A field report from an actual field somewhere in southern England, where a bunch of keen volunteers are competing to build the biggest bonfire in town.
In an England obsesses by the Health and Safety, or ’Elf and Safety as they are known in a land where ‘Hs’ are dropped with impunity, it’s quite amazing that a whole town could go as crazy for bonfires and fireworks as Lewes in East Sussex does on November 5th every year, without giving some bureaucrat a heart attack. Mind you, the organizers are constantly reminding folks not to throw firecrackers in the streets, blah, blah, blah, but from what I’m expecting tonight some rules might get bent a bit.
For those of you unfamiliar with the spectacle of Bonfire Night, a bit of background. Guy Fawkes was a Roman Catholic who determined to blow up the newly Protestant Houses of Parliament in 1605. He was caught, executed, and by official proclamation the people of England have celebrated his defeat ever since. ‘No Popery’ here as the non-PC folks of Lewes still proclaim.
Also commemorated in Lewes is a gruesome act by ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII, who tried to re-introduce Catholicism to England after her Dad had created the Anglican Church of England. The banner in town says 17 folks were martyred in Lewes alone, burnt at the stake, for refusing to revert to their former state religion between 1555 and 1557. Bonfire Night commemorates both Fawkes and the Martyrs. In Lewes, it’s a huge event with the town closing its streets mid-afternoon and thousands and thousands of curious visitors packing into the town.
As I’ve reported before, I’m a fully paid up, card carrying, authentically costumed member of the Waterloo Bonfire Society. This year, I’ve been able to get to Lewes from Canada in time to join in with the set up and stay long enough to help with the clean-up. The bonfire itself is a massive structure, which will be fired off by Captain of Bonfire Caroline at the appropriate moment, consuming several effigies, including that of Guy Fawkes himself, in the flames.
Once the bonfire is well aflame, the rest of the evening’s events in this riverside field continue with a curious tormenting of the ‘Lord Bishop’ and his ‘clergy’ representing the ‘hated’ Roman Catholic Church. Here’s what will happen: after the Waterloo Grand Procession heads from headquarters in The Lamb of Lewes pub and parades down through the town to the firesite, and the bonfire is lit, a brave costumed volunteer dressed as the Lord Bishop attempts to address the crowd. Before he can get a word out, the throng (remember ‘Elf and Safety?) starts to bombard him with firecrackers, thousands of them. Really.
A couple of years ago I took some photos of the event and the bish asked for copies of the whole series as they were the best ones ever taken, he said. I was that close, I was in danger myself a couple of times. The bish wears full safety rig under his robes, but it’s still terrifying seeing him being pelted like that. By now the crowd behind the barricades numbers in the thousands and thousands. He takes his punishment for about 10 minutes and then with a great roar from the crowd, he’s driven from his pulpit and the next stage of the festivities begins. This year there’s a new bishop and I’m not surprised.
Finally, the fireworks gets under way. The last time I watched the show it was spectacular and I have every expectation that this year will be even better. Our own society’s publicity says it’s the biggest and best attended firesite in the town, and I’m inclined to believe our own press.
As soon as the Waterloo show is over, other societies around the town, with their own huge bonfires, set off their separate fireworks displays. To the east, west and south of us, the sky is afire with spectacular effects.
The processions through the town that lead up to the fireworks are filled with participants in costumes of many colours, styles and types, all extraordinary. And most of the participants, except those who are pulling effigies, burning tar barrels and other wonders, or are playing in one of the many bands, carry flaming torches.
Yesterday morning, at a hidden site where I have been taken under a strict oath of secrecy, I was helping another group dip torches. I was told to wear old clothes and work gloves and thank goodness I did. After three or four hours hard labour under the direction of Captain of Torches and society chairman Paul, an army of volunteers, have dipped, dripped and packed thousands of torches for tonight. Based on my past observation, I would guess that there are several hundred folks in the WBS processions, of which there are six in total, and each torch carrier goes through up to a dozen torches during the evening, so it looks like we’ll need most of the 5,000 we made yesterday.
After a few hours work at the secret site everyone piled into The Lamb for R&R and a final briefing.
It may take me a few days to recover from this year’s festivities, so I’ll delay my full report until the next week or so, if I survive. Now all we have to do is hope it doesn’t rain, but Bonfire Night in Lewes goes on tonight rain or shine.
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