Again, this year the Waterloo Bonfire Society’s annual summer fundraiser was a huge success. In anticipation of the Lewes Bonfire Night, over the next three days I’m reposting last year’s stories leading up to and at the events of November 5.
There’s been a lot of chat recently, in the old fashioned print newspapers that I read, about artisanal ice cream and the crazy and interesting flavours the hand-made ice cream crowd dream up. Me, I’m a chocolate ice cream guy. Diane is ready to try any new flavour, but I stick to my old favourite, and I’ll always head for the richest, darkest, chocolatiest chocolate offering. She’s convinced me to try mango ice cream (President’s Choice mango ice cream is pretty good) and as I love mangoes, that’s a natural fit. Sometimes we have it, on top of sliced ripe Ataulfo mangoes, topped with the mango coulis we buy at the Chatsworth Farm Shop near our cottage in England. Not for me the gin and tonic, or elderflower flavoured stuff I read about today in The Globe and Mail.
At a summer fête in the south of England in June, I came across a wonderful 1950s style restored ice cream van that was selling home-made mango, rhubarb crumble, mojito and other flavours. But when I got to the head of the line, the adventurous spirit left me and I asked for a scoop of chocolate on my cone. And what heaven it was: rich, smooth and essentially chocolate. And with my scoop, I got a smile from the girl with huge blue eyes, a Betty Boop hairstyle and an armful of colourful tattoos. Turns out the van is called Betty, the girl is called Victoria and their business is called Vintage Scoops. I hope Victoria, her mum Jo and Betty have a wonderful season at fêtes and fairs across the south of England this summer.
Fêtes are a wonderfully English institution, often held in a small village on the green, or a field next to the church or some such public area highjacked for the day. They are usually organized as an annual fund-raiser, for a local charity or the church restoration fund and are as much a part of summer as ice cream.
The fête I am attending on a glorious June day, when warm weather has finally arrived in damp old England, is in aid of the Waterloo Bonfire Society in Lewes, East Sussex. Diane and I have just become members, but I am alone for this visit. The morning starts with a fortifying whisky at The Lamb, where the Society meets. Already at the bar are some large men in kilts. I assume, correctly as it turns out, that this is the core of the Waterloo Bonfire Society Pipe and Drum band. They welcome me as a new member and I chat about this and that with Pipe Major Hayden, drummers Sean and Donald and bass drummer Paul. After a pint or two of the local brew, they head out to the courtyard to practice. Sean is a true Scot and I like him immediately. His wife Sharon is kind and gives me all the inside scoop about the Society and what’s what.
As the formal procession starts to form up, I realize that although I’d just come for information, I’m going to be in it. A banner carrier dressed in the Society’s official smuggler’s uniform of red and white striped sweater and white pants, leads the way, followed by the band. The Mayor and Councillor come next. It seems the Major is also the head of the Society, a useful political connection. Then there’s a rag tag bunch of followers, some in costume, many not, with most of the latter wearing red. I’m wearing white, so I suppose I’m half right. I walk with Sharon and she tells me who’s who. We process down the lane, round through the centre of town, back past The Lamb and along to the Paddock behind Lewes Castle. There are more people watching and taking photos than are in the parade. But we attract a good crowd, who follow us into the fête, where two smugglers with donations buckets extract entrance fees from the public in a good spirited manner. Tents and marquees have been set up on the grass and the band leads us straight into the refreshment tent, where I have another whisky and pour a neat one into my Scottish drummer friend.
In the centre of the field is a performance area and stalls have been set up around the perimeter. All types of foods are on offer, goods are for sale and there are rides and slides for the kiddies. For the adults, there’s an old-fashioned test-your-strength machine, a coconut shy and a booth where you can throw hard wooden balls to smash plates and work off any residual aggression. After walking around and trying an assortment of sausages, veggie patties and the aforementioned ice cream, I return to the refreshment tent and spend much of the afternoon in the company of a very merry local dentist. His wife is cross with him for being drunk, but to me he just seems mellow. Perhaps I am too.
Together, we watch another performance of some traditional pipe tunes from the band and demonstrations from local groups such as teenagers showing off their martial arts. We have a lot of laughs, especially while watching the Morris Dancers, who are in black, a Welsh border style, not in the more typical white of Dorset dancers. Sussex boasts no indigenous Morris dancers of old, though this troupe hails from a local village.
By mid-afternoon the grounds of the old Paddock are filling up nicely, the bouncy castle is at capacity and the beer tent is doing exceptional business. A very young girl folk singer and her not much older guitarist are entertaining in the tent and it seems like a good time to make an exit. My last task is to pick up (and pay for) our smuggler’s costumes, custom hand knitted for us by a Bonfire Society lady. I buy official knitted red hats as well and only have to get a couple more items to complete the authentic look.
When Diane and I return in November, we’ll join in the fun on November 4 at The Lamb and walk in costume in the Bonfire Night parade on November 5. Officially those dressed as smugglers are called Bonfire Boys and carry flaming torches. The pioneers break down into several groups, including Mongols, Greeks and Romans, Tudors and Victorian Military. The Society will have two floats, one with the effigy of Guy Fawkes, who once conspired to blow up Parliament and was burned at the stake for his efforts. The other will be a closely guarded secret until the night. A few years ago the effigies of Gadaffi and Saddam Hussein were burnt. I wonder who we’ll roast this year?
The six bonfire societies in Lewes put on five separate colourful parades with up to three thousand people taking part and up to 80,000 spectators attending, in a town with a total population of about 15,000. After parading together through town, the different societies split off to their bonfire sites for a grand burning and spectacular fireworks. If I survive, I’ll be reporting back.
This article was originally published on August 7, 2013.