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Gill Bond - Chief Moonraker

Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire

An interview with Gill Bond, the face behind the renowned Moonraking Festival

How a local celebration brings people together ‘in all sorts of different ways’.

Every two years since 1985 crowds of people have lined the canal in the middle of Slaithwaite to celebrate the urban legend known as Moonraking.

The story goes like this - smugglers bringing illegal booze by boat along the canal spotted a constable approaching. To avoid arrest they pushed the barrels over the side of the boat.

Later that night, they returned to retrieve the alcohol in the light of the full moon. As they were raking the water for the barrels, a constable challenged them. So as not be caught, they pretended to be drunk and said they were raking the moon that had “fallen into the canal”.

Moonraking now takes place in the February half term and has grown from attracting a few hundred participants and visitors to thousands. So, how did it start?

The local legend of Moonraking was revived by Gill Bond and Andy Burton, who moved to Slaithwaite in 1984 after years of working as freelance artists with performance and arts companies. They had just set up their participatory arts company, Satellite Arts, when they moved to Slaithwaite and thought that Moonraking story was perfect for a lantern festival.

“Soon after we arrived we heard about this legend of people raking the moon out of the canal,” said Gill “It was a novelty”.

Gill and Andy had previously learned how to make lanterns with an arts company Welfare State International “We saw a relationship between the Moonraking story and lanterns.” Said Gill. This link led to the first Moonraking festival in 1985 and it’s now a biennial event drawing in people from Slaithwaite and beyond.

Funding for the festival now relies on an innovative ‘Lunar Levy’; local businesses encourage shoppers to pay a ‘tax’ of 1p per pound spent after council support was cut. Crowdfunding has shown the scale of support that they have from this community and it has helped to keep the festival alive.

The popularity of the Moonraking Festival is not just due to publicity and word of mouth, but also what Gill believes is magical about the event. “It shows you can make something wonderful out of ‘just sticks and tissue paper’ - and anybody can do it.” she said. That is what draws in so many different people, whether they believe themselves ‘arty’ or not, they can create something amazing.

But the Moonraking Festival is more than that. “Moonraking was in the culture of the place” Gill said after realising how well known the folk tale was in Slaithwaite once she’d become a part of the community.

Gill and Andy’s idea of a lantern festival has become a unique tradition in the Colne Valley. It has introduced young and old to the magic of lanterns by linking them to the ‘Slawit’ smuggler legend. As Gill said “It’s a celebration of a place, this place we live in”.

Interview by Kate Young
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