Lewes Bonfire Night is by far the biggest November 5th ‘celebration’ in the country, with tens of thousands of people lining the streets to watch hundreds of others dressed in an incredible array of costumes march through the town, burning torches raised high above their heads.
There are Vikings and Mongols, North American Indians, Zulu warriors, Henry VIII and all of his wives, Cavaliers, monks, Greeks and Romans, pearly Kings and Queens, Victorians, pirates, buccaneers, the Pope and the Grim Reaper, plus, of course, the smugglers. There are samba bands, brass bands, Scottish bagpipers and guys with drum kits on wheels. People march and dance and twirl, wheel effigies destined for burning and throw bangers at their feet, and those of the onlookers. Seventeen huge burning crosses are carried (by what I can only assume are men with very strong arms) to acknowledge the seventeen Protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake between 1555-1557 in the centre of the town.
Bonfire in Lewes has a rather anti-Catholic flavour. As well as remembering the seventeen martyrs, a banner with the words ‘NO POPERY’ is hung at the entrance to the Cliffe area, effigies of Guy Fawkes (Catholic) are booed as they are wheeled through the town and the various men dressed as the Pope are not only booed alongside Guy Fawkes’ effigies, they also have bangers thrown at their feet while they stand in pulpits, reciting from the bible, at each of the fire sites. That’s right, fire sites plural. Each bonfire society builds a separate bonfire where they hold their own fireworks display that lasts about 20 minutes. So by 9.30-ish in the evening the sky is alight with fireworks going off at six different sites dotted around the town.
This year with bonfire night falling on a Saturday it was especially busy with an estimated 60,000 people gathering to watch the processions. Living on the High Street we had no need to join the throng, but Sean and I decided, before the processions got underway, to go for a wander round the back streets. We saw people from all seven Lewes bonfire societies, joined by those from a half dozen or so societies from surrounding towns and villages, gathering in various locations in preparation for the thirty-odd processions, due to start just after 5.00, each society marching a specified route before merging for the United Grand Procession around 7.30.
It’s not simply the scale of bonfire night in Lewes that makes it different from any other in the country, it’s that Lewes has a bonfire season with marches taking place outside of town both before and after the 5th. And bonfire day itself is like none other, with streets being closed to traffic from early afternoon onwards and shops shutting their doors late in the afternoon, many of which have their windows boarded up to prevent people being pushed through the glass if there were a sudden crowd surge. Although, thankfully, in the seventeen years I’ve lived in Lewes I’ve never heard of this happening and there seems to be more chance of being taken to hospital from alcohol over-indulgence or, much worse, firework-related accidents.
One such accident waiting to happen occurs well before the night, or even day, gets underway.
At 6.00 am on the morning of the 5th a small group of men drive a van up to the old bowling green by the Castle where they mark the beginning of the festivities by setting off a massive rocket (a maroon), which is so loud that it wakes up most of the townsfolk within a mile or so radius.
Yesterday morning, as Sean and I were pulling an all-nighter (both of us writing) we were still awake as 6.00 am approached. We live only moments from the Castle so we decided to grab our coats and head out in search of the rocket launch. At the Castle a few others were milling around — a guy with sound equipment and another with a camera, but otherwise it was quiet, no huddle of bonfire boys in stripy jumpers, no rocket planted in the ground ready to be fired. Perhaps we had the wrong location after all?
Seeing a guy just ahead of us wearing the yellow and black jumper of Commercial Square Bonfire Society (CSBS), we figured he was the man to follow. He walked with urgency and we kept pace behind him, leaving just enough room so as to not appear too stalkerish. His destination, it transpired, was the Elephant and Castle pub (CSBS headquarters) at the foot of Castle Banks, where he joined a growing bunch of 15 or 20 others. Likewise wearing yellow and black jumpers.
We slowed down and approached nonchalantly. Sean asked the guy hanging out on the fringes if this was where the rocket was launched. “No, it’s up there,” he glanced up in the general direction of the Castle, “We’re going in a minute.”
Sean and I looked at one another and, knowing it was almost at 6 o’clock, quickly concluded he was trying to throw us off the scent and so we headed back up the hill towards the Castle. Just as we arrived near the bowling green a van screeched to a halt and two or three guys in smuggler’s jumpers dived out, one clutching an enormous rocket. An apparent guerrilla operation, they worked fast and within seconds the rocket was in the ground and the fuse lit. We covered our ears (already cushioned by ear plugs) and watched as the rocket shot about 50 feet in the air where it exploded with a massive boom as it emitted a brief, but intense white flash.
The visual echo remained imprinted on our retinas for the next couple of minutes as we walked slowly home. Hopefully there’s no permanent retina damage.
~ I took the above photograph in 2010 from one of our windows overlooking Lewes High Street.