The history of the Spalding Flower Parade stretches back to the 1920s when the acreage and variety of tulip bulbs grown throughout the area surrounding the Lincolnshire market town of Spalding became an annual feast of colour. The fame of the tulip fields spread and the trickle of visitors grew yearly until 1935 when the King George V and Queen Mary Jubilee coincided with the time the tulips were in flower. In celebration the local Bulb Growers’ Association encouraged its members to plant their fields with the patriotic trio of colours red, white and blue.
The crowds that came in 1935 created many problems for the town and coaches and cars caused chaos on the narrow lanes around the fields and this continued to happen until in 1948, the Growers’ Association became involved in organising a Tulip Week. With the help of the Royal Automobile Club, a 25 mile tour through villages and country lanes was planned to show the best fields.
So successful was the attraction that by 1950, Tulip Week had become Tulip Time. A Tulip Queen competition was organised annually and the crowning of the Queen was performed just before the start of Tulip Time. The Queen and her two attendants had to be employed in the flower bulb industry and were selected at competitions held at village dances. They toured the tulip fields on the three Sundays in a variety of vehicles including a garland-laden hearse, the only vehicle available that would give everyone a good view.
Such an influx of visitors not only overwhelmed the quiet country town and surrounding district but also created an opportunity and an idea to put on an attraction to publicise the bulb industry. A few experiments with decorated cars showed that the tulip heads could be made into garlands and pinned onto backing materials in colourful designs and would still hold their colour for a few days at that time of year. Spalding had flowers in abundance, and the tulip heads had to be removed from the stems whilst they were in flower to help the growth of the bulbs.
Taking the heads off the tulips naturally shortened the visual appearance of many of the tulip fields, especially when they were de-headed in their prime. Because although a tulip field in full bloom was, and always will be, a sight to behold, within the space of a day, a grower could turn a carpet of colour into a field of waving green stems and foliage, which was hardly a sight worth travelling many miles to see.
So, to ensure that there would always be tulips on display, even if they might not be in the fields, from the many millions of tulip flower heads removed it was decided that keep some available for decorative purposes, firstly for static displays and some selected carts and vehicles, and these eventually started to drive around the town until, in 1959, the first Spalding Tulip Parade took place.
Building of the floats began with an intricate outline of steel tracery welded on a base carefully measured to fit a tractor underneath it. The initial form and steel skeleton of each float was skilfully constructed into the outline shape of the subject and then the steelwork was covered with a special straw matting to form a base to which the tulip heads could be attached.
Teams of up to 200 people, many of them volunteers, then worked throughout the two days before the Parade using up to one million tulip heads and pinning each one onto the floats in the colours and patterns required until all the floats were covered with tulips and the paper designs became exquisite tulip sculptures.
Tulip heads are collected from the fields a few days before float dressing commences. The selection of colours and the numbers available is very dependent on the weather. Sometimes the tulip heads are actually picked on the day they are required. A single float, which can be as much as 50 feet in length, may be decorated by as many as 100,000 tulip heads.
The first Parade was described as ‘a floral pageantry a mile long’. There were just eight floats but it became an event not to be missed – twenty special trains came from all over England to the sidings at Spalding station. Temporary caravan villages sprang up and 200,000 people would watch the spectacle. The success of the Tulip Parade, the only display of floral floats in the world using just tulips, brought Spalding and its horticultural industry to the notice of the country. Within only three years, the Parade had become so famous that a quarter of a million people were coming to Spalding on Parade Day to line the four mile route around the town.
The event still provides flower growers of Lincolnshire and local businesses with the opportunity to promote the part they play in the region’s economy. Many other floral attractions have also developed around the Flower Parade in a bid to improve the town’s community spirit. One such attraction is the various church flower festivals. These Thanksgiving Festivals have become famous in their own right and many of the visitors to Spalding and its surrounding area take time out to see the magnificent decorations in many of the churches.
Even after the introduction of the Flower Parade the remaining tulip fields were still a popular attraction. Up until the early 1960s, in the last weeks of April and early May, many thousands of people were still touring the countryside around Spalding enjoying the view. Gradually however, over recent years, most of the tulip growers have converted their land to other more profitable vegetable and cereal crops, although the region, grows a major proportion of the UK’s daffodil flowers and bulbs, both for home and for export.
Unfortunately the glory days of hundreds of acres of tulip fields have disappeared, we only have the photographs to remind us of the magnificent and memorable floats of previous Parades and even though the acres of tulip fields may not be there anymore, Spalding still has something colourful, unique and special to offer visitors over the May Bank Holiday weekend.