Norwich Dragon Festival

Angi KennedyLast year a colourful herd of elephants was let loose on Norwich, but at the end of this month it will be dragons invading the city centre. And, as ANGI KENNEDY explains, the mythical creatures have long-standing links with the city.Angi Kennedy

The dragons are coming! The first ever Norwich Dragon Festival is about to celebrate the city's long association with the mighty winged beast.

The three-week event, which is launched on Saturday, January 31, will feature exhibitions, activities, talks and a dragon-spotting trail, all marking the importance of the creature in Norwich's culture and history.

Today, most people have heard of the fire-breathing dragons of legend, but few know of the mythical creature's deep roots in the history of the city.

The co-ordinators of the festival, Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (HEART), believe that the dragon is an ideal symbol through which to explore and promote the city's rich civic and cultural heritage. The festival is being funded by Norwich 12 from the Treasury's Invest to Save budget.

The packed programme includes performances, story-telling, puppet shows, art and crafts, films, competitions and much more across many city centre venues, with many of the exhibitions and activities free of charge.

No one can say with any certainty where or when the myth of the dragon was born - perhaps it was an embellishment of a sea serpent legend or a dramatic response to the discovery of gigantic dinosaur bones. But the dragon has captured the imagination of many societies through the centuries, inspiring fear, awe and admiration.

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And in Norwich it has had special significance for some 500 years. Snap dragon is, of course, the most famous local incarnation. A version of the mischievous and colourful creation that paraded through the city streets in medieval times can still be seen at Norwich Castle Museum.

But there are many other dragons to be found here, including the carving at Dragon Hall from which the ancient trading building takes its name, the whole host of dragons to be found at St George's Church in Tombland, and the six magnificent dragons carved in the roof beams of the refectory at The Great Hospital in Bishopgate. These are just a few of the city's dragons to hunt out in a special trail that is being flagged up during the festival, which runs until February 22.

Many dragon tales are linked to saints, such as St Michael the Archangel, who was portrayed as a dragon-slayer in the New Testament. It is either St Michael or St George who is depicted above Norwich Cathedral's Ethelbert Gate. St Margaret of Antioch, the patron saint of women in childbirth, is another saint who appears in locations throughout the city, for example in St Helen's church at the Great Hospital. She was swallowed by Satan in the shape of a dragon, but managed to escape alive when her crucifix irritated the dragon and burst its belly.

But it is the legend of St George, another dragon-slayer, which really fuelled the country's fascination with dragons. English interest was stimulated during the crusades, when soldiers seemed inspired by St George's spirit and adopted his symbolism. His ties to England were cemented during the reign of Henry III, when he was declared the patron saint of England.

In Norwich two churches bear his name: St George, Tombland, and St George, Colegate. St George and the dragon can be seen elsewhere in the city - in an internationally important 15th-century mural in St Gregory's church, for example.

An organisation credited with establishing a significant role for dragons in Norwich was the Guild of St George. Founded as a religious guild in 14th century Norwich to observe St George's Day, it became one of the most powerful and wealthy guilds in the city and developed close ties to the city government.

The Guild of St George introduced its annual procession - Guild Day - on 23 April, the date of the saint's martyrdom. St George and Margaret, the maiden he rescued, were represented, and to bring the legend to life Snap the dragon was also introduced. Rushing around, taunting the crowds with wings flapping and smoke shooting from its mouth, Snap soon became a popular element of the procession.

In the late 16th century, Guild Day merged with the swearing-in of the city's new mayor. Snap continued to appear occasionally as the years rolled on until 1850. And in 1997 the Norwich Whifflers revived Snap, whose traditional design is based on originals now housed in Norwich Castle Museum, and so Snap was once more part of the Lord Mayors' celebration.

Indeed, the Castle will be staging two Snap Dragon Days during the festival - January 31 and February 14, from 11am to 4pm - with activities for all ages.

Other events include making 'scrap dragons' out of recycled materials at Dragon Hall, from February 16 to 20 (10am to 4pm), opportunities to explore and draw the dragons at the Great Hospital (Feb 16 to 20, 10am-4pm), finger puppet and mask making at The Mall on February 21 (10.30am-4.30pm) and dragon puppet making at Jarrold The Store (February 14 and 21, 10am-4pm), as well as a George and the Dragon puppet show by Garlic Theatre at Norwich Cathedral and the Great Hospital (February 16 and 18) and a Chinese dragon dance outside John Lewis in the city on February 21 (1.30pm and 2.30pm).

Norwich Dragon Festival takes place from January 31 to February 22. A full events programme is available from www.norwich12.co.uk/dragonfestival, from many city centre venues or by calling 01603 305575.