As we step outside we are greeted with the cold, crisp November air- an air tingling with anticipation. We make our way through campus to the station dressed in coats, hats, scarves, gloves and a million pairs of socks; our faces the only parts of our bodies not shielded from the frosty evening. As first years getting the train to Lewes on 5th November for the first time ever, we are buzzing with excitement at what we are about to witness.
The bonfire celebrations at Lewes are known for being the largest in the world as my flatmates and I found out for ourselves last year. If you’ve been to Lewes in the daytime you might think “That sleepy little village looks really boring- why is everyone raving about it?” Well it obviously sleeps all year round to have enough energy for the flame-filled festivities on 5th November.
It all starts with the processions as the different bonfire societies parade their effigies through the streets along with burning crosses and torches. While the sight of a burning cross did spark a little fear and created a horrendous image of the KKK in my mind, the red glow created a mesmerising atmosphere (and kept us warm while they walked past too!)
There are seven Lewes bonfire societies, the oldest ones are Cliffe and Lewes Borough which were both founded in 1853 and the newest is Southover which started in 2005. Each society has their own motto and their own colours to wear and there is a fair amount of competition between them to have the best effigies and display. As they march through the streets they collect donations from the onlookers to go towards funding their bonfire for the following year.
After the procession it’s time for the fireworks and bonfires which happen in different locations depending on what society you go and see. You do have to buy tickets for each bonfire but seeing a gigantic Vladimir Putin in a lime green Borat mankini being set alight is well worth it. Traditionally a Guy is burnt in order to remember how Guy Fawkes failed in his plot to blow up parliament in 1605 but in Lewes, as well a burning a Guy and the Pope, there are many different effigies which vary from year to year but always depict well-known people from politics or popular culture. Personally I feel like this year they should burn the entire Kardashian family (effigies only of course) but that’s just my opinion.
The fireworks are just as spectacular as the bonfires, bringing the black sky to life with explosions of bright, colourful sparkles and filling the night with the hisses, screeches and bangs of Catherine Wheels and rockets. Last year we went to Cliffe’s display where each burst of light eerily illuminated the chalk cliff behind them.
From my experience there are only two downsides to the Lewes fireworks. Firstly the cold- I get cold easily anyway but standing around outside for hours in the November night your feet do start to lose all sensation and your nose does turn very red. The other less appealing aspect is the crowds. According to the Lewes Bonfire website, up to 80,000 people line the streets so as you can imagine it gets rather cramped. Not to mention the trains are absolutely heaving and queueing for the train home at the end was not a fun experience.
Despite the crowds and the cold I am definitely going back to Lewes for bonfire night this year and would highly recommend that you do too. Take a flask of your favourite hot drink and bring some snacks as there are only a few places open to sell refreshments. Make sure you’ve got a good camera because you will want to capture every moment of this fiery night of spectacular colour. While there is undoubtedly an indescribable childlike excitement in writing your name in the air with a sparkler (aka magic wand) I would say that the Lewes celebrations are definitely filled with enough enchantment to at least save the sparkler until you get back from this unique extravaganza.
For more information about Lewes bonfire night, including the full history of the celebrations there, visit their website: http://www.lewesbonfirecelebrations.com/
Image by Dominic Alves