When I’m at crazy festivals around the world, like the Songkran Festival in Thailand, I often wonder what other people would make of our traditions in the UK. I grew up in a town called Scarborough, where Skipping Day seemed like a totally normal annual event. (In fact it was only when I got to university that I realised not everyone got one afternoon off school a year to go and skip on the seafront…) But as I was standing at Lewes Bonfire Night celebrations, I really did have one of those moments where I thought to myself ‘this is absolutely bonkers’.
It’s hard to sum up in one post everything that happens on Bonfire Night in Lewes. There’s parades, processions, music, bangers, torches and fire, lots of fire.
I suppose the UK is a funny old place really. I mean the reason we celebrate Bonfire Night on November 5 is in recognition of the fact that Guy Fawkes failed to blow up the House of Lords in 1605 with 36 barrels of gunpowder.
Most towns and cities have a bonfire and a firework display, but Lewes takes the celebrations to a whole other level. The town has no fewer than seven Bonfire Societies, some of which are more than 100 years old. The evening begins with countless parades through town, which cover different areas, before meeting for one giant procession. Members of each society wear different outfits to show their allegiances and carry burning torches.
As a kid I remember feeling a great sense of responsibility at even being allowed to hold a sparkler on Bonfire Night; but that small triumph paled into insignificance when I saw small children merrily marching along with flames.
Although the town was busy, the rain had kept many people away, so the crowds weren’t as bad as I had been expecting. (Beware if you do intend to travel to see the celebrations though, as there is no parking anywhere in the town and tickets to the bonfire sites must be bought in advance.)
We actually chose to make a weekend of it and stayed in an Airbnb just outside Lewes and walked into town. We set off early, keen not to miss a minute, and arrived to a pretty eerie scene. The usually bustling high street felt quite empty and many of the shops had boarded up their windows.
We wandered through the quiet streets, wondering where we should go. But before we could make up our minds, a sea of burning crosses appeared from nowhere and a procession of people began to move in our direction.
The 17 burning crosses, which represent 17 martyrs who were burnt at the stake in Lewes between 1555 and 1557, were followed by torches and then burning barrels, which are used to collect the burnt out torches which are discarded at the side of the road as the night progresses.
Before each society makes its way to a separate bonfire site across the town, they come together for a final grand procession during which giant effigies are paraded through the town before being burnt. (You may have seen a cheeky one of David Cameron trending on Twitter.)
We went to the Cliffe Bonfire, where an unimpressed Sepp Blatter went up in flames.
On top of all of that, there were fireworks galore and it was a truly amazing evening.
The whole event felt very anti-establishment, there were so many moments when I thought, ‘how do they get away with this?’, which made it even more brilliant.
And, just like Skipping Day, Lewes Bonfire summed up everything I love about British festivals; it was quirky, historic, filled with proud participants and just a little bit mad…