Lewes Bonfire Night

Remember, remember the Fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and plot,
I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

A bonfire is a great thing to see. A lot of bonfires is an even greater thing to see. And then there’s Lewes. You’ll never see so many bonfires all at once than in Lewes, in Sussex UK, on the 5th of November – Guy Fawkes night.

There’s fire of all kinds all through the town all night. Torches. flaming tar barrels, huge bonfires and fireworks. Lots of towns in the UK have bonfire nights, but they pale in comparison.

Many years ago, I went to Lewes for Bonfire Night. The noise, colours, fire and the crush of people is dizzying. I found my inner fire warden there too. How could a town of narrow, twisty streets and ancient wooden buildings survive even one year of this? Let alone centuries.

But Lewes has been doing this since the mid-1800s in the present form of Bonfire Societies, and for over a century before in a less organized fashion of setting fire to stuff. (For a description and history, see Mike Jay’s “We Burn To Remember.”)

Bonfire Societies

Seven Bonfire Societies prepare for the Fifth throughout the year. Each has its own costume themes, and members are identified by the colour of stripes on their sweaters. On Guy Fawkes night, the Grand Procession goes through town, with all the Societies parading. It kind of looks like Mardi Gras – but with lots more fire.

The “barrel run,” flaming tar barrels rolled through the streets, ends when they are plunged into the River Ouse. Seventeen flaming crosses are carried along the parade route, a remembrance of 17 Protestant martyrs burned at the stake in 1557 on orders of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary.

Effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, pope at the time of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, are carried through the town and later set on fire. Each year they’re joined by contemporary figures in effigy – politicians or someone in the news. Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump are among those so “honoured”. The real Donald or Maggie could have been there watching and no one would have noticed, there’s that much going on.

Then each Society splits off and goes to its own part of town. They parade there, ending up at their section of the bonfire grounds. Then the bonfires, burning effigies and fireworks light up the sky over Lewes until the early hours of the morning. And that’s it for another year.

Next day, cleaners having been hard at work, the town is back to its quiet, pretty self. If you arrived on November 6th, you’d never know.

“rather than coming to Lewes”

The event comes out of Lewes’ own history, and it’s done by and for Lewes’ own people. Of course, it is a huge tourist draw. But, like Padstow’s May Day, it is not intended to be. This year, from East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service: “We would ask that you head to locally organised fireworks events rather than coming to Lewes.”

The costumes are beautiful. But if you don’t want to see people wearing clothing that belongs to other groups of people, don’t go. If you think that “No Popery” means that it’s a time for sectarian bigotry, likewise don’t go. (See “Tradition and cultural appropriation in the ‘Bonfire Capital of the World’” by Francesca Fairhead.)

No one can bring in torches or fireworks aside from those in the parade. Police and local people make sure of that. It’s noisy and very crowded and it happens entirely after dark. So it can be overwhelming and difficult to get around. But wow, what a time!

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