandwich.  Not good.

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If you thought that wasn’t safe, try the next one.  Farmer Tom Bemand, a lovely man and a great helper, brought his Fordson Power Major with Horndraulic loader.  It was a very basic loader, with a piece of wire keeping the forks level.  An old door was put on the forks, and then an old ladder tied to the upstand which prevented bales slipping down the loader.  The young ones of us clambered up the wobbling ladder, whilst John Bedford hung on to a trouser leg.  It was pretty lethal, but even when Tom died (shortly after an operation) we carried on with the same system, but now with Eric Gibbs and an International tractor.  That was the start of a very long association with the Gibbs family, right up to the present day.  But it worked; and we are here to tell the tale.

The third machine was one of Bill Morris’s creations.  He had a jib on the back of an old Bedford tow truck.  He mounted a box on that.  Sadly, it was not self levelling.  It was also lifted by a valve in the cab, and lowered by a valve at the rear.  Hardly convenient!  The worst moment was when Bill set off up the street with the lifting mechanism in gear, and two of us yelling him to stop was we were lifted into the cables at ever-increasing speed!  We survived….. again.   Version two, some years later, was self levelling and a considerable improvement.  But none of them contraptions can compare with the marvellous machines we use now, with the great help firstly from the Gibbs family, but then, and very importantly, from the Evans stable; the start of the most important involvement to date, with Dick Evan’s son Richard becoming the creator of so many brilliant set pieces.

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In the early 70’s, Tony Watkins created three set pieces which were to be very popular for some years.  These were a big six-pointed star, erected on the old electricity pole at the top of town; secondly a big swinging bell in the square, and thirdly the first Robin, in the Square.  They were basically made of plastic conduit pipe, using pinprick holders.  The controllers were old electric cam machines, with cooker switches used for periods off and on.  Then came the first crown, made of steel reinforcing bar, made by curving it around an oil drum.  It has only just been dismantled, and featured amongst other things old tar and fabric insulation tape.  That stuff, and old black Bostic, were indispensable accessories.

In 1979, Happy Xmas arrived, of similar build to before, with electric cam controller. The idea came from some lights in Mijas, Spain.  It is an old favourite, for years on the Dentists at the bottom of New Road.  The electrical load often cooked the controller.  Now it is used on Flowerdews, but has a computerised controller, and is run at low voltage with LED lamps.  It is, however, the oldest surviving set piece.

There were other minor items, including a circle (seen on old postcards of the Square) stars and suchlike.  Also, Bill made two huge Angels which were erected at the entrance to the Car Park  which was where the Leisure Centre is now.  Indeed, when the lights were started, there was a row of buildings there, including the Green Dragon pub.  A few years later and those buildings would never have been demolished – they were a part of the old street scene of Bromyard.

I cannot recall exactly when, but we decided to extend the system down Church Street.  This is more involved than it appears, as it needs a power feed to be erected every year from back in the Square. Always the quietest part of the system, it was a bit controversial when we populated it with colour changing LED lamps, with the whole street changing colour at once.  The lamps became a bit wayward, with odd lamps doing odd things.  Not as intended, but fun to watch! One of those lamps exploded in my hands once…..

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By this time, probably the early 80’s, we were getting quite organised, with reasonable access, and a growing system.  We had some superb discs with illuminated Christmas paintings, hand painted by an artist who has since left the area.  They were very beautifully done, but sadly now very tatty, and no longer in use.

We bought some commercially made set pieces at about this time, and in particular, a lot of moulded lanterns.  Bringing the story forward, these looked very attractive, but were very fragile.  The ones you see now are all made by the Evans family, with fibreglass mountings, new steelwork and brackets.  There are no less than fifty of them in use. It was a massive piece of work.  Other  items included the bells and Christmas trees, and some small frame units, especially candles.

Pump Street and Cruxwell Street were the next and final extensions.  Now we were into a much improved cabling system; called “Woodside” it is quite expensive but again based on the pin-prick design. It has stood the test of time very well, but more of that again later!

When Tony Watkins decided that the three old set pieces were past their sell-by date, we were all pretty depressed, not realising that, as a result of that, Richard Evans was to start on creating the major set pieces which have become such a feature of the display. The first was the new Robin, which is a great favourite with many.  The second, and by far the most complex to date, was the Snowmen, incorporating computer control for the first real time.  Things were really beginning to move ahead.

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Then, about five years ago, another bombshell arrived on the doormat.  Herefordshire Council had decided to adopt a Code of Practice, produced by the Institute of Lighting Engineers, for the erection of displays such as ours.  Reading though it made us think there was no way we could carry on, but, as before, one setback lead to a major improvement.

A testing regime for the testing of wall bolts was a very good idea, although it has resulted in our five Sunday setup period being extended to six. However, there were many recommended standards which were frankly inferior to ours, including Edison Screw lamps (which we knew could unscrew), sealed lampholders (which inevitably fail, and are less reliable than the vented, mainly “Woodside” design) and other matters.  Wondering what to do, we decided to pick up the phone to the boss of the biggest illuminations display in the country – Blackpool.  Richard Ryan was to prove exceptionally helpful, and it all resulted in an invitation to visit Blackpool, and look behind the scenes at the display and also their workshops.  He is a great enthusiast, and that year he came to Bromyard to turn on our lights.  Not only that, but he came early and worked with us all day. Virtually every year one or two of us – sometimes a gang – will take a trip up there, not only to see the lights themselves but also the very impressive workshops.  We buy much of our new materials through them. We know that the equipment they source has to be of the best quality – if it can stand the rigours of the Irish Sea coast it can withstand Bromyard.

That visit made us think that we should follow their example and convert the whole system to low voltage – 24 volts, and replace our filament lamps with LEDs.  It has been a very major piece of work, involving transformers and new feeds, with a lot of expenditure and  learning involved, but it has been well worth it.  It is safer, much cheaper on electricity consumption (it has reduced by about 80% as a result), and relieves us of much of the electricity regulations.  It is also a hugely more reliable system, especially as the quality of mains lamps had markedly deteriorated over the years.  It also meant that, like Blackpool, we could retain our reliable, vented lampholders.

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Then came a very big surprise.  Following on from an award from the Chamber, we learned we were to be awarded the Queens Award for Voluntary Service in 2011. Presented to us by Lady Darnley, it was followed up with a visit to a Royal Garden Party for four us.  Quite an event, and really quite moving.  Since then, we have displayed our award in Johnson’s window each year.

Since then, Richard (Roo) has stepped into top gear, with firstly the Crown – for obvious reasons.  Then came the Cracker, and then a new Merry Christmas.  The use of low voltage LED ropelight is universal, along with computer controllers designed and made here in Bromyard.  We are almost unique in having a large number of home-built set pieces.  We also acquire cast-offs from other places, strip them right down, and rebuild them with new low-voltage ropelight, and add animation.

We all agree that it is a great fun erecting the lights, although it can wear a bit thin at times – finishing off in sleety rain, frustrated at things not going well, cold and tired, for example. But when the weather is good, it is great.  We start at half past nine at the stores, and don’t stop for lunch.  However, there are some very kind people in town, with tea, coffee and suchlike.  It is invidious to pick out one, but they know who they are.

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The best moment must be the switch-on.  Whoever pulls the big switch really does turn on some of the lights, through a relay system.  The switch is a smaller copy of that used at Blackpool – a creation by Richard Orgee. But there are also people throwing switches at three other points immediately, followed by a sprint around town to turn on the other lights.  Walking back down from the top of e town, seeing every one walking through and gazing at the display, makes you realise how much they are appreciated.  It is also great to hear about people talking about OUR lights, because they are a part of Bromyard, part of the community, and is wonderful that people are proud of what we have here.

Which brings me to another, more recent institution; the grotto in the square, a plywood building every year built up and taken down in the square, fitted out with lights and creature comforts.  Brian Johnson was responsible for this amazing piece of work.  The sleigh is another great piece of kit, with its reindeer in front.  Richard gets asked to take that to all sorts of places.  We also fondly remember Santa arriving by train, taking two carriages full of kids up to Linton to see Santa meet them off another train up there.   Huge fun.

The great sadness is of course when Edgar Whiteley (like Ian Briggs, he never has a day off – almost) and I go around on twelfth night and turn the lights out.  Many a time have traders said how bleak it looks, the night after.  But the strip-down is usually done in a day, and then the planning for the next year starts once again.

We are often asked how we can do this here, where no other town in the area can do it.  It is a combination of history, a very keen gang of people with excellent camaraderie, and also those with their relevant skills – part from long term competency, part also from individual qualification.  Those like the Gibbs and Evans families with the equipment, and Bryan James with his invaluable van). And all unpaid.  It is also down to those who organise the fundraising and actively go and ask for donations; calling on businesses, organising lunches; to the many and varied organisations who have made donations; even to the collections at funerals. It is quite humbling for those on the mechanical side of things to think that even at a time of tragedy, people think of donating to the lights.  Unlike Hereford, which is funded by the County Council, we get no money from Herefordshire Council.. We have had grants from the Town Council, which have been most helpful, especially with the change-over to low voltage, but by far the largest amount of money comes from individual and business donations.  A big thank-you is due to more people than could possibly be individually remembered.

3 thoughts on “Extended History of Bromyard Christmas Lights

  1. I really enjoyed this article reading about the history of the lights. My family and I love looking at these every year since we moved here in 2004. My absolute favourites are the lanterns. Thank you for all your hard work in making the Bromyard Christmas lights so fantastic each year.