Europe 26 – Lewes Bonfire Night

Lewes Bonfire Night (2)

The processions and bonfires

Throughout the night, smoke fills the Lewes air, giving the steep and narrow streets an eerie, almost medieval feel. From about 6.30pm onwards, the rowdy torch-lit processions make their way through the streets to the War Memorial at the top of the High Street, pausing to hurl burning barrels of tar into the River Ouse before dispersing to their own part of town to stoke up their bonfires.

The parades are a sight in themselves, with marching bands followed by Roman soldiers in full uniform, pirates, Zulu warriors, Vikings, Civil War soldiers, cowboys, clowns, monks and a whole host of disreputable¬≠looking clerical types marching through town, to the bemusement of the thousands of visitors. In short, anything goes. The streets echo with the explosions of hundreds of fireworks, thrown, like prehistoric handguns, as the local youth, fuelled with booze and sheer excitement, work on bringing a night of apparent anarchy to a climax. As the bonfire societies and their parades leave town, each is trailed by a huge, papier-mache effigy of a despised figure of the day (the prime minister is a perennial favourite, though a twenty-foot model of Home Secretary Charles Clarke – carrying the scales of justice in one hand, and an ID Stamp in the other – was the processional highlight in 2005), hauled on a cart. As the effigies are usually crammed full of fireworks themselves and are intended to provide the climax to the society’s firework display, they are defended by a number of “prelates”, who fearlessly bat the fireworks thrown at them by members of rival societies back into the crowd.

To the untrained eye, it might appear that there is no rhyme or reason to the torches, the fireworks and the barrels of burning tar – not to mention the American Indians with gazelle horns. But the entire affair is more structured than it looks, and revolves around three themes: Guy Fawkes, the Sussex Martyrs and remembrance of the war dead. Various effigies of Guy Fawkes are pulled through the streets and taken to olossal bonfires to be burned, most extravagantly at the Cliffe Bonfire. Fawkes goes up in a fit of fireworks that blow out of his head, body, arms and legs. In addition, effigies of unhappy, gouty popes are also dragged through the streets in revenge for Queen Mary I’s actions in the sixteenth century – a favourite chant of the night is; “A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, and piece of cheese to toast him”.

But that’s hardly the end of the fun for the pope and his cardinals. After the parades, at around 8.30pm, thousands flood the bonfire areas of the societies for some good, old-fashioned Catholic bashing, fireworks and all-night drinking. At the Cliffe bonfire, five “cardinals” ascend a platform to bless the mobs, who in return launch fireworks at them – a bizarre spectacle, and certainly the high point of the evening. Although they’re dressed in non-flammable robes and protective goggles, there’s no guarantee that they won’t catch a rocket in the crown jewels. The effigies of the pope, on the other hand, go up in glorious flames in much the same manner as Guy Fawkes, to huge roars of approval from the crowds.

The Bonfire Societies

The anarchic antics are orchestrated by five bonfire societies from different parts of the town – the Cliffe and Borough (the first to be formed), and Waterloo, Commercial Square and South Street – all steeped in rivalry and competing to provide the most spectacular display each year. Officially sanctioned since 1858, they work all year round to prepare costumes and raise money to finance the yearly , festivities – the buckets rattled by the various societies as they parade along the streets are just one of the ways they do this. Children and adults take part, and on the big night each society wears a different-coloured, hooped jersey and a Wee-Willie-Winkie-style hat.

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