Harriet Dyson made her first lantern for Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival 18 years ago and has since gone on to make puppets for world-famous theatre shows such as The Lion King.

She’s back to take part in this year’s festival along with two other women – Caroline Sheard and Martha Ellis – who have also gone on to great success in theatre and the arts.

The ever-popular festival is back this month after a six-year break and the centrepiece is a brilliant mile-long procession through the village on the evening of Saturday, February 18, featuring hundreds of people who have made their own lanterns.

Harriet first started being creative making lanterns for the festival in 2005 when she was 13.

It inspired her to go on to become a puppet maker and prop costume creator for Disney’s The Lion King, Mickey’s Magic Show for Disneyland Paris, BBC TV hit Ghosts and Netflix series The Dark Crystal.

Harriet was part of the team which made the giant elephant puppet for The Lion King stage show which is operated by a team of four puppeteers, one hidden inside each leg. She also made Lady Button’s dress for Ghosts and the official mascots for Peppa Pig, Teletubbies, Super Mario and Chespin (the Spiny Nut Pokemon).

From L-R: Harriet Dyson, Martha Ellis and Caroline Sheard. Image of Martha Ellis by: Colin Hattersley Photography

Harriet said: “The first time I took part in moonraking I was just blown away by the magic of the event and the joy of so many people creating their lanterns together. After that, every February half-term was all about lantern making and that pleasure in creating objects of such beauty stayed with me.”

In short, moonraking defined her future.

Harriet added: “When I was at college I was being pushed in the direction of studying classics at Oxford or Cambridge but my experiences with moonraking gave me the courage to stick to what I loved so I went off to study costume construction at the Royal Central School for Speech and Drama in London.

“I’ve never looked back except to come home to West Yorkshire and make more lanterns.”

This year’s moonraking theme is water so Harriet is making a lantern featuring Neptune, the Roman God of the Sea.

The Lion King elephant

Another former lantern creator making a comeback is Caroline Sheard, production manager at Mind The Gap Theatre in Bradford, who has also been a freelance stage manager with theatre companies nationwide including Halifax-based Northern Broadsides.

Caroline said: “I’ve been involved with the Moonraking Festival since around 2000 when I was 9 or 10. Like many, I started off making a lantern and carrying it in the procession but it wasn’t long before I was welcomed into the team that plans and supports the whole festival.

“One year, when nursery rhymes was the theme, I spent much of the procession dressed as a dish running up and down the hills of Slaithwaite chasing after a spoon.

“Another year I was covered in cling film dressed as an alien as part of a street performance before the procession began with a drama group I founded in college.

“Moonraking provided ample inspiration and opportunities for me to develop my interest and skills in theatre, performance and events in the safety of a super supportive local community. Wherever I’ve been I’ve brought a little bit of moonraking magic with me. I can’t wait to be back among it all this month.”

Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival

The third lantern maker inspired by her time in Slaithwaite is artist Martha Ellis who is now based in Edinburgh.

She creates cut-out drawings inspired by landscapes, nature and architecture and her work has been exhibited at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London and dozens of galleries around Scotland, England and even one in Moscow. 

Martha’s whole family was very involved with organising the Moonraking Festival in its early years so her first experience of moonraking was in 1989 when she was just five. The festival was a big part of her life until she left West Yorkshire in 2003 to study fine art at Middlesex University.

Martha said: “The Moonraking Festival was always a highlight of the year. Excitement would start building just after Christmas, waiting to find out what the theme would be for that year’s festival.

“I loved thinking about all the different possible lanterns I could make, drawing little sketches of my thoughts and ideas on scraps of paper. I loved the week of lantern making more than the procession, spending time with friends while making a lantern and getting to eat delicious cakes made by the Women’s Institute in the breaks.

“Taking part in moonraking my entire childhood has shaped who I am today. I became an art teacher after running lantern making workshops and without teaching I wouldn’t be an artist now. Moonraking holds a special place in my heart, full of love, happiness and creativity.”

To see more of Martha’s work go to https://www.marthaellis.co.uk/  and her Instagram is https://www.instagram.com/marthaellisart 

Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival lantern procession

Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival organiser Gill Bond said: “Moonraking has been a huge part of our village’s life over the past 38 years, growing from the tiny seed we planted in 1985.

“It’s a pleasure to hear how our festival has inspired Harriet, Caroline and Martha in their careers, bringing joy and wonder to people around the UK with their creative endeavours.

“And there are many more stories like theirs. Who knows what flame will be lit among people, young and old, when they join us for moonraking 2023?”

Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival celebrates a local legend in which a band of smugglers hid their illegal barrels of rum under a canal bridge in the village. On the night of a full moon reflecting on the water they took their rakes and went to fish out one of the barrels but were caught in the act by the local militia.

The smugglers avoided arrest by claiming to be trying to rake the moon out of the canal after it had fallen in. The soldiers thought they were crazy and so walked away and left them to it.

Before the procession begins the modern-day moonrakers re-enact the legend, raking a beautiful moon lantern from the canal. For more on the Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival go to the website HERE.

  • Written by ANDY HIRST who runs his own Yorkshire freelance journalism agency AH! PR (https://ah-pr.com/) specialising in press releases, blogging, website content and copywriting