THOUSANDS lined the streets of Winchester as Hat Fair returned to the city with a burst of colour, dance and music.

The 47th annual show was officially opened with a huge carnival which poured down the High Street at midday on Friday.

A mix of performers, volunteers and local schools were cheered on as they made their way around the cathedral before eventually finishing in Abbey Gardens.

EKO the Giant, a colossal sea monster puppet controlled by members of Autin Dance Theatre, stunned onlookers as it passed through with the procession.

Andrew Loretto, director of Hat Fair, said a few words as crowds gathered to mark the full return of the UK’s longest running festival of outdoor arts since 2019.

Speaking to the Chronicle, he said: "The carnival was epic, it was a joy to bring the parade back into the city and celebrate all these young people's creativity and imagination. It's a celebration of bringing everyone together, and for me, Hat Fair is about joy, humanity, inclusivity and mixing all those different voices."

This year's Hat Fair saw performers return to the city centre for the first time since before the pandemic. A reduced, ticketed event was held last year on the Sunday at North Walls Recreation Ground.

Hampshire Chronicle: Andrew LorettoAndrew Loretto

"After three years it just feels brilliant to be back in the city," Mr Loretto added. "It's lovely to open up Winchester again and invite visitors. We're still dealing with Covid, that's a reality. Some of our international performers have unfortunately had to pull out after testing positive. But we're working hard to make sure everybody is safe and having an enjoyable time."

Staff and year six students from Sherborne House School in Chandler's Ford were part of the opening carnival. They sat with pupils from other schools for a picnic while The Hippos from Catalonia got crowds cheering. Each child made their own costume which was inspired by the theme 'feast of culture', a celebration of foods from around the world.

Hampshire Chronicle: Shelagh Lee and students from Sherbourne House SchoolShelagh Lee and students from Sherbourne House School

Director of performing arts, Shelagh Lee, said: "We were supposed to do this in 2020. The children we had in year six at the time were very excited, but then of course Covid hit. So, it has been two years in the making, I've had two years of thinking about it, and it was brilliant - absolutely great fun. We applied because we thought it would be a wonderful experience for the children. Things like this make memories. Children never remember a maths lesson - which I probably shouldn't say - but they will remember this. It's something they can look back on later on in life."

Friends Tina Harding and Ingrid Bowman travelled from Andover for the start of the fair. The pair said they have been to several of the festivals, including the ticketed event last year.

Ms Harding said: "There is always such a lovely atmosphere and the performers are fabulous - what better thing to do on a Friday afternoon?

Hampshire Chronicle: Tina Harding (left) and Ingrid Bowman Tina Harding (left) and Ingrid Bowman

"We love Winchester, it's a beautiful place on any day, but especially today."

Alongside the Friday market, plenty of other traders have set up shop to supply revellers with all manor of treats. Katie Symonds came from Salisbury to serve her Flaming Hot Crepes to hungry punters.

She said: "We have been coming to the North Walls event on the Sunday for a few years, but we thought we'd give the full weekend this time. The fair always gets a good response and it is well organised. It has been great to see the kids enjoying themselves in the carnival."

A host of free performances are set to take place throughout Friday and Saturday, including a UK exclusive showing from Irish company Fidget Feet, who will present A Handful of Dreams at Busket Yard - an outdoor show which combines aerial and circus arts with live Irish traditional music and dance.

Sunday will see the return of a ticketed event at North Walls Recreation Ground which will combine 'exclusive' entertainment with a selection of food and drink offerings.

For tickets and further information, visit: