Slaithwaite is a Pennine valley village with the Huddersfield Narrow canal running through it. The canal became a major trade route in the early eighteen hundreds and the festival is built on the Moonraking legends harking back to those times.
Every February thousands of people flock to Slaithwaite in West Yorkshire for the annual festival to “rake” the moon from the Canal.
This includes a week of workshop activities for the whole family.
These tales speak of the ingenuity of smugglers who had enough wits to act witless when confronted by the local militia. Back then, narrowboat skippers smuggled ale along the canals in their holds. As they passed through the village and saw the constables heading their way, they would quickly throw the barrels of ale into the water.
They would then return later to retrieve the barrels using whatever long implements they could find, often this being a rake. So legend has it: one night a constable witnessed their strange behaviour and approached the men to demand what was going on. One quick-witted yokel saw the reflection of the moon in the murky water and used this to their advantage.
He explained how his pal had spotted the moon had fallen out of the sky. They had all went and got their rakes to try to rake it out of the water to put it back into the heavens.
Other Legends that Form the Basis of the Festival
Another story that gives an alternative meaning to moonraking involves a young couple who were engaged to be married. During a dinner party for the family the bride-to-be was sent to the cellar for a bottle of wine. Her fiancé, concerned with how long she was taking went to check on her and found her sobbing inconsolably.
When asked why she pointed to a pick-axe that had been driven into one of the timbers overhead and said she’d had a vision that one day their son would come down into the cellar and the axe would fall on him and kill him.
Her betrothed responded by deciding he could marry such a fool and pulled the pick-axe out of the timber, leaning it against the wall. According to this legend, his fiancée begged him to reconsider and he agreed that if he couldn’t find anyone else as foolish, she would be his bride.
He set out to find a greater fool. Late one night he came upon an entire village gathered around a pond with rakes. They were raking feverishly at the mon’s reflection trying to restore the moon that had fallen into the water, back into the sky. The young man, amazed at their stupidity, returned home and married his foolish bride and so it was that moonraking saved a marriage.
The Moonraking Festival
Slaithwaite’s Moonraking Festival brings together a procession of people carrying huge lanterns made of willow withy and tissue paper and lit by candles around the village. The village is also decorated with paper lanterns hanging on street signs and floating lanterns on the canal. Up to 3000 villagers and visitors parade the streets.
The structure and paperwork of the lanterns created in workshops are impressive when lit. And, despite the general wear-and-tear by wind, banging on low bridges, road signs and enthusiastic children, they always last the duration of the evening.
These lanterns, made in the week preceding the procession vary from year to year, depending on the theme of the festival and can be shaped into magic lamps, fairies, pumpkin carriages, castles and animals.
Music too is key to the festival, giving the chill air a warm feel. Musicians and lanterns line the canal waiting to welcome the star of the show: the moon. As evening draws to a close excitement builds to a sparkling crescendo of fireworks.