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Memories of Spalding Tulip Parade

Cloth badge showing a tulip field with Fulney Church in the background.
Cloth Badge showing a tulip field with Fulney Church in the background

Today the 13th of May 2023 heralds the return of the Spalding Tulip Parade. I now live in Northumberland, where my tulips flower much later, only just opening, than my garden where my son lives in Spalding where they have been flowering since early March. As I won't be watching this event I thought I would share some of the memories I have of past Tulip Parades.

As a child in the 1970's I was lucky in being able to view the Tulip Parade from the upper windows of my father's shop in New Road. The Tulip Parade was a huge event on the local calendar heavily supported by local businesses and the local newspaper. The streets were filled with street-vendors, market stalls and crowds of people. Special trains were layed on from the Midlands. The police presence was huge supplemented by special constables, many of which only seemed to appear at this event. Coaches, cars and caravans cam to the area parking upon every available school field and parking space. The event was huge, possibly peaking in 1977, the Queen's silver jubilee year, when the estimated numbers exceeded a million.

Prior to the parade the fields near Spalding past the villages of Weston, Moulton, Cowbit and Weston Hills towards Holbeach St Johns and Long Sutton were awash with many tulips grown in the area, linked by a signed tulip route. This brought in visitors up to a fortnight before the parade. Local churches and chapels filled their aisles with themed flower displays and these added to the attraction of the area. Spalding itself had Springfields Gardens, a showcase for the flower industry, in the area now occupied by a shopping centre and gardens. The whole event must have had an economic benefit to many. In the evenings my father would drive us round to see the tulip fields, however as the decade advanced towards the 80's the tulip fields subsided in number. By the 2000's very few tulips were grown with a few fields near Moulton and Weston with one of the last farmers to plant a field, Alec Welch of Whaplode, admitting to me he only planted them because he liked to see them! Nowadays you can see tulips growing in glass houses, but to see them in fields you would have to travel over Sutton Bridge into neighbouring Norfolk.

As a child I would also be privy to an early preview of some of the floats as they were driven past my parent's house in Stonegate from Grooms sheds at Pecks Drove to the Bulb Auction halls where they would be bedecked with tulip heads secured by metal pins.

An undecorated float of Turkeys being moved prior to the tulip parade to receive its colourful tulip heads.
A naked float being moved prior to the parade ready for decoration

On the day of the parade we would walk up to my father's shop, usually in the mornings before the crowds amassed. The roads would be congested with people swarming into the area on coaches and in cars heading for the many designated car parks before the roads were to be closed off for the parade around 11am. In the town centre people would be arriving, some with chairs, and claiming a spot from about 9am onwards. The back of Dad's shop would often be occupied by a few policemen who would go in the back to smoke a quick cigarette, or go to the loo or cadge a cup of tea. This suited us as the crowds brought with them shop lifters. One year a portable TV was stolen out of the shop only to be recovered by sharp-eyed police spotting someone boarding a coach carrying it! On other occasions the police had to move the crowd for their own safety as they pressed up against the plate glass shop window causing it to flex.

The shop in New Road was a brilliant vantage point to watch the parade as it had two upper floors and you could see the whole length of New Road into Hall Place where a roundabout was. Parade Day often coincided with the FA Cup Final, so my father's TV shop was a popular place to catch up with the scores. One year he made a cardboard sign with the updated score on and hung it out the upper window to the cheers of the crowd. Next door to the shop was an off-licence that in those days was run by Mick Myers, a former sailor. As a weaze he lowered a bottle of champagne into the crowd on a string to a lucky recipient below. Perhaps one of the most memorable parades for me as a child was 1977 when we had a family from Spalding's twin town, Speyer, stay with us. That year we were given tickets to view the parade from stands erected near Ayscoughfee Hall. Near this site was Victoria footbridge and the crowds that gathered on this bridge were so great that we could see it start to bow with the weight. The police spotted this and quickly got people to move and then controlled the numbers crossing it.

Once the flower parade had passed my father's shop the crowds took some time to disperse enough. Indeed, they would often move to a different part of the route to catch a second glimpse. This made getting home impossible for a few hours, so instead my grandfather would take us around the fair which was large enough to occupy Winfrey Avenue and parts of the cattle market in the area where Sainsburys supermarket and Holland Market is found.

When my father ceased trading from his shop I was lucky enough to be working for Barclays Bank so was still able to view from a vantage point. In later times I bought a house in an estate just off Queens Road where the flower parade could be viewed easily with the crowd no more than one or two deep. This meant my house became a focus for a gathering of friends, relations and family to view the parade each year up to the final parade.

Tulip head collage of Feed the World symbol used by Band Aid
A tulip head collage created by Spalding High School Girls in 1994.

The parade itself had a pattern of familiarity and regulars that we looked forward to seeing each year. The vintage cycles were a favourite of mine with Colin Hilliam from Holbeach St Johns entertaining the crowd on his penny farthing by wobbling it precariously towards them as if about to fall off, or juming off it and back on as an act of showmanship.

vintage cycles ridden by people in Edwardian dress.
Vintage cycles in the Tulip Parade

The parade had many Bands from different parts of the country, but one of the most entertaining were the Romsey Old Cadets who dressed in a different fancy dress each year. One year as bees, another as monkeys and so on. A feature of this band is that they were fuelled by a suitably disguised barrel of beer, by the time they reached the area near my house they would stop playing and make a dash for the mobile toilets. Their drink fuelled antics were always entertaining with their dancing and chanting. On one occassion they diverted the parade through Preston's petrol station in Queens Road pretending to refuel their beer keg.

Band dressed as monkeys
Romsey Old Cadets taking a break whilst joking with the crowd on a baking hot parade day.

Horses featured in the parade with police horses often leading it or escorting the floats, their riders wearing plumed police helmets. The percheron horses owned by Henfreys of Deeping High Bank were a regular feature. One year local gypsy family, Boswells wished to enter the parade with their romany wagon, this was declined, but he had his way by following the parade at the end cheered on by the crowd. Many locals believed they had been treated unfairly and they deserved to be there.

White percheron horses pulling a dray.
Henfrey's dray cart

Over time the floats had gotten bigger with local firms George Adams and Geest having the largest floats that eventually became a problem to turn corners in certain junctions. As the twentieth century closed the floats became smaller and the use of tulip heads reduced greatly with greater use of coloured paper.

Two female clowns sharing a can of strong beer
Two merry clowns waiting to board Turners Turkey's float

Geest employees Fay, Angie, Cath and Mary awaiting to board their float

The parade transformed towards its end to more of a carnival with the floats supplemented by trailers with bands and entertainments alongside colourful carnival dancers. All good events should evolve in order to survive, but sadly many objected to these changes. Private security replaced police stewarding the event, this was also unpopular and a direct cost that possibly added to the parades demise. Sadly I fear an element of parochialism possibly did not help it survive. However, a new generation lead by a person from outside the area may stand a better chance and I wish it every success.

A colourful carnival dancer in one of the later parades.

2001 Flower Queen's float

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