One month from tonight on November 5th, it’s England’s biggest Bonfire Night in Lewes, East Sussex.
It’s impossible to avoid discussing the weather in England at any time of year. Just before we arrived, a massive storm passed over the country. Ninety-nine miles-an-hour gusts were recorded at the Needles off the Isle of Wight. Trees fell on railway lines and cars parked in London’s Regency squares. In Lewes, East Sussex, where we are headed, the River Ouse got very, very close to the top of its banks, as heavy rains coincided with ultra-high tides. We are here for Bonfire Night, the massive commemoration of the 17 Protestant Lewes Martyrs and the defeat of the Catholic Guy Fawkes.
The day before November 5th more rain falls. It beats so hard on the outside of our hotel mews room that water leaks under the door. On the morning of the big day it drizzles. But at about three o’clock, the skies clear and the sun shines through the clouds. A stiff breeze dries out the countryside. All will be well for the big event.
All over England, families gather with a small stash of Roman candles, Catherine wheels and rockets, and perhaps a modest bonfire in the garden, all the law allows. Diane recalls childhood events where she waved a sparkler around at a small backyard fire.
In Lewes it is all that times a thousand. Here, the six Bonfire Societies host the largest Bonfire Night in England, probably the world. All six Societies hold their own parades, build their own gigantic bonfires and fire off their own fireworks show. They compete for the best costumes and the best fireworks. We are proud to be members of the Waterloo Bonfire Society, which the week before has won the best costume competition. We are modestly dressed as smugglers, in our red and white striped sweaters and white pants. Hundreds more will be dressed the same in our parade and in different stripes in other parades. The costumes that really steal the show are the Mongolians, Romans and Greeks, Victorian military gentlemen and their ladies and more. In other parades there will be people dressed up as everything from A to Z. Yes, people in warpaint dressed as American Indians to people in blackface dressed as Zulus. How deliciously non-PC it all is.
Leaving our hotel, we bump into a splendidly attired lady in full feathered Indian glory. Turns out she’s German, dating a Norwegian, living in Lewes, who’s asked her to participate. An hour later, coming from a quick visit to my mum’s house (she lives locally), the first parade we bump into is a mass of American Indians. We look for our cross-cultural acquaintance, but it’s impossible to pick her out in the throng.
Along with our own drum and pipe band, guest bands join our parade. Other guest bands join other parades and the little cobbled streets echo with the sound of marching and drums. When we arrive at the assembly area in the lane behind The Lamb, our headquarters pub, the first parade for children is already getting organized. The sun has set and the marchers head off into the dark, flaming torches lighting up their faces, shiny with anticipation. We head into the pub.
An hour later, the children’s parade has returned and we are being marshalled into ranks by large men with larger voices. Walking down the lane to our position near the back, we spot friends in costume, chat with the “clergy” representing the Pope of long ago, and marvel at the tough looking Roman with a hand-pulled chariot, his son aboard for the long ride. Our own drummers and bag pipers are warming up, filling the air with a stirring Scottish sound that brings a lump to my throat. We collect a handful of paraffin soaked torches – you’ll need at least three each, remarks the man dishing them out, to get to the top of town. This is going to be a long march, I suspect, given how hilly Lewes is. As we set out, one torch lit in my right hand and held aloft so it doesn’t set fire to my woolly cap, five more clutched in my left hand and held low so they don’t ignite early, I realize we aren’t going to see much of the procession. The spectators will get a better view, but they won’t have the fun of being part of a great snake of flame weaving around the town.
In front of us a group of young women are larking around. They are having great fun and I wonder how long their energy will last. Behind us two ranks of teenage boys are equally rambunctious. We are sandwiched in between people a generation or two younger than us and I truly hope our stamina (and feet) will last the evening. Shortly after we leave The Lamb, we pass my 96-year-old mum’s house. She’s watching out of her second floor living room window and I get the smugglers around us to give her a big cheer — ogi, ogi, ogi, oi, oi, oi they shout in unison and she waves back enthusiastically. I can see her smile from the street.
The parade stops and starts and during one long wait, Diane gives her Canadian Olympic red mittens to a young lad. I think his almost identical older brother is a touch jealous, but we have no more souvenirs to share. The point of being dressed as smugglers is that we are all anonymous, one looking much like another, so when unofficial bangers are set off in the parade, the marshals have a hard time finding the culprits. No one rats out the boys, who have the innocent looks of the truly naughty. However, to satisfy the crowd’s need for noise, at certain stations along the way official explosives experts set off amazingly loud strings of crackers. The first few times it happens, Diane is startled, but by the end she ignores them like an old soldier. We march on, unfazed, through the smoke and detritus.
Keep to your ranks of three, shouts the large man, keep to the edge of the road, we own the street, use it all, he further encourages, marching backwards so he can keep an eye on stragglers. I see the reason he wants us to stay tightly together. Lager louts will try and grab our discarded brands, wave them around and dash in between the marchers. Closed ranks prevent disruption. The police, masses of them, keep a watchful eye on the proceedings and in the end arrest only 14 people. Not bad when 30,000 visitors are crammed into the narrow streets and narrower pavements, a blind eye turned to the massive amounts of beer being drunk from cans.
We march, stop, march, stop, discard our spluttering spent torches in the gutters, light up another, march, stop, march, stop. Smuggler chums fore and aft, rank upon rank, marching to the Society’s own Waterloo Scottish Military Drum and Pipe Band. Far ahead of us and mostly out of hearing our First Pioneers march to the HMS Nelson Royal Naval Volunteer Band and the Second and Third Pioneers march to the loud Uckfield Performance Ensemble. Occasionally wafts of stirring marching music reach us, but they may be from other Societies parading along different routes. We glimpse their torches gleaming on other streets down long dark alleys. The coordination of all this mayhem must be a nightmare.
Now we are plodding up a long, long hill. It’s certainly seems like a mile, but ahead we finally spot The Black Horse Inn, the pub at the end of our route and marker for the top of town. The marching bands peel off into the pub. We march a few steps more to quench our flaming brands in barrels of water. Then we join the crowd for much needed refreshments. Dare I mention that my hip flask, filled with good Scotch whisky, is now half empty. Good marching fuel. It appears we are the first Society to arrive, others follow until the area is crammed, the pub even more so. We even outnumber the spectators, who have filled every spot along the way, feet dangling over the churchyard walls, waving out of the second floors of shops with the lower windows boarded up, packing the pavement until none can move. Outside the pub they spill into the roadway and the later marchers have to push through. The marshals hold the crowd back, but discipline has disappeared under the influence of who knows what and rowdy cheers go up as favourite groups are seen. It’s all very amicable and although 86 people are reported injured during the evening, I’m sure the majority will turn out to be sprained ankles and minor injuries of the like.
Amazingly, no one seems to get burned by the torches. I’m wearing sturdy leather gloves against flames and splinters from the rough wooden handles, immune to sparks. My thick woolen sweater keeps me warm, with the help of a long sleeved thermal vest, and my woolen cap, which I think looks really silly, keeps head and ears warm. I notice that most of the young marchers refuse to wear them and so does Diane. Thick white duck sailor’s trousers and hefty waterproof hiking boots complete the ensemble. I look like the marshmallow man, but I don’t care. Along with the heat from the flaming brands, I’m really toasty. As we are the first Society to arrive, I suspect we will be the last to leave, but we end up somewhere in the middle of the pack for the return procession back into town. The third march of the night seems easier. Of course, having been uphill all the way here, its naturally downhill most of the way back. Thank goodness for small mercies, cry my tired feet.
As we wait our turn, spectacle after spectacle passes by. It’s all a blur now, but I remember the grinning blackface Zulus, splendid with feathers and oval shields, spooky skeleton faces, Tudor ladies, and an extraordinary ensemble of washerwomen drumming on upturned pails. The latter is the funniest thing I see all evening. In between there are flaming barrels of tar, tableau poking fun at unpopular subjects – massive rockets and the despised Syrian leader were on one – banners, flaming crosses, and more sights than one can ever imagine. I’m told there are three thousand of us marching and I believe it.
Back at The Lamb, we get a respite for a while, then it’s time to go again. The WBS Grand Procession is led by the Captain of the Tar Barrel and her flaming barrels, which will get ceremonially dumped in the river, then the Mongolians, bands, the (fake) Lord Bishop of Waterloo and his clergy, the splendid effigy of Guy Fawkes that will be burned, Ye Olde English Puritans, Greeks and Romans, more bands, people in Tudor costumes, Victorians, our own splendid Drum and Pipe Band, then us smugglers, followed by guest Bonfire Societies marching in their own colours with their own band, from the Training Ship Swiftsure of the Nautical Training Corps. It’s an amazing sight.
We wend our way through the streets again, over the causeway where the tar barrel is presumably dumped, but out of my sight back in the parade, and down to the firesite where a vast throng of spectators have gathered. By the time the back end of the procession rounds the corner, the fire has been lit and flames are reaching for the sky. We march through the impressive crowd, held back by barricades, to our privileged spot inside the firesite. A stiff wind is blowing and we can feel the intense heat of the fire, so we move around to the side to be more comfortable with a better view of the pulpit where the Lord Bishop has arrived for his never-to-be-delivered sermon. As soon as he opens his mouth, the crowd starts to bombard him and his clergy with bangers and fire crackers. It’s an extraordinary scene. About as non-PC as one can get, but all seem to take it in the spirit of the evening.
As soon as he’s had enough and is driven from his platform, an amazing fireworks display lights up – spectacular and extravagant, promises the program, and it is. We watch entranced. Quite the best show I’ve ever seen, and benefitting from being seen really close up. When it’s over, we form up for the fifth march of the evening back to HQ, and as we leave the fire site other bonfires can be seen starting up on the hills around us, followed by their own fireworks displays. Just a magic end to the evening.
We’re already looking forward to a repeat performance next year. We might even make it to the sixth and final parade of the evening.
2014 UPDATE: The Waterloo Bonfire Society had an amazing turn-out at the Lewes Bonfire Companies Costume Competitions on Friday, October 17 at the Town Hall, placing first again with a landslide win.
This article was originally posted on November 14, 2013. All photographs by Nigel Napier-Andrews.