Standing in the grassy field in front of the Castle, the summer light is fading. All around are groups of family and friends, sitting around picnics and glancing slightly to the left to see the floodlit castle.
The music has reached a crescendo and the fireworks begin to whirl upwards and burst into the sky in huge sparkling showers, scattering their light behind a cedar tree as they fall which in turn becomes silhouetted and part of the show.
Glittering white, silver, pink, blue and green – colours of all heights leap skyward to gasps of delight, smiles and laughter from everyone. The unspoken consensus is that it should never end. Of course, after the past eighteen months, the display is even more welcome than usual, the shimmering lights offering optimism and happiness if only for the moment.
Fireworks play their part in many different cultures and at many different celebrations. They are a major part of Diwali, the festival of lights, where they are interpreted as a way to ward off evil spirits as well as adding to the festive mood. Similarly, in many religions, lights, candles and fireworks are all used to all symbolise the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance and good over evil.
The concert, cannons, fireworks and spitfire included in the programme tonight however are simply part of a fun event which is now in its 20th year. The Battle Proms were created by Adam Slough and his father, a master gun maker by trade. He turned his hand to the replica cannons that form part of the orchestra whilst Adam organises the venues, the orchestra and the musical programme which runs from Beethoven to Elgar and promotes young soloists. (I have just recorded my latest podcast with Adam, so do look for it on Spotify etc)
In true British fashion everyone starts to queue rather early, coming armed with everything needed to set up a lovely picnic including, in some cases, the candelabra. Some guests take advantage of Adam’s hospitality and just collect picnics and tables or sit within canopies whilst others choose to do their own thing with varying degrees of organisation and success. Over the last twenty years it has built up from an initial audience of 4000 people to around 10,000 but, following Covid, numbers have dropped back to around 5000 this year to allow more space between groups. Next year I hope it will be back to full strength as audience participation is one of the key elements to atmosphere of the evening.
The event starts in stages, with a Napoleonic era cavalry display, an evening gun salute from the canons and an army parachute team dropping in.
Then, sometime around 7.30pm, there is a distant deep hum. Thousands of people turn and start scanning the skies and, as the noise grows, suddenly a spitfire swoops down and banks behind the castle. A gasp of pleasure and the spitfire turns, reaches up to the heavens and rolls downwards before leaving to the sound of Elgar from the orchestra. It is always a majestic moment, whatever the weather is throwing at us that year.
The musical programme then continues through various old favourites before finishing with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, all 194 of the cannon and the grand firework display. Needless to say, the horses and dogs have been transported to the far edges of the estate long before the start of the show under the careful supervision of Maggie the groom and are safely out of earshot.
Maybe, like magpies, we just like bright shiny things but these days fireworks are increasingly used to celebrate any and all special occasions. They are noisy and fun and signal instant glamour. Like shooting stars and fireflies, they are a magical source of temporary happiness even if, after a few minutes, the sky turns back to darkness.
We don’t offer fireworks very day which makes this event far more special and more appreciated and we do all need such a festival to ward off evil spirits. Equally, it is just as important for the camaraderie and the joy of getting together with old friends. Even better the armed forces charity, SSAFA raised over £10,000 from the generosity of all there. It is a great charity which steps out to help families face to face, to find out what is needed. A huge thank you to all.
“What was important wasn’t the fireworks, it was that we were together this evening, together in this place, looking up into the sky at the same time.” — Banana Yoshimoto