Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Remember remember the fifth of November

all photos keith d hillman

Remember remember
the fifth of November,
gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason
why gunpowder, treason,
should ever be forgot

I’ve just returned from Lewes Bonfire night. I smell of smoke and my ears are ringing from the explosions of firecrackers. My mind is still whirling with images and sounds of this fantastic celebration.


The biggest night of the year in England is Guy Fawkes Night on the fifth of November each year. Most towns and villages have their own societies which ensure that the country is ablaze with bonfires, fireworks, torchlight processions and fancy dress on this special night. It marks the uncovering of the Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators loaded the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with explosives in a failed attempt to blow them up.

That was in 1605. Tonight, 402 years later, I was one of 60.000 people crowded into the narrow streets of the nearby market town of Lewes, which hosts the biggest Bonfire Night event in England.

Also on this day, the town commemorates the burning at the stake of 17 protestant martyrs outside the Star Inn during the Marian Persecutions of 1555 - 1507. 17 burning crosses are carried through the town to the memorial where prayers are said for the departed souls. Each year an effigy of the Pope is carried aloft then burned.

The event

The day started with the ear splitting boom of a maroon at dawn. During the day, tension mounted in expectation of the festivities to come.

Whilst most places have one Bonfire Society, Lewes boasts no less than seven! They all have their own names, identities and colourful hooped jumper ‘uniforms’. Each of them creates their own tableau which are massive works of art and are often made behind closed doors by a handful of people prior to the event. This skilled work is often carried out by family members who have handed down the task down from generation to generation. The main ones are of Guy Fawkes himself and of course, the Pope. Many are of topical characters who the locals feel deserved be burned at the end of the evening, and others are based on topics currently in the news for whatever reason. In 2001 Osama bin Laden was featured attracting much attention from the national press. President Bush was also featured one year sitting astride a missile. This year the biggest was a 20 feet high model of the Beatles in recognition of the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper. Another was a giant cigarette on which the words ’Smoking gone - alcohol next’. One society also carried pikes on which were fixed the heads of the Enemies of the Bonfire. These are nationally reviled figures and local officials who over the years have tried unsuccessfully to stop the annual celebration.

During the evening there were several processions, the biggest of which was the Grand Procession in which all the Lewes Societies join forces with those from other local towns and villages. It took three and a half hours to pass by. Thousands of flaming torches were held aloft and the street reverberated to the sound of one marching band after another. The fancy dress worn by the members was truly breathtaking. Native Indians in full feathered headgear, Zulu warriors and Tudor ladies to name but a few. They stopped at the War Memorial for prayers then each society marched in different directions to their own bonfire and fireworks site.

The most poignant moment was a tribute to the fallen of the two great wars and the Falkland campaign.. Veterans paraded along, some in wheelchairs pushed by young people wearing WW2 uniforms. At the War Memorial 4 enormous red poppies were held high along with a flaming banner bearing the words 'Less We Forget' as the last post played and the crowd was invited to join in with singing Abide With Me.

One of the highlights of the night was the traditional rolling of a flaming tar barrel down the steep main street from where it was tossed into the river Ouse symbolising the throwing into the water of the magistrates after they read the Riot Act to the Bonfire Societies in 1847.
So there you have it. An orgy of bad taste, history and unadulterated fun. The night when the PC brigade are put in their place and a finger firmly raised to all those who continue to try to have it stopped. Long may it continue.

A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o' cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.

And finally …

I have never seen such an enormous police presence. Hundreds of them in yellow jackets and all wearing protective goggles. Crowd control is clearly a problem when so many people congregate in one small place and they did a fantastic job, particularly after the event when a sea of folk headed down the steep main street toward the railway station. As all the approach roads to Lewes had been closed for most of the day, the only way in and out was by the trains which ran in all directions every few minutes. At the station they carried out strict controls at the entrances to the platforms. The event went off without a single incident, and at all times the police were good humoured and contributed in no small way to the success of the evening.
click here to see more photos of Lewes bonfire celebrations


  1. Wow! This is fascinating! I'm so glad you commented on my blog, leading me to yours. I wonder, do the poets and the artists honor this day, too? Is this tremendous day the setting for many novels? Poems? I am ashamed to say, I did not know much at all about this. I have heard of Guy Fawkes day, but now I am intrigued!

  2. Jillypoet
    English literature and art is littered with work about Guy Fawkes and his co-conspiritors. And of course the movie 'V for Vendetta' is a modern take on the gunpowder plot.

  3. Once again you have managed to catch the importance of Guy Fawkes night and what it means to all of you and the fun you were able to have. Great piece.

  4. I have heard of this and was sad that I missed it real-time during my stay in England, you have portrayed it well here...thanks for sharing such an unforgettable event.

  5. Keith what a great story. Here in NZ we have Guy Fawkes. But apart from some fireworks there is nothing going on. I love everything around it the parade and bonfires. Reminds me of Carnaval in Holland that's the time when we have parades and when I was youn on the last day at 12 o'clock we used to burn a puppet
    on the market signaling the end of the carnaval. Oh I miss all this culture.

  6. I can see why this event was unforgettable. I had no idea how detailed of a celebration it was. From your vivid descriptions, I felt as if I were there.

    It's hard to believe how orderly something so detailed can be, especially involving fire. Sounds fun and amazing! I remember that poem too...Thanks for commenting on my blog so I could find you as well.
    My husband's gonna love this!

  7. What a delightful read. Of Scottish decent, my father, often spoke of Guy Fawkes as we celebrated Halloween here in Canada. However I never quite computed the history of it! Great post! Thanks

    Peace Giggles

  8. I think Guy Fawkes day must be almost entirely unknown here. I've only heard of it in passing. The fascinating thing for me to see though was the parade of burning crosses in the celebration that clearly have a different meaning from the U.S. burning cross. Great pictures. All so moody and conveying the excitement of the crowd.

  9. Hey there sir you made a little girl smile ear from ear. Read more on my blog. Thanks

  10. Keith, thanks for all the well wishes, I am feeling better and wanted to stop by to say hello, and I will be catching up with all you've done this weekend. ((((hugs))))) thanks so much hun

  11. Five-O-Matic is fascinated by your photos.


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