November 5th 2005 was the 400th anniversary of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot – when Catholic extremist had a go at blowing up Westminster (now part of London, in England) in an attempt to kill James I, but were thwarted before the big bang. Strange as it may seem, the denizens of Albion celebrate this non-event.
As a baptised but (col)lapsed catholic, and an Irishmen too, I felt it my duty to partake in the madness, and find out what all thisfine anti-popery was about. It was with a charabanc full of intrepid bonfire hunters that I arrived in Lewes, Sussex, where traditional ‘celebrations’ are held to commemorate both the Gunpowder plot and 17 Protestant martyrs who were burnt at the stake in the town during the Marian persecutions of 1555-1557. Every year the town goes mad – tar barrel racing, and torchlit parades, that class of carry-on. There’s an air of anti-authoritism here too – burn the pope, yes, but any member of the government that raises the ire of the bonfire societies gets torched. Or at least an effigy does. The high street is packed with people, young and old, for the early parades, where dozens of bonfire societies march in bizarre costumes. Sinister foxes, classic American cowboys and Iindians, World War I soldiers, firemen, Ghengish Khan, Death (wielding a scyth) and Tudor characters pass us by, all carrying flaming torches. The smokes stings our eyes, and bangers are exploding everywhere.
Read more about Lewes Bonfire Night ».
The photos below are from the later part of the night – from the official bonfire of the Cliffe Bonfire Society and the ‘late’ parade – one that goes on in the streets after all the visitors have left. I’ve posted these first as they came out better than the official parade photographs – mainly due to the smaller crowd. I’ll post more photographs as I process them, as well as links to high-resolution versions.
The Cliffe bonfire had a garden shed on the top, covered in slogans (‘fuck the pope’ etc.), and alongside were massive effigies of Home Secretary (with an ‘ID’ stamp in his hand, poised to stamp someone’s arse), the pope and the Gunpowder Plot conspirators – all of which were, well, blown up – completely using fireworks, launched from inside the sculptures.
While this was going on, three men dressed as the pope and clergymen stood on a platform, surrounded by flaming crucifixes, while the crowd launched fireworks at them. These men, presumably, were volunteers. Or they had done, terrible, terrible things. They stood there for a good half-hour, almost being set on fire. After the chaos died down, and people had sat by the fire for a while, it was time for the late parade – where the members of the bonfire societies can go crazy on the streets, now that those of a gentler disposition have left Lewes. Some of had earplugs in – firecrackers were going off around our feet, and the streets were full of orange paper from inside the bangers. We left at 1:30am, and the noises and flames were only showing the barest signs of abating.
“In what was perhaps Britain’s last great outpouring of historical religious hatred before the Government’s new Bill outlaws it, the nation last night burnt thousands of effigies of a Catholic terrorist, and at least one John Prescott. The Guys were traditional, the John was not. Not yet, anyway.”
The Independent »
“On the night itself the societies march through the steep streets of Lewes carrying paraffin-soaked torches and crosses and parading effigies of Guy Fawkes, the Pope of 1605, and other “enemies of the bonfire”. The marchers wear fabulous costumes – Vikings, Zulus (faces blacked up), Elizabethans and Red Indians and are trailed by noisy marching bands. Bonfire Boys run with burning tar barrels to Cliffe Bridge where they toss them, flaming, into the River Ouse. Later the societies reconvene at sites around the town to light mountainous bonfires. Members dressed as bishops conduct bonfire prayers and repeatedly ask the crowd: “What’ll we do with him?”. The answer, of course, is “Burn him!” at which point the popes and Guy Fawkes go up in flames and the firework displays begin.”
Financial Times: No popes or parking attendants »
Bonfire Group on flickr »
The Cliffe Bonfire Society Fireworks
Home Secretary Charles Clarke effigy
“FCUK the ban” – presumably referring to the upcoming ban
The Pope and cronies – “Burn Him!”
Pope & Fireworks
The lens wasn’t wide enough
Hanging out by the bonfire
Sparklers – what are they trying to spell?
The Late Parade
Fire barrels out on the move
Bonfire Society singing Auld Langs Iyne
Like a scene from The Prisoner
Banger goes off, police with earplugs in!
Climbing the sidestreets
Heading down the High Street
Someone sets off fireworks in the crowd
An explosion in the colonies