Running with Imbolc

I ran with Imbolc last Saturday. Imbolc is a pagan fire festival held annually in Marsden, West Yorkshire. A procession of fire carrying foxes heads out from the railway sidings. They walk half a mile or so through the streets of Marsden, lined with people cheering, beating drums. The procession leads to a field where fire spinners provide an intro to the grand finale, which is the battle between Jack Frost and the Green Man. The Green Man always wins this battle, to herald the arrival of spring and the death of winter. I ran with Imbolc, in so much as I ran with my camera, running alongside the foxes, getting myself close up to the action. In the dark! In the snow!

I felt the whole event!  I howled along with the children when the Green Man triumphed.

I think the ceremony almost didn’t happen this year. Heavy snow was forecast. I got the bus from Huddersfield, and in that 20 minute journey an inch or two fell. The bus wouldn’t risk the Dirker route through Marsden. It didn’t auger well. The snow was driving and swirling! I couldn’t see where I was going. I asked a woman where Imbolc started from. She said ‘follow me’, and I did. I put my trust in her at the same time that I trusted that Imbolc would happen.

I saw men outside pubs, holding drums, dressed up tight in pagan garb. Their drums were crusted in snow. I found the train siding shed where I knew the procession would start from. A couple of police women were messing around with their mobile phones.  Another photographer was there (Steve!). I chatted to people, said I was there to photograph the event. I looked right. I felt right. One of the organisers, Chris, handed me a high viz jacket to give me access (thanks Chris). Normal looking people arrived, got out of the snow, and put fox masks on. They transmuted into foxes. I transmuted into a photographer. I exchanged glances with Steve. We started taking photographs. We became photographers. Everyone looked ready to go! We walked out into the driving snow. A purposeful man started lighting everyone’s fires:

And this competes for being one of my favourite photos. I’d been desperately hoping that the event wouldn’t be called off. I’d had a cold for a few days, and I’d been stuck at home marking exam papers for 3 whole weeks. So Imbolc was a major outing for me. I’d thought carefully about what lens to use, what exposure settings and ISO levels to use. I knew the kinds of photographs I wanted to take. So if the event had been called off – and it was so hanging in the balance – I would have been a lost soul. So when this guy (Duggs Carre) started lighting the foxes’ torches with that flare he’s holding, I was elated. That look on Duggs’ face meant something to me. It’s a resolve to get everything moving. They could have turned back at that moment and said ‘too snowy!’

The procession slowly started out in the snow. A red flare lit up in the background.

I ran around at the front firing off shots in bursts. Brrrpppp! Some came out well, in focus. But many a time my camera focussed on the snow instead.

The procession marched its way through the snow covered streets of Marsden. Crowds lined the roads, cheering and beating drums, waiting for the procession to pass through before following behind. I ran at the front, leaping out from under the feet and flames of the marchers. I ran alongside the foxes, got on their level, pushed my face up close to their torches.

I couldn’t see through the viewfinder for some of these. I was blowing snow out of my viewfinder, my fingers numb with cold. But I was so caught up in the moment and the excitement, I even wondered why my fingers wouldn’t work the shutter. I couldn’t feel my finger tips.

I ran at the front, running back and forth to find the best light from the torches. I found a photographer at the front, Gary. I’d known Gary online for years, but this was the first time I’d met him for real. I stayed with Gary for a minute or two at the front, holding my camera out of the snow, folding over my mitten ends to get the feeling back into my fingers. The ‘candle cart’ nearby.

Gary had his camera in a plastic bag (good move Gary!).  I started worrying what kind of hell I was putting my camera through. But my finger tips came back to life again, so I ran back through the procession again, running alongside foxes. Nothing doing though, as I’d got my best fox shots already. So I ran back to the front again as the procession rounded the corner to the field. Pub on the left! 😉 I think a few people ended their procession there!

I then used my press credentials (high viz jacket – purposeful look, camera in hand) to get into the field, rather than behind the barrier with the public.

The fire spinners were yet to arrive. But a few of them were messing about with their firey spinny things and stuff.  These two guys made my day by giving me something to photograph.

This photo floats my boat in a big way too. Something happened while I took this shot. Either a blue flare was sent skyward or someone’s large camera flash fired. But whatever it was, the sky lit up a different colour (blue) to the red fire light from their sword fight (yellow). A pool of light and a diffuse sky light! Voila!  And I got my focus right, and I got my light settings right. And the bright light froze the snow in free fall.

And the gods were also on my side for this shot.

It’s not always that someone will spin fire and look straight into the camera, lit by the light of their own fire, in the dark, with the snow falling around them. (Thanks Heidi!). It’s quite a big crop though, because I wasn’t close enough to get a perfect shot.

I ran around for a bit while more and more fire twirlers found their spots on the field.  Penny then conducted the fire twirling from the front.

One of the coolest things here, and it might sound ridiculous, is that the train came past only 100 yards or so behind, straight out of the Marsden tunnel. The train sounded it horn. Whaarrrrr. Which echoed all around the valley, diffused by the snow. And hundreds of people cheered the train. Just a sweet moment that’s not part of the script, but becomes the moment.

A few minutes later, Jack Frost and the Green Man marched towards each other from opposite sides of the field. This is the grand finale. The great crescendo. Children started screaming and shouting behind me. I didn’t catch all the words, but stuff like ‘NO JACK FROST… NO NO NO.’ It was primal. The kind of fury and inner torment that only children can give vent to in polite society. These nippers were hurling snowballs from behind me, some of them hitting my back. I turned to look at them, and they were spitting fury out across the field to Jack Frost. (Last summer I photographed Peregrine Falcons that, in moments of high emotional tension would attack crows and Herring Gulls. The Peregrine expert told me that they might be het up by people or cars, or anything that gets too close to their chicks. But they take it out on the crows and gulls. They divert. What’s the term? Transference?! I can’t help but feel that these children threw snow balls at me in much the same way).

And, as I said, the main event was the Green Man driving back Jack Frost. I pretty much fluffed this particular scene. But here’s my best and only, for your satisfaction and for my story:

And that kind of ends my story! I was soaked, having lain down in the snow to shoot the sword fight and the fire twirler. The snow stopped falling. The drums stopped beating, and I felt the cold again. I remembered that I hadn’t been feeling well lately. I started snuffling again. My nose ran. I shivered. I walked back along the canal to Marsden with Gary, Steve, Chris, and Chris’s dad. I returned my high viz jacket to Chris. I thanked Chris. Thanks Chris!

I said my goodbyes. I found the bus stop. The Dirker route was still not running. I saw an old lady with a sports rucksack waiting at a Dirker stop. I told her the bus wasn’t running that way. We walked up a few yards to the main road and caught a bus. She thanked me! I felt really good about myself! I went home. Had a hot bath.

OK, so I’ve romanticised that whole eveing, and made it sound like something really happened. Something shifted in me. But it did in a way! I got into it. I felt a part of something. And the snow really did stop falling when the Green Man triumphed. Everyone will tell you that!

And next year!  I’ll go again. Hopefully with a slightly better camera. I bet it won’t be snowing though! And it won’t be the same. It will be different but the same. You know!

(You can more of my photos and Imbolc photos here, on my flickr site)


About rjheeks

From 2008 to 2013 I completed a PhD on Discovery Writing. I also love photography. I'm best known for photographing soap bubbles. I also like rock art (ancient art/markings on rocks). I live near Ilkley (Yorkshire, UK) where there are quite a few pieces of rock art.
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2 Responses to Running with Imbolc

  1. sdschofield says:

    Great write up of a pretty unique evening really! You got some fantastic pictures there mate!


    • rjheeks says:

      Thanks Steve. I enjoyed writing it. It took a week of it mulling around in my head, for me to then have a moment of thinking i could have a crack at writing it. Large glass of wine and a couple of hours of writing. Nice to work from the photos! You have some cool photos. I liked loking through your coverage of Jimmy Saville’s funeral and cortege etc. Look forward to seeing you again. I can imagine a few of us being at Imbolc again next year!

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