Lewes by day is a picturesque historic town. The High Street climbs up the hill edged by a chocolate box confection of shops and houses.

Its citizens, or Lewesians as they are properly called, go about their respectable business just a one hour commute away from London. Once a year however, on Bonfire night, they go collectively a bit nuts. Of courseGuy Fawkes Night is a bit crazy all over the country with its combination of bonfires and fireworks and a tenuous historical connection to the celebrated Gunpowder Plot of 1605. This as you recall is when Mr Fawkes and his crew, inprotest at the treatment Catholics in the country, attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

“Good for you, mate. Better luck next time!” was not the reaction. Instead a national day of thanksgiving for the foiled conspiracy wasdeclared and ever since then it has steadily settled into an annual fixture, albeit with stiff competition from Halloween, which also quite paganly tries to lightup the darkness and celebrate the dead.

In Lewes, for some reason best known to themselves, Bonfire night got serious.


Any excuse for a party in wintertime is welcome, and if it’s all a bit of innocent and harmless fun who is to complain. But there are some undertones to the Lewes night which feel a little bit weird and hard to fathom on first viewing, although I do not doubt the impressiveness of the spectacle.

The town has 7 bonfire societies, which parade behind flaming torches through the streets, joined by societies from neighbouring Sussexvillages. These days they start with a respectful nod towards the war memorial before getting down to the more raucous parade which includes several effigies whichpoke fun at the great and the good. David Cameron got lampooned this year with a naked statue with complimentary pig’s head. Jeremy Clarkson was also trundleddown the streets in a skip, and Sepp Blatter was pilloried for his role in the fiasco that is Fifa.


Each society, with subscripted memberships, walks through the streets, casually displaying their fearlessness of the recklessly strewn firecrackers, bangers, wheeled braziers and signal flares. The air is perfumed with paraffin and smoke billows down the streets. Each bonfire group marches behind a banner and while casual marchers wear hooped jumpers, the more advanced sport fancy dress which relates to some historic connection the society has to a historic idea. There is a group called the Tudors, for instance, another link themselves to Waterloo.

So far, so normal. But then there are the Romans, and the Native Americans resplendent with feathery headdresses, and the French revolutionaries, and most troublingly of all, the Zulus. Chants of “Racist” echoed down the streets as they walked past, but it seems that the unacceptable nature of “blacking up”has not quite permeated the leadership of that society. Even fancy dress has its limits these days. Mind you, I saw a Darth Vadar and he was pretty evil.

I was told that Lewes is proud of its cussidly, independent streak. An Anti-Authoritarian stance which loudly declares “No-one tells us what to do”.Especially not the police, who were made “Enemies of the Bonfire” when they and the Local Council tried to muscle in with Health and Safety concerns in 1992. These days the police are left to lurk in the side streets keeping a respectful but watchful distance. Self-regulating, the bonfire societies keep order, and they raise money for 6 separate bonfires and bonfire displays dotted about the town which take place after the parade.

These include a bizarre ritual in which leaders of the bonfire societies, dressed as bishops, stand on a dais and get pelted with bangers and firecrackers before the bonfire is lit and the fireworks are launched into the night sky to the familiar accompanying “oohs” and “aahs”.


As the last bang booms into the distance, the crowds disperse, to drink and party through the night.

I love a bit of anarchy and mayhem myself, and I impressed by the spectacle, I was still disquieted by the sight of crowds under the cover of darkness marching behind flaming crosses and torches. The resonances of lynch mobs down the ages was hard to ignore.

Once the spectators have gone home, the societies linger around their respective bonfires and hold “prayers”.

“You must, if you get the chance try and see the prayers”,said a Lewes local and accomplished goldsmith. I asked him to describe why, and we talked of quasi-religious, qausi-masonic, quasi-national front ideology and whether this was at play here and was dangerous and susceptible to outside political influence.

“No. it’s not that. It’s just that they’re very ….odd”.

Perhaps I’ll find out more when I go again to enjoy a very particular and peculiar night out.
Working... Please wait