Lewes Bonfire Night: What the Fawkes?

Before you locas start talking about Christmas, everyone seems to forget my favorite holiday of the season.

Remember, remember the 5th of November. 

Anyone who has seen the film V for Vendetta is probably familiar with this phrase. But what exactly is Bonfire Night? What is the purpose of all the different societies? How did it become so popular in Lewes, an unassuming town in the south east? Let’s break it down…

I last attended Bonfire Night in 2015 on my year abroad. I remember it was really wet, muddy, cold and loud. I particularly hated being hit with firecrackers by cheeky society members. Nonetheless, it was amazing to see the procession and, of course, the David Cameron effigy blown to kingdom come. I didn’t go to Bonfire Night last year because my friend gave me a free ticket to see Rise Against in London. No regrets.

This year, Diego and my old housemate Alex braved the crowds for a night to remember.

What is it?

Bonfire Night is a U.K. holiday in memory of The Gunpowder Plot (1605), organized by Guy Fawkes. Fawkes and his associates wanted to get rid of King James I and his Protestant government to make England Catholic again. However, Parliament was tipped off and the plotters were caught and executed. Bonfires were lit across London to celebrate the failure of the Plot and life of King James I.

Why Lewes?

Throughout the years, the holiday became a focus of anti-Catholic sentiment, burning effigies of hate-figures such as the Pope. Lewes saw particularly violent confrontations as disdain between opposing sides was exacerbated by the relatively recent Marian Persecutions, where seventeen Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake. Protests were becoming more random, frequent and violent until the police got involved in the mid-17th century. From then on, the celebrations have been largely what they are like today: organized by societies with a procession on High Street followed by bonfires and fireworks at various locations around the perimeter of town.

Lewes, a town of 17,000, hosts about 30,000 people a year for this tradition, making it the largest in the countries, attracting bonfire societies as well as spectators from all over Sussex and beyond.

Different societies

Bonfire Night in Lewes actually isn’t a single event, but rather six. Different societies host different events across Lewes and offer different “flavors” of Bonfire Night if you will: modern or traditional, adult or juvenile, different pioneer fronts and costumes… representing different parts of town each with their own bonfire.

Procession

All societies march in the procession with costumes, fire and crackers a’plenty and music around High Street as early as 5:30PM. Luckily, Diego and I got good spots first on top of a small staircase and then in the very first row of the procession.

Photo credit: Toby Melville

Bonfires

Different societies host their own Bonfires. Go to the procession to see whose effigy you like best and refer to a map for their Bonfire location. Fires are lit about 9:30PM. I opted for the Waterloo Society Bonfire again, mainly because it’s where I went last time, their field is particularly massive and I knew they had food trucks there.

What to bring

  • Cash: food places and bonfire tickets don’t take card. Bring cash with you to avoid madly searching for a cash machine at Lewes.
  • Coins: to make donations if you desire.
  • All the layers: when you’re in the front row of the bonfire surrounded by people, it gets bloody hot. But when you’re standing in the queue for the bus, it can get quite cold. Bring loads of layers and prepare for rain with a portable poncho, even if the forecast is clear. I suggest wearing shoes you aren’t crazy about as between the smoke, mud and spilled beer, they’ll never be the same.
  • Portable charger: maybe it’s just me, but I never leave home for more than a few hours without it. You never know!
  • Bandana: if you’re sensitive to smoke, wearing a bandana or scarf over your face will help keep it out.
  • Water: it gets very crowded and smokey, stay hydrated!

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Other bits and tips

  • Of course with a lot of festivities comes a wide variety of food and drink. Go a block away from High Street in any direction and you’ll find plenty of food trucks and alcohol (bars won’t usually admit people into the building but rather serve alcohol in plastic cups to carry around in the street). Note that vegetarian and vegan food options are very limited.
  • Keep your eyes peeled for maps for the evening to tell you where each bonfire and street closures are.
  • Find a pamphlet with information of the Bonfire Societies, including where their fire is and how to get tickets.
  • That being said, a few societies require you book tickets for the bonfire ahead of time. Either get to Lewes early to buy tickets (finding Tourist Information during the procession is not possible) or go to a Bonfire that sells tickets at the gate. They will cost about £5 each.
  • Between the countryside location and loads of crowds, for some providers, there will be no cell phone service. Make sure you stay with your group and have a plan if you get separated.
  • It goes unsaid that this event is largely unsuitable for children, especially strollers, and most certainly unsuitable for pets.

Getting there and back

Transportation varies year by year, but here were the options this year:

  • Train: although I took the train to and from Lewes in 2015, Lewes station and a few stations in both directions were closed. Not a possibility for Bonfire Night.
  • Car: again, entirely impossible. Roads are closed and there are no parking facilities.
  • Bike: there are several bike trains to Lewes from Brighton that ride from various parts of town to the edge of Lewes and back.
  • Bus: the 28/29 bus ran to the edge of Lewes as usual from Brighton, but it was packed. The bus back from Bonfire Night was even crazier, with a queue of several hundred, but it went quicker than I expected, with buses constantly at the ready after the festivities. I recommend taking the bus there, but catch the bus from town so you’ll be one of the first to board and arrive early. The worst that can happen is you get there with not much to do but eat, drink and get a sneak peak at the effigies.
  • Coach: Big Lemon offered coach rides to and from Lewes with a reserved ticket (I wish I was quicker to this).
  • Pre-booked ride share: This is what I recommend most, particularly coming home. After a hectic evening, I was over dealing with drunk arseholes pushing their way into the bus queue.
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