Guy Fawkes celebrations may be off this year, but remember, remember: nowhere does bonfire better than Lewes.

This November 5th may be eerily devoid of all the usual attendant explosive bangs, pageantry and noise, but we can nonetheless reminiscence of Guy Fawkes glories past and ponder on those yet to come. To that end, the place to look to, unequivocally, is Lewes, East Sussex.

The pretty market town nestled in the South Downs is, for all other 364 days of the year, the relatively quiet home of a motley crew of Lewes natives and escaped-from-London arty types. But, on the November 5th, it becomes the legendarily transformed site of the best and most elaborate Bonfire Night in the country. The facades of the picturesque Georgian shop fronts are all boarded up as seven bonfire societies compete for the highest flames, and march through the streets carry burning crosses, banners, musical instruments or burning letters spelling out the initials of the society.


And then there are the guys: in recent years, astonishingly impressive effigies of Boris and a reclining Jacob Rees-Mogg; of Donald Trump riding a Bucking Bronco; of David Cameron with a pig; and of Alex Salmond have all been burned. Forget a simple sparklers and firework affair: to say that the annual event is anarchic is quite the understatement. In the past, some 80,000 people have turned out to watch the spectacle in a town that houses fewer than a quarter of that number.


And yet Lewes’ bonfire tradition is reasonably new (we’re talking relative to the actual Gunpowder Plot of 1605, here). Despite the fact that, in the year following Fawkes’ and his co-conspirators’ failed attempts on Parliament, an act entitled 'An Acte for a publique Thanksgiving to Almighty God ever year of the Fifth day of November' was passed, Lewes’ commemoration of it was random and given to lead to riots. Yet in the 1820s, groups who have come to be known as ‘Bonfire Boys’ began to celebrate with fireworks and blazes dotted about the town, and so rowdy had they become by the middle of the century that it took extra police presence called in from London to sort them out. It was after that intervention that the celebrations transformed into the sorts of processions we see today.

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We are very sad to announce that we, the Directors and Committee of Southover Bonfire Society, have taken the difficult decision to cancel our bonfire celebrations in Lewes on November 5th, 2020. Like many of our bonfire community in Lewes and across Sussex, we have looked at various options but ultimately, we are not prepared to compromise on the health and safety of our members, their families, our friends, supporters, and the public. We also don’t want to overburden our emergency services during this ongoing coronavirus pandemic. It’s very unlikely this dreadful situation will be over by November this year. With the potential threat of a second wave in the autumn, the Government guidelines and legislation are unlikely to change significantly with regard to social distancing, local lockdowns, and mass gatherings and events. In the meantime, we are determined to do all we can to get back to bonfire next year when we can celebrate this historic occasion in Southover Bonfire Society style. We look forward to our SBS members and our community’s help to make sure we can raise the funds needed to share with our various charities and to support our volunteers’ efforts to make the 5th fantastic. Advance the Fifth in 2021! #lewes #bonfire #southoverbonfiresociety Image courtesy of @cekingphoto

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There is, too, a rife ‘anti-popery’, stemming from the cult of the Lewes martyrs (seventeen protestants who were burned at the stake during the reign of Queen Mary I between 1555 and 1557), and in the past effigies of serving pontiffs have been added to the pyres. And yet, Lewes is fairly equal opportunities insofar as the figures it literally builds up to burn down. In 1981, Ian Paisley attended bonfire in Lewes and handed out anti-Catholic pamphlets. His reward? He was burned in effigy the following year.


Lewes Bonfire is, then, an often-controversial affair. But it speaks to the eccentricities and pageantry of this isle and, there is no denying, that it is an extraordinary thing to behold. To that end, do pay a visit to a couple of the Instagram accounts of the societies (do also be sure to check out #lewesbonfire). We’re not promising that they are the most regularly or most efficiently run accounts, but they do give a glimpse into an annual night to remember. And boy do we want to remember it this year. @Southoverbonfiresociety and @lewesboroughbonfire: until next year, you’re our heroes.

By Nancy Alsop
October 2020

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