If you haven’t heard of Lewes Bonfire, then you’re missing out on one of the most strange and memorable nights in the British calendar.
A series of impressive, amusing, albeit highly controversial effigies are marched through the usually twee and quiet small town before being burnt at the stake in designated areas through-out. Your job as spectator is to enjoy and cheer the fire parade before charging off to see one of the many burnings followed by a Fireworks Display to rival that of Disney, Universal Studio’s and London NYE.
It really is an incredible experience, and to my mind the last of its kind in England. I implore anyone to see it at least once in their life, but before you do take note of the following advice:
LEWES BONFIRE TIPS AND TRICKS
1. Arrive Early…
Whether your plan is to drive or use the train, get to Lewes for lunch time. Around 16:00, people are going to be pouring in to the town from all entrances… Believe me, this is a stressful experience you want to avoid if possible. Be like me, and watch smuggly from the sidelines while the others struggle.
2. …And stay there!
Diana and I arrived in Lewes and parked successfully by 14:00. Good going! We then proceeded to Brighton (a nice 15 minutes train journey) for a couple of hours, to drop off our things and get something to eat. The plan was to get the train back to Lewes around 17:00, leaving plenty of time to get a good spot before the parade started at 18:40. Great idea, right? Wrong! The place was already rammed with bodies, and the closer you got to the High Street the harder it became to move. Luckily, most of the things to see are either enormous effigies or great long poles with something burning at the top, so you don’t need to be at the front at all, however if you are claustrophobic, a photographer or simply prefer to avoid a faceful of backpack, then I would strongly suggest you get to Lewes, stay in Lewes and even go as far as to stand patiently at the side of the road from about 16:45. Don’t worry, there’s plenty of lovely pubs that will be more than happy to look after you.
3. Plan Your Parking!
Perhaps you’ve been to Lewes before and feel quietly confident about good places to park to enjoy the parade. Well, think again. A great number of roads are closed from 17:00 onwards for the procession, and ANY CARS PARKED ON THEM WILL BE TOWED. The majority of remaining parking is resident/permit holders only, or Pay and Display, and you’re going to be lucky if you can even get a space here. There are areas you can park and leave your car for free however, so look into some housing estates that don’t have restrictions on them. Also, check out this map before you go, showing all the roads that will be closed and the time they will be closed from. Lewes is an incredibly friendly town and locals just love to learn when people have travelled from far and wide to experience their celebration, so if you’re really stuck don’t be afraid to ask a local for advice. That’s what I did, and I ended up finding an excellent free parking space just a 15/20 minute walk from the train station.
4. Plan Your Train!
So… here’s the thing. If you use the train to get to and from Lewes Bonfire, at some point your experience is going to be horrendous. That’s because, despite getting to Lewes early to avoid the crowds, doing this on your return is IMPOSSIBLE. The small train station creates new and VERY much extended entry points depending on your destination. The worse of these is Brighton. The final train to Brighton from Lewes during the bonfire celebrations (at the time of writing this) is at 23:55. DO NOT ARRIVE AT THE STATION AT 23:30 THINKING THIS LEAVES YOU MORE THAN ENOUGH TIME, BECAUSE YOU WILL BE WRONG. We arrived at the station at 22:15, and made this train at a scrape after more than an hour of “queuing”, if you can even call it that, in an enormous, pushy, stuffy crowd. People are drunk, rowdy and generally unhappy at this point, but if you manage your time and remain calm this won’t put a black cloud on your experience. The only good thing about this horrendous train station cattle herding hell is that no single official is going to risk upsetting people any more by asking to see tickets, and any ticket barriers are left wide open, so… Free travel, what a perk.
5. Plan Your Accommodation!
Diana and I had the bright idea of attending the 5th November Lewes Bonfire event wayyyyy back in July or August. Plenty of time, right? Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Every hotel was booked up, with the exception of one- a simple place offering rooms at £160 per night!!!!!!!! Somewhat out of budget. You are not going to find a cheap hotel room in Lewes on this night, but if you plan with enough notice you might be able to find a deal or snatch up one of the “cheaper” options such as the pub/hotels on the High Street, or even get the train to and from a neighbouring town.
In order to avoid the cost, our original plan had been to sleep in the car. Something to consider if you want to do this is find a quiet but safe spot where you won’t be moved along, charged or disturbed by remnants of the parade still happily marching around with firey torches into the wee hours. Another very important factor to consider though is IT’S 5TH NOVEMBER IN ENGLAND. Therefore, absolutely freezing. Please ensure you have plenty of duvets, pillows and a sleeping bag each, as well as something to cover the windows from sunrise/Peeping Toms.
I was so grateful when my good friend Ali offered us a room in Brighton for the night, ensuring we avoided what I’m sure would have been an experience far worse than the aforementioned train station nightmare.
6. Keep An Open Mind
So, as mentioned before, there are some controversial sights at this event that you must be able to take with a pinch of salt. Effigies of political/terror figures are all a bit of fun, but many of these may make a clear reference to a particular act or decision made by said figures that could stir up some emotions for some. There are also some strong anti-catholic symbols and costumes, which are historical for these events (such as a Pope with a lizard tail!). Do not take this too seriously! It’s all just a laugh! This event is literally hundreds of years old, and gives you the chance to experience something you honestly won’t find somewhere else. If you think you are the kind of person that will be upset or offended at an event like this… Don’t go. However, if you can see it as the fun it is for the sake of a completely unique experience, I guarantee you will love it start to finish.
Also remember that this event is growing increasingly popular and is therefore very busy. You will be pushed, more often than not involuntarily, and this can’t be avoided. There will be times you can’t see. There will be times you can’t move! Be calm, be patient and remember everyone is in the same boat. Just make friends with whatever stranger is squashed next to you and enjoy your night!
It’s good to have a plan in terms of managing your time, but don’t be too intense about where you end up in Lewes. You might have your heart set on one particular firework point, but crowd control might have other plans. Just be free and enjoy your night- whichever effigy burning/firework display you end up at, it will take your breath away!
7. Be Safe
This is an incredible and breath-taking event that will be destroyed if Health and Safety Officials get their hands on it. Gaze in shock and awe as six-year-olds happily march along with their own flaming torch! The people involved in the organisation take steps to ensure putting on a good show doesn’t compromise the safety of others, such as “fire collector” wheel barrows regularly coming along to remove flames on the road, or ensuring any “lighter points” are as far away from crowds as possible. However, a lot of this does depend on you not being an idiot. Don’t run into the parade, don’t bring your own fireworks or firestaffs and look where you are going.
Like any event with big crowds, it’s also important that you remain wary of pick pockets. Keep your possessions as secure as possible, and don’t lose your inhibitions.
8. Be Respectful
For years, this has been a celebration for the people, not just for you. So please, enjoy a drink but don’t get out-of-control drunk. As previously mentioned, this will be crowded so don’t start pushing people around and getting in fights. There are moments that commemorate War Heroes, so keep your mouth shut and have a moments thought. Remember, a lot of families live here so try to hold on to your rubbish or in the very least DON’T go smashing bottles in the street! You are a guest in the home of Lewes, so enjoy your night accordingly.
9. Drink Real Ale!
This whole event is English Eccentricity at its best, so sniff out the real ale you like and enjoy supping while viewing the many strange sites. Ensure a smart mode of transport for this!
Lewes is the home of the delicious Harvey’s Real Ale, so gain the respect of the locals by enjoying a few bottles!
10. Have A Hot Toddy!
This moves us nicely into the (very brief) recipe section of this blog! A Hot Toddy, for those of you who don’t know, is basically an alcoholic beverage of some kind that is served hot and therefore unanimous for being consumed while out in the wintery countryside watching fireworks! For us, I selected Hot Tuaca Apple- a recipe I found while working at The Latest Music Bar in Brighton many years ago. The method is simple: A pint of Cloudy Apple Juice, half a pint of Tuaca and a pinch of Cinnamon. In a pan, bring the apple juice to the boil then remove from the heat, add the Tuaca and Cinnamon, stir and quickly transfer to a heat flask to enjoy under the stars later. It’s absolutely delicious and very comforting, and tastes a lot like apple pie. In fact, I have a pie recipe based on this! But that’s for another day.
11. Dress Sensibly!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I can now tell you from experience that there is not a pair of heels in the world that will be comfy enough for Lewes Bonfire, no matter how cute they are. Even as I write this, my feet are still throbbing! There is a lot of marching around, a lot of hills and, at the firework display, a lot of mud. So, big flat wellies are your best bet!
Also, remember it is now winter and very cold! So layers, jumpers, hats, scarf and coats are a must!
In conclusion, you’re going to love this night even if you go in blind, but by following the tips and tricks above you can’t go wrong! For the fireworks display, some locations have free entry while some have a £3 charge. I’d recommend going to the charge points as they’re slightly less busy and also, after enjoying the oohs and aahs of the parade I feel it’s important to contribute to the future events, which is exactly where this £3 will go! Otherwise, proceed with enjoying a fun and free experience you will never forget!