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Lewes Bonfire (Lewes)

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Every November 5th, the East Sussex town of Lewes holds its annual bonfire celebration. A number of Bonfire Societies hold torch-lit processions through the streets of the town.

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      30.10.2008 21:01
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      Should See

      Lewes Bonfire is a bit of a legendary past time! I have lived on the out skirts of Lewes for 21 years and you cant miss Lewes Bonfire.

      The quite quant town in east sussex, loses its self for one night a year and that is the 5th November.

      The are a number of different bonfire societies in the town, who spend the year fund raising for the big night. Each society has there own coloured strips and joing to gether every year to fill the streets of lewes with the presetion of torches. After the long walkes around the streets, each societybreak apart and go to their grounds for their individual fire work displays.

      Some of the displays are free to enter and some have an addimission fee.

      The fireworks are amaxing at Lewes Bonfire, with more money spent than you can imagin.

      I would not recommend taking young children to lewes bonfire, There are thousands of people, and the streets are as busy as new year on the embankment in london. Throughout the whole night there will be bangers going off on the street, and as you would expect some asbo kids playing with fire in not the safest way.

      I do however recommend that everyone should see Lewes bonfire at least once. Its amazing, majical, exciting and enchanting all rolled in to one.

      Be Ware - Id you are getting the train- go early- they get packed- and if you driving be prepared to park out of town and expect to walk a long was on the night!

      Pub get very very busy and you will always have a plastic glass!!

      Enjoy and be safe

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      07.11.2005 00:14
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      a vibrant and enjoyable event

      The title of the review may seem like a naughty euphemism for something that I can't discuss in print on a site as proper and clean cut as Dooyoo, but I assure you it is not. The relevance will become clear as you read on, first a quick history test. What have the following events in common? Firstly, the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes High Street from 1555 to 1557, under the reign of Mary Tudor. Secondly, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when conspirators led by Robert Catesby planned to blow up King James I as he opened Parliament, the man at the heart of the action was, as we know, Guy Fawkes, and finally the landing of William of Orange (William III, half of William and Mary) on 5th November 1688 to restore a Protestant monarchy.
      The correct answer is that they are all actions in England’s turbulent past that are commemorated in the Lewes Bonfire celebrations. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, “Throughout recorded history, it has taken very little persuasion to get English people to make a bonfire,” and in Lewes they certainly take that to heart.

      Bonfires have long been used as an expression of rejoicing in England, particularly to mark victories or deliverances, either spontaneously or by being ordained by the authorities. They have also formed an integral part of particular calendar customs.
      The evolution of the English late-Autumn bonfire festivities is complex, with many strands woven into it. Some have attempted to trace it back to the Celtic festival of Samhain; others suggest that it is based upon the custom of lighting bonfires to protect against disease, or to burn bones for fertilizer.

      A document from Henry VIII's reign recommends that people should hold processions and light bonfires as a celebration of their release from the grasp of the Papacy. It is certain that in Elizabethan times the accession of the Queen was commemorated by public bonfires on 17th November each year, and perhaps this made a significant contribution in her successor's reign to the later national celebration of "Guy Fawkes Night" (though it is never properly known by this name in Sussex!)

      After a turbulent later period were mob handed anarchists more or less took over the celebrations, Bonfire Societies were formed in the mid-1800s, and the present day look of the festival took shape. These days sectarianism plays scarcely any part in the festivities. What is chiefly celebrated is a pride in freedom and independence, stemming from an innate dislike of being dictated to by outsiders - be they foreign powers, or any who attempt unfairly to exert their authority or influence. The major act of remembrance nowadays is that for the dead of the two World Wars, each Society in turn laying a wreath at the War Memorial. Although some societies in particular pay homage to the old traditions, with effigies of Pope Paul V (Camillo Borghese, Pope at the time of the Gunpowder Plot) and Guy Fawkes exploding in a blaze of fireworks, but I must stress that the Bonfire celebrations are certainly no longer a Protestant festival, and Roman Catholics and people of all beliefs participate freely in the celebrations.

      Before delving into the details of the event, first a few precautions if you are thinking of attending. The first thing to consider is how you travel there. As arguably the most famous November 05th celebration in the country, Lewes attracts a lot of people, up to 80000 have been estimated throughout the course of the event. Also the streets will become impassable to any form of vehicle for the duration. As the hotels in the local vicinity are probably booked up months in advance the best way to approach the event is to stay in the neighbouring larger town of Brighton (less than 10 miles away) and travel there and back by the regular train service. This year £1.70 covered the journey both ways and the journey is about 15 minutes, queuing for the train will take a lot longer though.

      The precession marches through the high street a number of times and that means that you need to invest a couple of hours to experience the whole show. Hundreds of people from the areas Bonfire Societies march through al armed with torches. Many wear the mask and striped Guernsey jumpers that have their origins in the days of anarchic mayhem of the Bonfire Boys whose enthusiasm for arson was curbed by the setting up of the societies. Many others march in fancy dress. Uniforms cover the whole of history from our ancient Celtic ancestors right up to World War II. Amongst these historical contributions are found some bizarre characters. Harlequins dance, mad animal figures roar and other unidentifiable figures beat drums or shout abuse at the crowd under the darting shadows of the hundreds of torches. Interspersed amongst them are marching bands adding a sound track ranging from Rule Britannia to Green Day to liven things up. The things that you will never forget are the tableaux and effigies that are carried through. Effigies are not burned in the streets, that comes later and are made up of heroes and “Enemies of the Bonfire” This years stand out hero was the obvious choice, Lord Nelson, but this version had him made as a nodding dog type portrayal. Enemies are often identifiable characters with a catholic bent. The most common is Guy Fawkes and often past popes from the times of religious persecutions but more recent depictions have been Osama Bin Laden and even Anthea Turner. These are paraded to the jeers and abuse from the crowds lining the street, “Burn the Traitor” or “God Save The Queen “ as appropriate.

      The Tableaux are more fun as they are boards and poles that are small firework displays in their own right. When these are lit, still being carried through the street, the sound and heat that assails you is overwhelming. Firecrackers are dragged along the street and flairs and a myriad of other wondrous pyrotechnics colour the night sky. If this assault of sound and colour is not enough, marchers have taken to dropping noisy thunder bangs at their own feet which are deafening but which send the crowd into squeals of delight and appreciative cheering. Once the procession has passed, things are not over as the participants then split off into five separate groups and head off to different parts of the town to burn the effigies and let off even more fireworks. These generally require a ticket so it may be best if you can organise this in advance. Even if you don’t manage to get into a display, you can see lights dancing high in the sky everywhere you look above the town.

      It is a most fantastic night and one that I thoroughly recommend. Not only is it the most colourful, irreverent and boisterous November 5th event you could experience, you will be sure in the fact that you are helping to perpetuate a 450 year old tradition.

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        26.10.2003 05:40
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        The loudest and craziest Guy Fawkes night you may ever experience

        It's nearly November 5th, Guy Fawkes' night. For Lewes it is Bonfire Night.

        Lewes is the county town of East Sussex, a small market town nestled in the shadow of the South Downs. It could well fit your image of a quiet well-healed liberal country town, with its fair share of eccentrics, unless of course you have experienced the Lewes Bonfire night.

        Lewes Bonfire isn't any old Guy Fawkes Night; it is the loudest craziest one you may ever experience.

        To give a little background, it might help if I start at the beginning.

        The 1550's were a time of religious intolerance in England, as Queen Mary I demonstrated by burning 288 Protestants at the Stake. Lewes didn't escape her attention and 17 people (or martyrs as they are now referred to) were burnt at the stake.

        This event coupled with Guy Fawkes' attempt to re-establish Catholic rule with his 1605 Gunpowder Plot ensured that the martyrs are now commemorated every year on November 5th. There was a resurgence of anti-Catholic sentiment in the 1800's, when the Pope Pius IX restored the Catholic hierarchy in England, and in the following years there were strong anti-Catholic and anti-police sentiments.

        This background is I think essential to gain some understanding of why the event is such a spectacle. It is important to stress however, that today there is no sense of any sectarian hatred or intolerance, and the only hints of former rancour are banners reading 'no popery' over Cliffe High Street and the burning of Pope Paul V's (Pope in 1605) effigy at one of the society bonfires.

        On the 5th November the town cuts itself off by closing roads in late afternoon, and locals start filling up pubs, balconies and any decent viewing space they can find. The crowd rapidly fills as trains arrive from the Brighton, Eastbourne and London lines.

        The event usually starts at about 7.30pm. I have been a few times, never arriving early and have been swept up Station Road to the high street where the procession is already in full swing. The societies come round more than once so nothing is missed.

        When you reach the high street you are come across a heaving crowd, loud music and colourfully dressed people, of both sexes and all ages, holding fire-lit torches streaming past. It can seem chaotic. It si difficult to move through the crowd and it is best to find a good spot as near to where you join the High Street as possible. It is also very difficult, if not impossible, to get into the pubs near the parade and it may be more relaxing to just enjoy the show.

        There are five Lewes societies (Borough, Cliffe, Commercial Square, South Street and Waterloo) that lead the parades that have associated nearby societies following them. They are dressed in traditional costumes (some may say fancy dress) that have included among others Red Indians, Mogul Warriors, Zulus and Vikings (I am not sure whether they stay the same each year). Following their Standard bearer and the society band, they parade the effigy (the enemy of the Bonfire) they will later burn on one of their (five) bonfires. Victims over the years have included Margaret Thatcher, George Bush II and Osama Bin Laden, anyone who has caused minor or major offence during the previous year.

        Eventually the parades finish and the processions wind off towards their bonfire. I have been three bonfire sites: Waterloo', which is well supported and often has an excellent fireworks display; Cliffe (which has moved from its rather cramped site since I last went to their bonfire) is also well supported and is the only one to charge an entrance fee. If you would be offended by the burning of Pope Paul V, it is perhaps best avoided. Lastly the Borough, high up on the downs, where on a cold night you can (and I have) freeze. You do however also get to see everyone else's firework displays. And the fireworks are impressive.

        To find a bonfire just follow the crowds or ask and you won't get lost. If you do get to go, you will experience what is a unique unforgettable evening, but there are certain considerations.

        The event can attract up to 80,000 people - it is said to be the country's biggest. It does get very crowded, and over recent years serious attempts have been made to reduce the number of incomers. It is not suitable for small children as they may be difficult to keep an eye on and possibly frightened.

        If you do go (not all of dooyoo at once!), the last train usually leaves Lewes around midnight. Have fun.

        More information on the event can be found here: http://www.lewesbonfirecouncil.org.uk/

        If this is familiar, you may have read it first on Ciao (where I used to be a member).

        Thanks for reading

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          07.11.2001 18:07
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          This year I made a silly mistake on bonfire night. I went to a firework display in Ravenscourt Park, in West London. It wasn't very good, really. The only moment of genuine entertainment came when the music that was accompanying the display broke (in the middle of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells). Normally, I go to Lewes, in East Sussex. For some reason, probably laziness, I decided to not do that this year, and instead go to a Guy Fawkes event much closer to where I live. Next year, I think I'll be going to Lewes again. 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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