Friday, 11 November 2016

Lewes Remembers the 5th of November

I had every intention of posting this article earlier. Last weekend would have been particularly apt, seeing as the Lewes November 5th celebrations are the topic of this post, which is really a follow-on from the two-part article about Lewes, which I published back in January. The post kicks off with some background information regarding the origins of Bonfire in Lewes and explains some of the traditions surrounding it. The article then goes on to describe my own personal experience of November 5th in Lewes.

Lewes Bonfire or Bonfire, for short, describes a set of celebrations held in the town of Lewes, Sussex that constitute the United Kingdom's largest and most famous Bonfire Night festivities,  with Lewes being called the "bonfire capital of the world."

Lewes is home to the largest and most celebrated of the festivities in the Sussex bonfire tradition. There are seven societies putting on five separate parades and firework displays on the 5th, and this can mean 3,000 people taking part in the celebrations, and up to 80,000 spectators attending in the small market town which has a permanent population of just under 16,000 people.

The event is organised by the local bonfire societies, under the auspices of the Lewes Bonfire Council.  Six of  Lewes's seven Bonfire Societies hold their celebrations on the same night (5th November, or when the Fifth is on a Sunday, 4th November). The remaining society, Nevill Juvenile, holds its night on a Saturday a couple of weeks before the Fifth.

Each Society has something different to offer. Nevill Juvenile Bonfire Society, for instance, is specifically for children. South Street used to be a juvenile society too, but over the years has changed into an adult one. Waterloo, while an adult society, is perhaps more family-oriented than some others, while the Cliffe, Commercial Square and Lewes Borough societies cling proudly to their respective ancient traditions.
On November 5th, a number of large effigies are drawn though the streets. Effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, who became head of the Roman Catholic Church in 1605, feature every year. In addition, each of the five main local societies creates a topical "tableau" (usually, but not always, representing a human figure or figures), and the Cliffe Society displays on pikes the heads (also in effigy) of its current "Enemies of Bonfire", who range from nationally reviled figures to local officials who have attempted to place restrictions on the event. Restrictions are generally ignored by the Societies.

As well as the effigies, 17 burning crosses are carried in procession, through the town in memory of 17 Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake in Lewes for their faith, during the reign of Queen Mary. The various Bonfire Societies congregate at the War Memorial in the centre of town, where a wreath-laying ceremony takes place as an act of Remembrance for the war dead of Lewes. Afterwards each society marches to its own fire site on the edge of the town, where there a large bonfire and firework display takes place and the various effigies are burned.

Whilst marching nearly all members carry torches, some ignite and drop bangers, locally known as "rookies", (short for rook scarers), and some carry the burning crosses, banners, musical instruments or burning letters spelling out the initials of the society. Many of the marchers wear "smuggler uniforms" (striped jumpers, white trousers, black boots and optional red hats), with each society having a different coloured jumper. Members have to make or buy their own costumes. Torch-making is a time-consuming process and begins in September, or even earlier, with many society members joining in.
A flaming tar barrel is also thrown into the river Ouse; this is said to symbolise the throwing of the magistrates into the river after they read the Riot Act to the bonfire boys in 1847, but may also be an echo of ancient Samhain traditions. Up to 80,000 people have been known to attend this local spectacle, coming from all over the South and sometimes further afield.

Despite being just an hour’s drive away from Lewes, for a number of reasons I have only attended its famous November 5th celebrations on one occasion. That was back in 1987, when two companions and I caught the train to Lewes in order to experience the Sussex town’s bonfire activities for ourselves. Instead of the more usual route via Redhill, we decided to travel via St Leonards, as one of our number was boarding the train at Tunbridge Wells.

After changing trains at St Leonard’s, our journey took us into Eastbourne before heading west towards Lewes. The journey from Polegate onwards is quite spectacular, as the railway follows a natural gap in the South Downs. The downs form an impressive and slightly foreboding backdrop to the scenery, and as we journeyed on through such delightful stations as Berwick and Glynde the late autumn sunshine and a cloudless sky only added to the beauty of the surrounding countryside.

Arriving in Lewes just after midday, we made straight for the Royal Oak; then a stylishly decorated Beards pub, situated at the top of Station Street. From here we went on to the Brewers Arms, an imposing red-brick pub originally built for the former Croydon brewers Page & Overton, as the moulded brickwork plaques at the entrance still testify.

The next port of call was the Lewes Arms where we were surprised to witness a group dressed as cavaliers sitting drinking at the bar. They were from one of the local bonfire societies, and were the first of many such groups of people in fancy dress that we were to encounter that day.

Finally, we ended up in the Black Horse, where we encountered a substantial number of revellers dressed as vikings. The "Beards" ales in this particular pub were especially fine, and it was a shame when time was finally called. Nevertheless we departed with good grace and headed off back towards the centre of town in search of some more solid nourishment.

As I mentioned earlier, that particular November 5th was a fine late autumn day, without a cloud in the sky and not a breath of wind either. Such days however invariably lead to cold and frosty nights, and as we left the Black Horse the air had a distinct chill to it, giving one the feeling that it would not be long before temperatures started to drop very rapidly. As we approached the brow of the steep School Hill that leads down to the River Ouse, we were rewarded by the sight of Harvey’s Brewery set against the backdrop of the South Downs. Steam from the brewery was rising vertically into the still cold air, and as we descended the hill the sun was already starting to sink in the sky, before finally disappearing behind the hills away to our left. You could feel it getting colder and see the mist beginning to rise from the river as we approached the Cliffe area of Lewes, and we were all glad that we had come warmly dressed and well wrapped up against the cold.

We found a restaurant at the far end of Cliffe High Street, passing Harvey’s Brewery on our way down and noticing, with some amusement, the banner strung across the street proclaiming "No Popery Here!"

They take Bonfire night very seriously in this part of Lewes, and of the five Bonfire Societies Cliffe is probably the most anti-papal of them all. The reason for the anti-Catholic feeling pre-dates Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators by over a century. It arises from the time when, during the reign of Queen Mary, 17 Protestant martyrs were burnt at the stake in Lewes for their faith. This hatred for Rome and its church later found a new refuge following the discovery of the gunpowder plot, and numerous "Bonfire Societies" can now be found in Lewes, as well as many of the surrounding villages. The anti-papal theme is repeated in the "Bonfire Prayers" - the last verse of which reads:

"A penny loaf to feed old Pope,
A farthing o' cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him!
Burn him in a tub of tar,
Burn him like a blazing star,
Burn his body from his head,
Then we'll say old Pope is dead!
Hip, hip hoo-r-r-ray."

The bonfire societies meet throughout the year, holding various fund-raising activities to ensure both a spectacular display of fireworks on the night and also to provide money towards the costs of the elaborate costumes their members wear as part of the celebrations. Bonfire Night in Lewes itself is always celebrated on the 5th of November, except when the 5th occurs on a Sunday. When that happens, the festivities are held on the preceding Saturday instead. By tradition, Bonfire Night celebrations in the surrounding villages take place either side of November 5th, so as not to detract from the main event in Lewes, and also to allow members of other societies to visit, or take part in the town's celebrations. Bonfire night in the villages is usually celebrated on a Saturday, unless, of course it happens to fall on the 5th November.

I personally find it very re-assuring in these changing times that such time-honoured traditions not only still take place, but if anything are growing in their popularity and appeal. Long may this continue!

That particular November 5th, my companions and I finished our meal and then wandered back into town. We decided that by purchasing some fireworks we would be entering into the spirit of things, and consequently bought several boxes of bangers each, for later on. We had noticed that many shop windows had already been boarded up, and that workmen were busy attending to others. We later learnt that this was a public safety measure rather than a fear that rioting would break out. More to our dismay though was the discovery that most of the towns' pubs would either be shut, or “open to regulars only”.

The fear of public disorder goes back to the last century, when events often did get out of hand. Pitched battles were fought in the streets, on several occasions, between the police and some of the more high-spirited "bonfire boys". According to contemporary sources, "great rioting" occurred in 1838, whilst in 1847 "170 of the principal tradesmen and other respectable inhabitants" were summoned to be sworn in as special constables. On their way to a meeting on the night of November 4th they were attacked by Bonfire Boys in the High Street. The following night, the riot act was read by Lord Chichester from the steps of County Hall. In those days, bonfires were actually lit in the town’s streets, so one can imagine the chaos as well as the threat to life, limb and property in general. In these more "enlightened times" the bonfires and firework displays are properly organised, and take place in open fields away from the town centre.

To kill some time, we wandered down to the river and amused ourselves by letting off several of our bangers in a deserted car park. Unfortunately our activities attracted the attention of the local constabulary, and we were told by a couple of police officers, in no uncertain terms, that it was an offence to discharge fireworks in a public place. Furthermore, unless we wished to spend bonfire night in the cells, we were to refrain from further such activities!

Feeling suitably chastened, we adjourned to a nearby cafe, where over a warming and very welcome cup of coffee we waited for the festivities to begin. One tradition, that has survived to this day, is that of hurling a blazing tar barrel into the River Ouse. In former times, lighted tar barrels were rolled along the High Street and down School Hill, but this practice has now been outlawed by the authorities. Instead, the lighted barrels are now pulled along on sturdy metal carts.
After witnessing the blazing tar barrel being quenched by the waters of the Ouse, we made our way up the hill to the War Memorial, with the aim of getting a good vantage point. It is to this point that processions from each of the town's Bonfire Societies congregate, before marching off to their own individual events. According to the 1992 programme for Cliffe Bonfire Society, the following activities were scheduled to take place that year:

"At the Fire the Archbishop of Cliffe will deliver his annual address, specially composed for the occasion, during which high-flying fireworks will soar above the heads of the clergy. At around half-past nine o'clock effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V will be ceremoniously destroyed by means of fireworks. Also giant heads of personages deemed by the Society to be this year's "Enemies of Bonfire" will be similarly exploded by a Mammoth Aerial Firework Display, The famous Cliffe Bonfire Society tableau of mammoth proportions, built with an expertise mastered only by the firework experts of the Cliffe, will be detonated in an Extravagant Pyrotechnical Finale."

Exciting stuff! The programme also prints a warning to the authorities that "Bonfire is a force to be reckoned with", and that the societies will not tolerate attempts by the police and other authorities to "dilute the event into a tame carnival", this action coming under the guise of "public safety". It is hardly surprising then that past "Enemies of Bonfire" have included the Chief Constable of Sussex and prominent local politicians.

Prior to the start of the processions, we somehow found ourselves in the bar of the White Hart, an ancient old inn directly opposite the law courts. I remember convincing the barman that we were staying the night and thus qualified as “residents”, otherwise we would not have been served. It was a worthwhile deception though, as the Harvey’s Old was very welcoming on such a cold winter's night. Despite the good condition of the beer, we only stayed for the one as we did not want to miss the celebrations that would shortly be taking place outside.

Finding a suitable place to stand, opposite the war memorial and wrapped warmly against the cold, we watched procession after procession arriving to pay their respects to the town's war dead. The fact that November 5th is so close to Armistice Day means that the dead of two world wars are also commemorated, as well as the Protestant Martyrs of the 16th Century.

After the two minute silence and the Last Post, the various bonfire societies marched off to hold their own respective events. Watching them march off only served to remind us of how cold we were, so we nipped into the nearby County Hotel where the Gales HSB was very welcome indeed, as was the bar's central heating. We were however, advised against taking our drinks outside by a friendly member of the hotel staff. The police apparently take a dim view of people carrying beer glasses at the event, (full or otherwise), so given our previous brush with the law we decided to stay put and  enjoy the warmth of the hotel bar instead.

Shortly after it was time to leave. Rail journeys between Lewes and Tonbridge involve quite a roundabout route, following the truncation  of the direct line at Uckfield in 1969. This coupled with the closure in 1985 of the line between Tunbridge Wells and Eridge means that there is no longer a direct route between the two towns. The upshot of all this was that we had to catch the half eight train from Lewes in order to guarantee making our connection for Tonbridge at Redhill.

The station was absolutely heaving when we arrived; British Rail having lain on additional trains in order to cope with the night's huge influx of visitors. I don't remember much about the journey home, but I do remember having a king-sized hangover the next day.

This year (2016), there were no trains running into Lewes, due to the long running dispute between Train Operator, Southern and members of the RMT Union protesting over the changing role of guards on the train. This would undoubtedly have had an adverse effect on numbers attending the famous celebrations, but whether this was a good thing as far as the Bonfire Societies were concerned, remains to be seen.

If you do get the chance to attend next year’s Bonfire Celebrations, I can strongly recommend it. Assuming the rail dispute is settled, then travelling by train is by far and away the best option. If you do choose to drive, you will have to leave your car some distance away from the town centre, as the streets are closed to traffic. You will then have to walk into Lewes.

A better bet is to book a hotel or B&B room for the night. That way you can stay until the end, and also combine your stay with a look around this most attractive East Sussex town.

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Matt said...

"I personally find it very re-assuring in these changing times that such time-honoured traditions not only still take place, but if anything are growing in their popularity and appeal. Long may this continue!"

I celebrate Bonfire Night, as I suspect most people do, as a sort of winter festival, but wish we - and specifically Lewes with their "No Popery!" stuff - could put the religious disputes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries behind us.

As a Catholic, I have no desire to march round the streets with an anti-Protestant banner before burning an effigy of Henry VIII in honour of the English Martyrs Thomas More and John Fisher.

Paul Bailey said...

I understand what you are saying here Matt, and I suppose for a non-religious person like me, it’s easy to miss the fact that some may be offended by these events.

With the exception of Northern Ireland I would say that the “religious disputes of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” have, by and large, been put behind us. The anti-papal theme of the Lewes Bonfire celebrations, whilst reflecting events of those times, is not directed at modern day Catholics; although I do appreciate some might see it this way.

Your reference to burning an effigy of Henry VIII might not be a bad thing. Looting, and then wantonly destroying centuries of monastic tradition in England, certainly ranks as a massive crime in my book!

Stanley Blenkinsop said...

My son who is at Uni just up the road at Brighton popped along for his second visit to the Bonfire night and he had another great time.
It's one of those many traditional events that happen all over the country throughout the year that have been going on for a very long time and help make our country such a wonderful place to live in.
It's only as you get older that you begin to appreciate their significance and also one's own brief sojourn in history.
Thanks for a wonderfully evocative post Paul - I could almost feel the chill descending as you spotted the brewery.
Well done.

Paul Bailey said...

Sorry for the late reply, Stanley. Glad you enjoyed the post. Some things stick in your mind, and that feeling as the light began to fade, and the chill descended, set against the backdrop of Harvey’s brewery, remains embedded in my memory.

Please to hear that your son enjoyed his experience of Lewes Bonfire Night. An overnight stay in the town, on November 5th, remains high on my “must do” list.