When I told locals recently that this was to be my first bonfire night in Lewes, they would generally look at me with wide eyes before exclaiming, “Well, you’re in for a bit of a treat/surprise/shock/sleepless night”.
And now, having actually experienced my first Lewes Bonfire, I can see what they meant – it was all of those things and more.
To start with, try to imagine a cross between the drummers from the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony and the dancers from Carnivale, all dressed in traditional costume and brandishing flaming torches while marching along narrow cobbled streets. Got that?
But let me start my recollections of the day at the beginning…
November 5th began early for me. I was gently dozing at around 5.45am when I was violently jolted from my slumber by a very loud explosion. I believe it was a cannon of some sort, possibly being fired from Lewes castle, but I may be wrong there.
(Unfortunately, by the time I had re-gathered my wits and peeked out of the window, all evidence was gone – there was no-one running from the scene of the crime with a smouldering taper and an empty cannon ball sack).
As the day unfolded, I spotted pockets of supporters from the various bonfire societies gathering around town, all sporting their own group’s distinctive and stripy colour schemes, basking in the camaraderie and planning their big night ahead.
These scenes reminded me a bit of the lead up to a big football game as fans gather for a pre-match drink, whilst wearing their over-priced replica kits (albeit without the need for policemen on horseback to quell the violent undertones… and featuring 7 different ‘teams’ come to think of it).
Also during the day, I had an early warning of the mayhem that was to ensue as I witnessed a number of local shops having their windows boarded up in defence against the rampaging hordes due in town later on.
For the evening itself, I decided to ‘attach’ myself to one particular bonfire society and in the absence of any particular allegiance, chose the one based closest to my home which happened to be Commercial Square.
This particular society sports a rather natty black and yellow ensemble and has adopted the North American Indian as its ‘Pioneer’ (each society has a pioneer as a symbol of their protest with others including Vikings and Zulu warriors)
I took my young boys along to watch the first of several processions and it was an amazing sight.
To the sound of a simple drum beat, hundreds of bumble bee clad society members – some barely past toddler age and others even younger being pushed in strollers – marched slowly along the streets holding their blazing torches aloft. It was an amazing sight, but proved to be just the entree compared with what was to follow.
Having safely deposited the boys back home, I ventured out to the High Street to witness the spectacle of several societies marching past separately, before combining forces and marching back again as part of the United Grand Procession.
My newly adopted society showed their strong North American Indian influence here, with many marchers dressed in full Native costume, complete with fully-feathered head-dresses and daubed in war paint.
Fire was again to the fore, backed up with full marching bands, but there was something quite strange about seeing flaming torches and massed crowds marching past Caffe Nero where I had sipped a quiet coffee that very morning.
Once the Grand Procession was over, each society then splintered off to its own fire site.
I joined thousands of spectators who all piled into a field down by the railway line to witness the massive 40 foot high bonfire being lit by the torches of the returning marchers, before an ‘archbishop’ mounted a platform in front of burning crosses to be pelted with actual live firecrackers thrown from the crowd (yes, really) as a prelude to the spectacular main firework display beginning.
But while this display was happening on ‘my’ field, a similar event was taking place at several other venues across town, resulting in the sky being simultaneously lit up at one point by three separate firework displays.
I returned home shortly afterwards, with ears ringing from the fireworks & firecrackers and with clothes & hair stinking of smoke, but with a memory deep-etched full of vivid images.
One of the things about Britain I’ve always loved is its quirky traditions and I have to say that Lewes Bonfire is right up with the best of them.
Indeed, so taken was I by the whole event that I’ve half a mind to switch from spectator to marcher next year if I can find a bonfire society willing to accept such a new arrival.