Enter the Dragon Festival

Dragons are the stuff of myth and legend — from St George to fantasy novels. They've also had a long association with Norwich's history, architecture and civic heritage, as Norwich Dragon Festival aims to highlight. SIMON PARKIN reports.

Mighty mythical winged beasts, breathing fire as they swoop down to terrify villagers, and the vanished foe of England's patron saint, St George.

The dragons of myths and legend have long held a grip on our imagination. No one can say for certain where or when the myth was born.

Perhaps it was a storyteller's embellishment of a sea serpent legend, or even a dramatic response to the discovery of gigantic dinosaur bones.

What is clear, though, is that the dragon has captured the imagination of whole societies over the centuries, inspiring fear, awe and admiration. In Japan and China, the dragon is a symbol of excellence and good fortune, while in Europe it represents fire, fury and fighting spirit.

Norwich Dragon Festival will over the next two weeks celebrate the city's long association with dragons, revealing the mythical creature's deep roots in the history of the city.

The event, which begins tomorrow and follows a successful first such festival two years ago, will feature dozens of dragon-themed events including exhibitions, performances, storytelling, puppet shows, art and crafts, films, talks and a dragon-spotting trail, all marking the symbolic importance of the mythical creature in Norwich's history.

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The co-ordinators of the festival, Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust (Norwich Heart), believe that the dragon is an ideal symbol to explore and promote the city's rich civic and cultural heritage.

Michael Loveday, Heart chief executive, said the heritage of Norwich was steeped in links to dragons.

'Dragons have been a heraldic symbol closely associated with the city of Norwich since the Middle Ages,' he said. 'We hope the Dragon festival will bring the history of dragons to life and that people of all ages will find something to enjoy in the varied events programme.'

'The second festival will, quite literally, be bigger and better than 2009's inaugural event. With more than 30 organisations staging twice that number of events we hope that visitors to the festival will find several events to enjoy over the next fortnight.'

Dragons are even today still visible across the city's architecture and feature in many civic celebrations. 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.

Many dragon tales are linked to saints such as St Michael the Archangel, who was portrayed as a dragon-slayer in the Book of Revelation 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, the 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.

Norwich created a guild in honour of St George in 1389 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 also introduced its annual procession — Guild Day — on April 23, 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.

Other dragons to hunt out in a special trail throughout the festival include 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 in Tombland and the six magnificent dragons carved in the roof beams of the refectory at The Great Hospital.

In total the festival will feature more than 60 events based around the fire-breathing creatures in more than 25 locations — 49 of the events are absolutely free.

Lindsey Roffe, communications manager at Heart, said: 'Everyone involved in the organisation of this year's festival has been counting down to the launch of what promises to be a very exciting and action packed two-week programme.

'There is something for everyone; whether it is entertaining the children over half term, learning a new skill or seeing some of the city's most iconic heritage buildings in a new light. We hope the residents and visitors to Norwich will really enjoy all that the festival has to offer.'

n Norwich Dragon Festival takes place from February 12-27. For a comprehensive fill list of events taking place throughout the fortnight pick up a copy of the festival brochure, which also includes money-off vouchers and the Dragon Trail, at Norwich Tourist Information or various locations around the city.

n Alternatively full details can be found at: www.heritagecity.org/dragonfestival