“Remember, remember, the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”
So goes the nursery rhyme which has been recited among children and adults alike since the year 1605. In New Zealand we always name the date Guy Fawkes; in England, Bonfire Night. Whatever the name, the date never changes, nor does the reason for celebration. It is an occasion to commemorate the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when Guy Fawkes was caught with a lantern beneath the Houses of Parliament, guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder which were about to blow the place to smithereens.
In January of the following year, at the first sitting of parliament since the plot, it was agreed that the fifth of November should be a date to remember the disastrous incident that almost was. The Fifth of November was henceforth a mandatory part of British life until 1859. Practices include fireworks displays, bonfires and processions with effigies of Guy Fawkes himself, which is inevitably burnt at some point of the night. The intensity of celebration and tradition varies from place to place, but nowhere will you find more rigorous or famous Bonfire Night rituals than in the small town of Lewes, East Sussex.
On this day every year, the ordinarily sleepy town transforms itself, creating scenes reminiscent of pagan worship; a ritual the likes of which you’ve never witnessed. I’ve been to Lewes once before, a lovely late summer weekend two years back, and the town was the sweetest place I’d ever been. Just for a bit of context, this is what to typically expect from Lewes... Beautifully preserved Georgian and Tudor buildings line the streets, still serving as houses and shops; a Castle lies in beautiful ruin; rolling green pastures fill the background every which way you look.
It’s a place that makes it easy to imagine what England must have looked like some 300 years ago. On the Fifth of November however, it’s as if a portal opens and we are actually given a glimpse. Lewes has been the pilgrim site of the ultimate Bonfire Night celebrations for the last 400+ years, and it seems the night's events have hardly changed in this time. It’s something I wanted to attend ever since first hearing about it, and this weekend my wish came true.
Bonfire societies from all around the country gather in Lewes to take part in a massive procession. They eventually each branch off to their own bonfire site where a massive fire is lit, effigies of Guy Fawkes (or Trump and Kim Jong Un, if it's 2017) are burnt and impressive fireworks displays light up the skies.
Fire fills the streets, crowds line them. There is virtually no crowd control, no barriers to contain crowds or separate them from the marchers. Bangs are constant and unexpected, their source often going unnoticed. Flashes and fire and smoke and yells fill the air. No one quite knows what on earth is happening, but everyone revels in the atmosphere all the same, an atmosphere more alive than any I’ve ever been a part of.
It is absolute carnage, but the best possible kind. Ages of those in the procession range from babies carried in slings over their mother’s shoulders and smiling children wearing earmuffs, to teenagers, adults and the elderly. Costumes incorporate every culture, time period and group under the sun, and a story of reason behind each and everyone one: Zulu warriors, Native American chieftains, Bedouin desert nomads, Romans in chariots, Cowboys, British Redcoats, Suffragettes, Pirates, Day of the Dead skeletal figures, Tudor England courtiers, World War army personnel, Medieval Catholic monks and of course all the official striped jerseys of the various Bonfire Societies.
I could try (but I would fail) to sum up the experience I had last night. It was mayhem, it was exhilarating, it was confusing, it was wonderful, it was energy personified. My ears are still ringing and my eyes are still burning today but my god, I’ve never experienced anything like it. Everyone should add this one to their bucket list! Remember, remember, the Fifth of November. And Remember it in Lewes!