Steeple Claydon Fireworks
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Geoff Phillips Firer, Designer and Financial Organiser
Mike Wells Firer, Designer, Safety Officer
John Lamb, Construction and Team Firer
Nick Naysmith, Construction and Firing co-ordinator
Ian Boulter, Music ‘guru’ and Safety Officer
Robert Dongray, Events Co-ordinator

If you look back at the history of fireworks in Steeple Claydon there is one name that stands out – namely Ralph West. Ralph, whilst living in Steeple Claydon was probably best known for his baking and activities for helping deserving causes.

Sometime during 1974/5 the subject of a swimming pool for the village came into being and a considerable sum of money was required if the project was to be considered. Ralph was a prime mover in the setting up of a fund to help acquire a pool for Steeple Claydon. It was not easy and many ideas were put forward to help raise the capital. One of which was to put on a firework display, charge an entrance fee, make a profit and put the money into the fund for the pool.

Steeple Claydon Fireworks were born as nothing more than a means to a somewhat different end – namely the pool. The profits from these early displays were channeled into the fund and were quite successful.

The first firework display took place in 1976. The fireworks were purchased, set out on the day and lit during the early evening, with little design but none the less an active Ralph setting off the fireworks for every ones enjoyment. By today’s standards these first displays were small but of course good fun.
These events continued for a number of years continually raising money for the swimming pool, which was finally opened during 1979.
It was considered that after the pool was built there was no need to raise money through the fireworks display and would have stopped, but for many people saying to Ralph that he should continue as the displays were a good feature for the village. Ralph, always rising to the challenge, decided that it would be good to continue, but with the emphasis on making the displays bigger, more interesting and self funding.

The display continued for some time using the same format with Ralph at the helm, purchasing, picking up, setting up and firing, mainly on his own. As the displays became more involved it was time to recruit additional help. This came in 1986 with Geoff Phillips lending a hand for the first time, This eased the burden of setting up (In those days the launching tubes for the shells had to be dug into the ground – a hard feat during November, considering there were approx. 20 shell launchers).

Between the years of 1986 and 1990 the format remained much the same and the displays grew in size and complexity. There were some helpers during this time that only stayed a season or two, so most of the work was shared between Ralph & Geoff. Ralph organised the buying of the fireworks and dealt with the layout of the displays, while Geoff did the heavy work and most of the setting up, but both enjoyed the firing of the display in the evening. The firing shared with Ralph firing the set pieces and candles with Geoff firing the shells, mines and rockets.

1991 saw a fundamental change in approach to the fireworks display. This was the first year that a theme for the display was used, along with music. This may not sound very significant, but neither Geoff nor Ralph had any formal training for firing to music. The event was a resounding success – thus setting the format of the Steeple Claydon Firework display to the present day.
The subject for that year was ‘Hot Air Balloons’ and the music to accompany the display was ‘Up Up and Away’ which was rather appropriate. The hot air balloons were built in the traditional firework display manner, namely on a wooden framework, using ‘lancework’ to create the outline, and lit all together using ‘tapematch’

1992 – Williams Racing Car
This was the year that Nigel Mansell won the F1 World Drivers Championship and so the theme was racing cars and fired to the music of Fleetwood Mac as the theme tune to BBC’s motor racing program. By this time the fireworks displays were getting more ambitious and the crowds was beginning to increase each year. It looked as though the formula was working. The displays were beginning to pay their way and each year more fireworks were fired.

1993 – The Dambusters
This year saw the anniversary of the ‘Dambusters’ and so the theme for that year became a bombing raid on
a dam. The Aircraft were formed from wooden frames again with ‘lancework’ forming the outline, but this
time the aircraft was pulled along on a fixed line to give the illusion of the aircraft flying. The dam was
constructed from boxes with a ‘Waterfall’ firework laid in such a way that when the aircraft ‘bombed’ the
dam it appeared that water flowed from the dam. This was a very successful display played to the music
from the film ‘The Dambusters’

1994 – Lunar Landings
This was the celebratory year of the moon landings, and so the subject became ‘Lunar Landings’. As the displays were becoming larger in content and more complicated additional assistance was sought. This came via Mike Wells who helped generally with the setting up of the display but did not fire that year, as no training was available. Training and safety were becoming an issue due the complicated firing patterns of the display, and so the suppliers ‘Fantastic Fireworks’ offered 1 day training courses to enable additional helpers to be safe in their approach to these displays.
The Lunar Landings in Steeple Claydon did not go as smooth as the real thing but hopefully it did not spoil most peoples enjoyment of the display.

1995 - Volcano
This was a difficult year because hard as we tried there was nothing significant to celebrate, so we invented the idea of a large Volcano erupting. There were several interesting points about the volcano, how do we re-create an eruption and how do we keep it 'smoldering' while we wait. The answer to the second part was by Mike who worked at that time in the tobacco industry. An amount of waste tobacco was set burning in a funnel secretly hid behind the top of the volcano and slowly let off smoke. The flames were provided by a specially made gas burner supplied and built by Geoff, and run off butane gas. As the display progressed the valve was turned up, increasing the flames until the final ‘eruption’ created by mines and roman candles were set off behind the structure. We were told that it was impressive.

1996 – Mississippi Steam Boat
Again a year that was difficult to represent, so Ralph came up with the idea of a Mississippi Steam boat fired to music from way down South. The boat was made out of the usual wooden frame but this time moving across the firing ground (pulled by Geoff). We had gone a step further with animation. The display was fairly well received, but several comments were made about the musical content so we had to look at how to improve the music.
This was the year that the House of Commons debated the safety of fireworks. In the light of two fatal accidents directly involving fireworks (shells in particular) and after the debate on Wednesday 20 November 1996, laws were passed to inhibit the use of display fireworks and unless intensive safety training was undertaken. Only large suppliers and display organisations would be allowed to use these fireworks.
This would have meant the ending of the Steeple Claydon Fireworks display, unless we were able to take formal training. This was arranged for Ralph, Geoff and Mike to be trained in the official use of these display fireworks. All qualified and of course the displays each year have continued.
From our own safety point of view Mike decided that the only safe way to fire shells was to do so electrically. With this in mind he built a fire control panel capable of firing up to 110 shells, either singularly or in groups, and this year was the first year that the display was fired in this way. It was a complete success and we felt relieved for more than one reason!. Also it was declared that ‘sparklers’ would no longer be allowed at the display due to safety requirements – but so as not to disappoint our younger followers we introduced the magic strips which have become very popular (and so much safer)

1997 – Star Wars
This year saw the addition to the team of Ian Boulter (music and ideas) and John Lamb (willing to do anything to help), they both went on Fantastic Fireworks training courses to allow them to handle display fireworks.
The theme was a very ambitious number of set pieces being created to portray ‘Star Wars’ as this was the year that John Lucas re-released the trilogy of the Star Wars movies. Most of the work was completed but that night there was a torrential downpour and the display suffered with a number of failures. We had a number of complimentary comments but we knew that as rain was our enemy we had to do something to stop these failures from happening again. Waterproofing the display was the answer. After this event Ralph decided to hang up his firing hat and pass the event over to Geoff & Mike to run. Ralph’s plans were to sell the pet shop business he ran in Winslow and settle down to a more peaceful and tranquil life.

1998 - Mallard
This was the anniversary of ‘Mallard’ breaking the speed record for steam engines and we honored this achievement by building our own ‘Mallard’ with working motion and was an animated display, Geoff doing the pulling again. The display was fired to music from the Flying Dutchman. This was a display with some minor problems with the timing but nonetheless enjoyed by many. We decided that to run a tighter display we would need to do three things,

1 – to try and video the display and note any shortcomings whilst watching in the comfort and warmth of our homes
2 – to start to use radios to keep in contact, as the display are very noisy in the midst of it all
3 – to use single pieces of music wherever possible or limit the number of segments to as few as possible.

1999 – The Viking Longboat
It was this year that saw the implementation of radio communication between the team members. Along with a small number of classical pieces of music to fire to, but we had difficulty in persuading anyone to video the display for us. In the end Lindsey Wells stepped in, braved the cold and hand held the camera for about 20 minutes (arms aching etc). The theme for this year was the ‘Viking Longboats’ played out to the music of ‘The Knight on Bear Mountain’.
Several static displays were used this year including ‘Wizard & Dragon’, ‘Flying Pig’ and of course the ‘Viking Longship’. This was again an animated display with Geoff yet again being lumbered with the job of pulling the Longship across the front of the display. This was also the year that we tried to make the event have that little bit extra and we introduced a Guy competition, which was good fun and the winner was able to remotely start the display.

2000 – The Battle of Britain
This year was the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and we decided to commemorate those brave young men with our own tribute. There was one unfavorable comment printed in a local newspaper by a villager, who accused us of making money out of the memory of those that had gave their lives during this conflict, this of course is utter nonsense as the money raised from the gate proceeds is put, 100%, to-wards the following years display.
The display went without a hitch with the display being fired to the music from the film ‘Gladiator’ which we thought was rather appropriate and went down well with the crowd. There was only one ‘failure’ and that was no one apparently heard the Air Raid Siren that was used near the beginning and towards the end of the display. That’s a pity as it was hard work turning the handle (if we need to use one again we will get an electric one and place it nearer the front of the display!!)

A note from the team on finance:-
We would like to state here and now that we do not make a profit out of the displays, and should any excess money come from the paying public, it is put back into the following years display. Helping us to achieve one of our original aims of being self-funding.

This year also saw the team set up and fire the Millenium Display during the Summer month of June. This display was a welcome change from firing on cold, wet and most times cold evenings in winter and was shear luxury to be able to work in shirtsleeves, during the day (we still used protective equipment for firing the display). This display was to be all arial with no static pieces and comprised mainly of Shells, Mines with a selection of various types of Roman Candles with the final shell being our biggest to date – an 8” diameter Golden Rain shell. The display went without a hitch but not without apprehension from the firers when it was time to let off the 8” shell. There were however no worries as the shell behaved itself, launching itself up to a height of 800ft, taking approx. 9 seconds to do so and exploding in a vast ball of falling golden rain.
It was a magnificent sight from beneath the shell and many reports after the display said it was the best ‘firework’ ever seen.

2001 – Thunderbirds are Go
As subjects go this years did not celebrate any anniversary, but highlighted a popular TV series currently enjoying a re-run and gaining even more viewers than the original series.
The display this year was started with a rocket traversing a guide wire, which ignited into a ball of flame as it entered the bonfire, setting off a mine and a shell at the same time, whilst lighting the bonfire – quite spectacular!
The display consisted of the Thunderbirds craft depicted in lancework, with Thunderbirds 1 & 2 to the left of the display with Thunderbirds 3 as the main centre display (the pod),. During the display the pod was raised vertically to show the smaller Thunderbirds 4 (underwater) craft emerging and moving to the right of the display. We thought long and hard if there was any possibility to have an image of the Thunderbirds Space station but decided that we did not have the time or money to ask NASA for help!
This segment of the display was fired to the theme from the TV series and went according to plan. The remainder of the display consisted of various elements including cakes, roman candles, mines and shells. To finish we had another spectacular 8” shell which proved as popular as the last, bringing gasps from the crowd (we enjoyed it too, as this was the last firework in the display, we were able to watch it as well!!!

Program for 2002
The Queens Jubilee – June 3rd
A celebration of the Queens Golden Jubilee in the recreation ground along with a mixture of events to be set out during the day. We expect to fire the display between 10:30 – 11:00 – do not miss it!!

Bonfire Night – Saturday 2nd November
Make a note in your diary for this event – although no ideas have been finalized, we are hoping to improve on last years display and make it even more spectacular.

A word of thanks is appropriate and the firing team would like to thank all the people who help behind the scenes including various clubs that provide marshals for the event, those that help with the food and drinks etc and those that distribute the leaflets and generally help out. Of course thanks goes to Charlie Wood for supplying the Music and PA and the St John’s team for always being there should anything go wrong. Finally a thank you to our local Council for their support over the years, without which the displays would not have been able to take place.

There will be an article to follow shortly on the safety of our firework displays and that of crowd safety too. We will try to publish some photographs of the equipment we use during the displays which we hope you will find interesting.

If you have read the above, enjoyed it or discovered a mistake please let us know through the web-site forum. If you have any comments regarding the overall events we would like to hear them- we do, after all put on the displays for the benefit of Steeple Claydon, and it is only by feed back over the years, we have been able to improve our displays to the present level. Your point of view is important to us.

Mike Wells

Link: Firework safety

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