Last Monday, HEKKTA decided to do something a little different for Guy Fawkes night than the usual damp squib of an extortionate fireworks display. On mass, HEKKTA went to Lewes to be spectator to one of the biggest bonfire events in the world.
With an average of 80,000 people attending the spectacle in a town with a population of under 16,000,the sleepy town of Lewes becomes a different beast on November 5th of each year. If England were to have a Day of the Dead equivalent, the famous Mexican festival, then it would look something like this.
It’s important to get there early, as they stop trains running after 4:30 in order to deter too many people from coming. As we walk out of the Lewes train station, situated in the middle of the town, we walk up the quaint, little side streets with pubs full to the brim of drinkers in dress.
With absolutely no warning, somebody drops a firecracker about a metre away from us as we walk. The bang enduces screams, shouts then laughter, but it was at that moment that we realised that the health & safety brigade certainly hadn’t been invited to this event.
Finding a slightly quiter pub than the overflowing ones in the centre, we warmed our throats for the evening ahead. Frequent explosions can be heard all over the town, and as darkness descends, you begin to see the orange glow of torches light up the night.
The first procession is a sort of kid friendly one, if you like. There are still 5 year old children walking round with huge torches the size of themselves on fire, but in comparison to the main event, this is nothing more than a bit of fun.
Everyone is dressed in different outifts, from Tudor dress to military uniforms, to priests all the way to just bizarre, witch-like outfits. But one thing you cannot knock is the effort.
Having watched much of the first procession, we began to think that the ‘famous Lewes bonfire night’ was all a bit of a fuss over nothing. Yeh they carried around a bit of fire; yes it was pretty cool, but worth the trip? Debatable.
Piling into another pub on the main road as the cold set in, we didn’t realise the prime location we had stumbled upon. Tucking into our pints, the street was suddenly filled with fire and noise. This is when we realised that the previous procession was simply a small starter.
Enormous burning effigies of Boris Johnson and Theresa May are wheeled through the streets, while deafening fireworks are set off around a sea of walking feet, completely oblivious to the ridiculous danger everybody around is in. Bits of burning ember are spat in the crowds of spectators, who after a couple of pints, are revelling in delight at having huge flames and sparks showered all over them.
By this point spectators have all got a hold of some fire paraphernalia of some sort, whether it be fire torches or bangers or sparklers. The sheer size of the occasion really cannot be underestimated. For a town the size of Lewes, it really is a remarkable event and we were certainly not disappointed.
Although throughout the whole event, you can’t help feeling that this old traditional festival only has a few more years left in it before health & safety deem it too dangerous. The huge swarms of police and medics around the town are almost indicative of this. But for the love of this historic occasion, we’re sure that the people of Lewes will not allow this to happen. Imagine what their protests would look like!
So why do they celebrate this with such aplomb each year?
It dates back to the Protestant Reformation in which a group of people split from the Catholic church, criticising aspects of it. This rise in Protestant values and anti-Catholic sentiment was very prevalent in places like Lewes, and puritans would give sermons against the Pope and Rome. There was also burning of important Catholic figures in effigies. The rise in popular protest over the Catholic church is what began the yearly event; although celebrated on November 5th, the Lewes Bonfire Night is not actually linked to Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot.
More specifically, it is celebrated to commemorate the 17 Protestant martyrs, who were burned at the stake for their beliefs – this is why the burning crosses are carried through the town.
You certainly wouldn’t be the only one that felt uneasy throughout the event; it is impossible not do draw similarities to Hot Fuzz and ‘the greater good’ as you see these priests walking through a quaint English town with huge, burning torches. But when you ease into the event, it is something HEKKTA recommends everyone to visit at some point in their lives.