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Wed, 20 Nov 2019 12:07 GMT

The World-Famous Lewes Bonfire Night, a Whole Town Aglow

Media & Culture

Hannah Bardsley - 7Dnews London

Thu, 07 Nov 2019 12:30 GMT

This is the story of a Bonfire Night celebration that unfortunately I was not able to attend. Which was a great shame because with every reason to not attend came a greater desire to hurl myself into what seemed like the most outlandish, dangerous and exciting Bonfire Night I had ever heard of.

But then Lewes does not have world famous celebrations for no reason at all. We had seen pictures of it when we first discussed going. From the top of the hill it looked as if the whole town was on fire. Bright amber streaking across the quaint country town in the south of England.

More like a scene from ‘The Wicker Man’ than your average, cosy bonfire celebrations. There were other photos too. Torchlit processions lead by men in skull masks. Giant floats, it looked like a fun occasion, some real festive cheer and what I expect would be a very impressive bonfire and fireworks display. 

It looked a little political, giving off the same sort of vibe as the Venice Carnival. But I still felt that it would be the kind of evening, where amid the parades there would be time to wander over to a stall and buy some bonfire (cinder) toffee, a toffee apple or maybe a bag of chips. Lovely.

And that was the idea we operated under, until we started to prepare to head out. The first thing we learnt was that from 4:30pm all major and minor roads leading into Lewes would be closed until 2am the following morning. Well that makes sense surely, how can you parade down the road if that road has cars on it. Until we learned that it was not just the roads that shut down but that all trains would stop running too.

‘The Wicker Man’ vibes were growing stronger. Why did the trains stop running? Well very simply to dissuade anyone coming from outside Lewes to the event. They did not want tourists thank you very much, or Londoners down for a cultural country experience. Of course, they expected a few to sneak in, but this event is a local event and that is how they like it. 

Even the Sussex police issued a general warning to anyone interested in popping over to Lewes to “keep it local” and encouraging everyone to find bonfire celebrations closer to home. 

Bonfire Night lands on the same day every year, November 5th, “Remember, remember,” as the rhyme goes. The day commemorates the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in which Guy Fawkes, and a few other men, plotted to blow up the English Houses of Parliament and restore a Catholic monarch. They did not succeed, and were instead caught, and received a particularly nasty punishment. They were not thrown on a bonfire but were hung, drawn and quartered, (gruesome I know,) and throughout England and Scotland citizens were encouraged to light bonfires to celebrate the failure of the plot. 

400 years of anti-terrorist celebrations later and Britain is still going strong. Bonfire Nights appearing up and down the country, from large community events, to parties in people’s back gardens. Everyone throws a ‘guy’ on the fire. That would be an effigy of Guy Fawkes, usually made from old clothes and straw, not an actual guy. 

But in Lewes they take it one, or several steps further. Forget the guy, modern and contemporary effigies are made by each of the different societies taking part in the festivities. This year saw effigies of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and other British political figures all flung onto the fire. A papier-mâché Nigel Farage made an appearance too. 

The table has turned, and the event has changed from an early pro-establishment to an almost entirely anti-establishment form of protest and celebration. But then denizens of Lewes are not just celebrating Bonfire Night on November 5th, they are also commemorating the deaths of 17 Protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake for their beliefs.

This year an estimated 25,000 people turned out to watch or participate in the festivities. With seven different societies involved in putting their unique spin on everything. There were costumes, banners and burnings. There were Tudor costumes, and costumes from the English Civil War. Oh, and there were Vikings too.

And there was a brass band. Because you cannot have a parade without a brass band. 

While this year we realised we had not properly prepared for the biggest fiery event of the year, there is no way I am going to miss it again, especially after this review from one Twitter user. 

Peter Yates said, “If you really want to experience #BonfireNight then you should visit Lewes. I've only been once, many years ago. It was utter madness, spectacular & scary. After a long walk in the dark we arrived at one of the bonfire societies. It was like the apocalypse.”