What inspired Birmingham’s first Pumpkin Flotilla?

New York during ‘fall’. Think russet-coloured leaves, and pumpkins adorning stoops of brownstones, along beautiful tree-lined streets. My idea of heaven!

NYC pumpkins beautifully adorn stoops.
NYC pumpkins beautifully adorn stoops. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Many films growing up sparked a love affair with New York, but none more so than Home Alone 2 Lost in New York. Ever since I can remember, autumn and winter have been my favourite time of year, and in 2010 my twin sister and I managed to tick Christmas in New York off our bucket list. Now it was time for Halloween, another one of our obsessions. The idea of seeing copper-coloured leaves, and pumpkins, filling the narrow streets of New York City was a dream, something I had always wanted to see. So in 2012 we booked our flights and I was in charge of research. I was busily looking for exciting things to do and I came across a pumpkin flotilla in Central Park. I’d never heard of such an idea so naturally it intrigued me- this was something I HAD to see.

About four days before we were due to travel, I received an email from one of my American cousins, with the subject ‘Potential for severe weather- next week’, so curiously, I opened it and it read….

“see below girls- it could have an impact on your time in NY and PA, so keep an eye on the weather and prepare accordingly. It may also affect us travelling into Philly.”

I thought, okay, a bit of wind and rain won’t affect us too much will it? Little did I know that the biggest storm to hit New York and the East Coast, and the largest Atlantic Hurricane in history was on its way. It was dubbed many names, ‘100 year storm’, ‘Frankenstorm’, and ‘Superstorm Sandy’, but  the the email above was of course referring to Hurricane Sandy.

The day after Sandy hit New York, fire fighters are removing fallen trees and debris.
The day after Sandy hit New York, fire fighters are removing fallen trees and debris. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Not surprisingly, the flotilla didn’t go ahead that weekend. In fact New York City unprecedently shut down, the subway was suspended, shops closed for days and flights in and out of the East Coast were cancelled. The last time this happened was in 2001 during September 11th.

Washington Square Park. All of NYC's parks were closed due to fallen trees.
Washington Square Park. All of NYC’s parks were closed due to fallen trees. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Our visit was a truly historic experience and we still managed to go about our trip- we just walked 100s of blocks to most places throughout the city, and even got the first train out of New York to Philadelphia, two days after the hurricane hit. Walking the streets and seeing Manhattan in complete darkness is something I’ll never forget. The city that never sleeps was unrecognisable.

Documenting our holiday. Shops closed the day before the storm hit.
Documenting our holiday. Shops closed the day before the storm hit. ©Anne-Marie Hayes


Everything below 34th Street lost power. This is 5th Avenue in darkness. Luckily our hotel's generator kicked in and we kept power
Everything below 34th Street lost power. This is 5th Avenue in darkness. Luckily our hotel’s generator kicked in and we kept power ©Anne-Marie Hayes

It wasn’t until a year later that I suddenly thought about bringing the flotilla to Birmingham and could think of no better place than Sarehole Mill. The Mill Pond would be perfect. I tentatively suggested the idea to Irene DeBoo, who was the Property Manager at the time. I thought she’d laugh it off as a stupid idea (but in a polite way of course),  and I was thrilled that she completely loved the idea and immediately started making plans a year in advance. Irene recruited the volunteers, two of which really made it happen, Allan Long and Dave Broadfield. Both designed and built the floats that the pumpkins would sit on while floating on the Mill pond. We had a test run a week before and everything went perfectly!

The test run at Sarehole Mill.
The test run at Sarehole Mill. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Last year’s flotilla was a massive success and I hope this year’s one will also be. Without the support of Irene and the creativity and ingenuity of the Mill volunteers, I doubt my dream would have been fulfilled. It goes without saying that I owe a lot to them!

So if you’re free this half term, try to make it to the UK’s only pumpkin flotilla and hopefully we won’t have to battle with the storm of a generation, maybe just a little bit of rain. But in fact, I owe a lot to that fateful trip, because if Hurricane Sandy hadn’t hit New York, I may not have been inspired to bring the flotilla to Birmingham, but rather, savour my memories of Central Park.

Pumpkins adorn the Mill Mond during the test run.
Pumpkins adorn the Mill Mond during the test run. ©Anne-Marie Hayes

Sarehole’s Pumpkin Flotilla is on 29 and 30 October. To book tickets please call 0121 348 8263.

Happy Halloween!