Contrary to the imaginings of a visitor last week, the flags have not been put up in Ulverston to celebrate the forthcoming general election. Like so many other cultural happenings designed to encourage visitors and showcase the town’s creativity, Flag Fortnight was the brainchild of Welfare State International’s directors, who were inspired by flag artist Shona Watt’s stunning installation in Kielder Forest.
The directors secured funding to lure Shona to Ulverston and turn the streets into a colourful gallery, with the first 50 flags being free for the town. Shona was keen on working with children and wanted to avoid commercial logos on the flags, so pupils from Sir John Barrow school were recruited to walk around the town centre and draw what caught their eye in shop windows. There then followed the technically demanding process of turning their designs into flags made from Japanese Habutai artificial silk which, while it is light, moves in the breeze and dries quickly (always important in the north-west), is not that easy to work with. Shona also trained local needlewomen in the mysteries of flag production so that repairs could be made and new flags created after she had gone.
In May 1999 flags were put up in the very early morning to surprise shoppers when they hit town, and the newly formed Blast Furness street band kicked off the first Flag Fortnight. A lesser town might have let Flag Fortnight lapse after WSI’s directors retired, but now every year Peter ‘Mr Festival’ Winston and his band of volunteers get up when most of us are still asleep and put out the flags, including the impressive set on the roundabout.
It will not have escaped people’s notice that Flag Fortnight often coincides with a high wind. Peter and his colleagues have changed the date three times, but the wind follows them, so now they are resigned to trouble-shooting around the town when flags part company with their moorings. A sewing circle also carries on the tradition of repairing and making new flags in February and March.
The idea of Flag Fortnight has been taken up by other towns, so if you would like to contribute to the original, either as a competent needle-person or as a flag putter-up, please contact Peter Winston on 01229 580640.
Helen Shacklady is an Ulverston based author whose latest publication is Ulverston, An English Market Town Through History.