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Lewes Bonfire (Lewes)
Member Name: hogsflesh
Lewes Bonfire (Lewes)
Date: 07/11/01, updated on 07/11/01 (4013 review reads)
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Getting to Lewes from London is a bit troublesome. Normally I go with a group of people who hire a coach to take them down, being picked up in the early hours of the morning by the coach in Lewes. If you're coming from farther afield then you'd almost certainly need to stay in a hotel (Brighton isn't too far away).
The evening apparently gets under way with people rolling barrels down the streets of the town (I expect the barrels are on fire). I never get there in time for that, what with traffic and everything. By the time we arrive, the main procession is just getting underway. The various Lewes bonfire societies (there are about five, I believe), along with other local groups like the boy scouts and Salvation Army and what have you, march up and down the main streets of Lewes. Most are dressed in a variety of historical costumes (you'll usually see cavaliers, roundheads, cowboys and Indians, Zulus...). Many carry burning torches, and there are also traditional military style brass bands. The streets aren't very wide, and there are hundreds and hundreds of people watching, lining the pavements on both sides, all the way up and down the route the procession takes. Of course, all that fire in such close proximity to all those people does add an undeniable edge of danger to proceedings, but the police and St John's ambulance people are out in full force.
The procession is pretty insane. It
's incredibly, well, fiery, for one thing. Burning torches are thrown into these large wheeled metal barrels when they've outlived their usefulness. These barrels are also used for throwing incredibly loud bangers into. In fact, people in the processions seem to be setting off bangers pretty much constantly. They can be unbelievably loud if they happen to do it near where you're standing. This, along with constant police loud-hailer pleas for the crowd to stay on the pavements, the crowd noise and the burglar alarms that get set off by the explosions, makes Lewes bonfire night one of the loudest things I've ever witnessed.
You have to basically just try to find a place to stand where you'll be able to see what's going on, and then try to stay there until the processions end. The procession stops and starts at various points as new groups join it. If you're lucky, the Morris dancers will stop right next to you, and dance. If you're unlucky you'll get a bunch of guys setting off fireworks a lot right next to you. You see a lot of strange things - my favourite is people in robes with sinister silver fox masks on, menacing the crowd with burning torches (obviously not in a seriously dangerous way). And few things I've ever seen can equal the sight of hundreds of people marching up the road towards you carrying burning torches. Just don't try to join in with the procession, or pick up discarded torches - you'll get yelled at, maybe even physically accosted.
The procession lasts for maybe an hour, I can't really remember. After that, it splits, and the various bonfire societies go off to their various bonfire sites. As mentioned, there are several, and I hear that there's a fair bit of rivalry between them. The one I've almost always gone to is the Cliffe society's display. You have to have a ticket, which you get in advance. You then progress to the field (this is not a wheelchair friendly
route - we had a chap in a wheelchair in our party last time, and I ended up having to help carry him up and down a lot of steps).
You hang around in the field for a bit. After a while, the bonfire society arrives. But you don't just get a bonfire and fireworks, no sir. This is where things get kind of strange. Well, stranger.
People often complain that the true message of Christmas is lost in our eagerness to eat lots of food, open presents and watch bad films on TV. Well, let's face it, Guy Fawkes' night has fared even worse. Fundamentally, it's about a plot by Catholics to destroy the Protestant establishment of 17th century Britain, and the fortunate foiling of said plot (let's ignore the conspiracy theories). The vast majority of people who participate in bonfire night events (myself included) don't think of Guy Fawkes, or Catholicism, or anything else to do with religion, any more than they think of the Nativity when they're eating mince pies and pulling crackers on Christmas Day. In Lewes, however, the religious side of it is very much to the fore.
In 1757, during the reign of Mary I, a Catholic who occupied the throne for a few years in the midst of the first wave of Protestant English monarchs, 17 Protestants were burned to death in Lewes as punishment for their faith. The Lewes bonfire celebrations are as much a memorial to those 17 martyrs as they are a celebration of the defeat of Fawkes and his confederates. So there is a strong anti-Catholic slant to the proceedings. This begins before the firework display - three or four men, dressed as Catholic bishops stand on a platform and attempt to preach a Catholic mass to the crowd. At which point everyone starts chucking fireworks at them, and yelling anti-Catholic slogans ("No Popery!"). This goes on for a while, the bishops yelling at the crowd, encouraging them, the crowd yelling back at the bishops (who wear what I assume are fireproof casso
cks, and safety goggles). All good fun.
Then you get the fireworks display, which is always very impressive - it probably isn't too different to a normal fireworks display, but somehow seems better. After which, you get the burning of the effigy of Guy Fawkes. Not just that, though. An effigy of the Pope, filled with fireworks, is also burned. And every year there's a third effigy, taken from a currently topical news story. I've seen effigies of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton burned, for instance. After which, the fireworks end.
(This is what happens in the Cliffe society's bonfire celebration - I've no idea if all this stuff happens at the other bonfire sites.)
I'm not sure how seriously the participants of this actually take the religious element. The Lewes bonfire has been going on for well over a century (I'm not sure how long exactly), and so it's entirely possible that the rituals of burning the Pope and abusing men dressed as Catholic bishops have lost their meaning over the years. There's certainly a strong pantomime element to the throwing fireworks at bishops. I certainly don't find myself fired up to go and assault Catholics after seeing it, and I doubt many others do. However, I have heard that local Catholics have condemned what goes on, and say they find it threatening. Also, the Rev. Ian Paisley's web site contains an article defending the Lewes bonfire - for some on the rather more fanatical side of Protestantism this could all be taken very seriously indeed. There are rumours that Orangemen from Ulster have been known to come to Lewes to participate in the anti-Catholic ceremonies on bonfire night. No idea if this is true or not.
Anyway, whatever the truth of the whole anti-Catholic element, it doesn't really affect my enjoyment of the whole spectacle, nor the enjoyment of (I'm sure) the huge majority of people who go to see it every year. (Although, not being reli
gious myself, I suppose I'm not likely to take offence.) And it doesn't end with the fireworks, either. After the display is over, when most people have gone home, things get even more chaotic. The various bonfire societies parade through the streets of Lewes again, this time setting off more fire crackers and bangers than before. You can follow them, watching the chaos unfold. I get the impression that by this point all the tourists are supposed to have gone home - if you try to pick up a discarded burning torch at this time of night you're far more likely to get punched than shouted at. By this stage everyone's pretty drunk.
Eventually the various bonfire clubs disperse and go to designated areas for the end of the night. The Cliffe procession ends with an antique fire engine arriving to put out their fire. A friend and I once accidentally got trapped in a small town square where one of the bonfire societies was having its end of night ritual. The whole square was cordoned off, and the chief guy made a speech thanking all those involved, and condemning people who only came to watch the bonfire night celebrations without putting anything back into Lewes. Fights seemed to be breaking out on the periphery of the crowd. At this point my friend and I decided it would be prudent to leave, and we had to beg the guy manning the nearest barricade to let us go. Yes, this is where things can get a bit scary. You may see fights, especially if a tourist dares to question the meaning of all this pomp and ritual. On the whole, though, as long as you treat the people and their customs with respect and stay out of their way you'll be fine.
(I hope this hasn't started to sound too Royston Vasey, it isn't really like that at all. I can certainly appreciate that people in Lewes might get quite irritated with loads of tourists flocking in to gawp at their quaint ways. I rate bonfire night in Lewes as one of the most incredible things I
9;ve ever seen, and am very pleased that the townspeople willingly tolerate the tourists.)
After that, everything ends. It's usually about 1 am, and I go back to meet the coach. If I'm lucky I'll be in bed by 4.
I realise that bonfire night has just passed, and so anyone who reads this will have forgotten about it by this time next year, but I would strongly recommend going to Lewes on Guy Fawkes' night. Slightly strange, a little disorientating, and with slightly dangerous undertones, but also quite fantastic.
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