Thursday, 6 November 2014

Incredible Bonfire night in Lewes || The Brighton side of life

Lewes is the Bonfire capital, boasting the worlds largest Bonfire Night celebration on the 5th of November, with 3,000 participants and 80,000 expected spectators. This small town of 16,000 locals, grows immensely for this annual tradition.

"Imagine a head-on collision of Halloween and Mardi Gras and you're well on your way to picturing Bonfire Night, Lewes style – barrels of burning tar, processions of thousands of fiery torch-bearing crowds, massive bonfires and firework displays" —Rough Guides, Daily Telegraph

We left Brighton at 4:30pm to catch the train to Lewes. The trains were crowded but running regularly to accommodate the mass influx of people. We arrived early and trekked our way up to our chosen vantage point, where conveniently, the Pelham Arms Pub was right across the road.
We rugged up nice and warm for this chilly autumn evening. (Note for others: wear non-flammable clothes that you don't mind getting scorch marks on, our attire got away unscathed but others didn't. Some earplugs are a good idea too.)

It wasn't long before the rhythmic beating of the drums, bagpipes and the torch light march made its way down the narrow street towards us.
 
 The fire and flares created a ominous red glow as they passed through the streets.
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 Barrels alight with fire and tar rumbled as they were pulled down the street ablaze. Members of the societies collected stray torches burning in the gutters, as the embers floated on the breeze.



There are seven bonfire societies, five of which participate in the Lewes Bonfire night procession. Here I am waiting for the next group. Apparently a riot broke out between societies further down the road!

And here is the man of the hour, the infamous 1605 Gunpowder plot terrorist, "Guy Fawkes" effigy, on his way to get immolated.

Waving burning torches is an excellent form of crowd control if anyone is getting too close.


 There was a distinctive feeling of anarchy and rebellion as the streets burned red. Deafening "crow scarer" bangers were released and cracker explosions occasionally hit the crowd. Myself included (I got hit in the shin by a stray crackers which had a pellet of cement within it.) Which definitely hurt and left a bruise, but didn't ruin the fun. (I even caught my reaction while videoing the chaos.) 

Let's just say its not the best place for small children who scare easily.
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 Before coming to this event, we found it difficult to find much in the way of information about it. This is partially due to the government and local council trying to have it banned (multiple times), since it is potentially quite dangerous for all involved!
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 The addition of flares seemed to turn the torch fire into a greenish colour.

As "Guy Fawkes" night was built around religious disputes, it seemed appropriate and haunting to see these burning crosses march down the road. Casting long, scary shadows against the church behind.

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Rather than just being controversial or anti-Catholicism, these burning crosses may be seen as a way to commemorate the 17 Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake during the 1700's in Lewes.
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After the procession, we then left the main streets of Lewes to seek out a local Bonfire society display.

When we arrived their was no light in the paddock where we were standing, except for the full moon shining up above and the occasional flash of fireworks off in the distance.

This was, until they ignited the huge pile of pallets waiting in the midst of the field. This was the beginning of Lewes Boroughs Bonfire Society's bonfire, a society that is over 160 years old.

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 Standing atop a hill in central Lewes we were surrounded by glowing beacons of other societies bonfires, with pillars of smoke pouring off them in the distance, accompanied by massive fireworks displays as far as the eye could see. 

It's not surprising that Lewes holds the worlds largest bonfire night. All this excitement and extravagance was more than I could take in at once.


Looking pretty chuffed with it all.
Perched atop the bonfire structure was "1914" marking the centenary of WWI. As each number caught on fire it released fireworks secretly packaged inside.


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 Needless to say, we weren't cold any more.
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 Next was "Borough society's" turn to make the sky sparkle. I have never been so close to such huge commercial fireworks. We ended up moving backwards away from them to enjoy the whole spectacle, save our eardrums and not get covered in ash.


 This entire night was unlike any other Guy Fawkes celebration I have experienced before. A truly raw and intimidating spectacle but incredibly fun and exciting at the same time. If you ever have the opportunity to witness this first hand, I highly recommend it.

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As the embers were burning to the ground, we left the Bonfire site at around 11:30pm to catch the train back to Brighton before midnight. As we arrived back at the station, we realised everyone else had the same idea. With trains leaving every 2 minutes, we queued for 40mins before finally getting onto the train and returning home after an amazing night in Lewes.

 As great as photos are, sometimes they can't quite capture the atmosphere, and this was one of those occasions. I did a bit of videoing in between so hopefully this might help bring these celebration alive for those who have yet to witness it in person. 



What is your favourite way to celebrate Guy Fawkes night? Leave me a comment below.

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