The rival bonfire societies of Lewes, East Sussex, vie to deliver the biggest spectacle of fireworks, costumed processions and burning effigies, in a working-class festival of rebellion. By Jenny Valentish.

Lewes Bonfire

A society parades in Lewes during the yearly bonfire night on November 4.
Credit: Isabel Infantes / Andalou Agency / Getty Images

They say only when a wet dog barks under a gibbous moon may a stranger chance upon a ticket to the legendarily lunatic Lewes Bonfire – and only then from a local pub. Bad luck for anyone not living in East Sussex.

There are bonfire night celebrations all over Britain, but Lewes goes hardest, with seven rivalrous bonfire societies and 60,000 spectators swelling the population by more than four times its usual size. The parades are pagan in origin, but later became political: the townsfolk burned effigies of popes and politicians to remember the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the 17 Protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake in the 16th century. These days you’re also likely to see Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Harvey Weinstein in a bathrobe.

Every year in the run-up, Lewes transforms into the kind of macabre country fortress the English love to fear. Think of the Cumbrian-inspired fictional village of Royston Vasey in TV series The League of Gentlemen, or Simon Pegg’s depiction of a strange Gloucestershire town in Hot Fuzz, or Scarfolk, the invention of graphic designer Richard Littler, who gleefully warps the grim public service announcements of town councils in the 1970s to describe a destination that’s a death trap. Not to forget the villages in vintage folk-horror films such as The Wicker Man.

All three of my emails to the Lewes tourist information centre go unanswered. Even a year out, finding accommodation in town through the usual booking sites is impossible, and taking public transport for a daytrip is not an option. By noon on the day, all trains will stop running into Lewes, with all the roads closing by 4pm. Sussex Police is urging people not to visit at all.

This only makes me more determined, so I hire a car in London and on bonfire morning drive into an already traffic-clogged Lewes. It’s a pretty market town, with an 11th-century castle, a cobbled hill and mediaeval buildings. Today the shops and restaurants are open for business, but boarded up. A man with straggly hair and a turquoise earring, standing on a street corner, sells me a ticket. Entry secured, I give up my hard-fought parking space and return to my lodgings, two towns south. Police are preparing to block the roads. Visitors will have to park three kilometres away and walk in.

My Airbnb is in Rodmell, which has one Norman church, one pub and the former dwelling of Virginia Woolf, as well as the River Ouse, into which she walked with her pockets full of stones. From there, I hike back into Lewes. It is custom for a visitor to Lewes Bonfire – simply known as “Bonfire” – to pick one of the rival, geographically determined societies to back. I’ve opted for Cliffe (est. 1853), named after an old suburb that was once a distinct town. Of its 1000-strong members, personnel include a Captain of Effigies, Captain of Aerials, Captain of Tableau, Captain of Tar Barrels, Captain of Fiery Pieces and, worryingly, a Captain of Street Fireworks.

The main company is the “smugglers”, who wear woollen caps and striped guernseys. Each society also has a primary and secondary “pioneer front”, so you’ll spot platoons of Vikings, French revolutionaries (complete with guillotine), Tudors, Scottish pipers, monks, buccaneers, Civil War soldiers, First Nations and Cavaliers, all carrying blazing mottos.

As night falls, each society falls into one big procession up to the war memorial near where the martyrs were burned, driven by the beat of the drumming troupes and brass bands – around here they put a trombone in your mouth as soon as you’re weaned off the teat. The boos and cheers of the crowd, as each society passes, are amplified by mulled wine and the “Bonfire Boy” special from the town’s Harvey’s Brewery. As far as the eye can see, the street is aflame with torches and burning crosses.

By 10pm, with the procession on its third outing, we’re taking up every inch of pavement, half-blinded by smoke and corralled by security staff moving ropes like ranchers. It’s anarchic, the sort of mad parade James Bond would get tangled up in. Agricultural explosives called rookies – rook scarers – have been customised to have short fuses, perfect for slinging onto the ground and giving onlookers a fright.

Cliffe has a sign declaring “Death to enemies of the bonfire”, and effigy heads on sticks, including that of a superintendent from Sussex Police. One member of another society, who wears a plague doctor’s mask, carries the sign: “SJWs are the plague”. Social justice warriors are copping it because the day before the event it was agreed that there would be no more blackface – a tradition that originated in the 19th century, when “bonfire boys” would rampage from pub to pub, and house to house, demanding booze and hurling fireballs and squibs. Blacking up was a way of disguising themselves from employers. More recently it’s taken the form of, say, Zulu warriors, replete with bones through the noses and dead monkeys around the necks. A local petition of 1600 names put pressure on the societies to cut that out. Still, a few defiantly blackened faces appear on the night.

Unsurprisingly, Lewes’s long tradition of rival societies trolling one another has spilled out of the 18 pubs and onto social media – although, to be fair, every country town forum probably has a thread called “Ethnics getting what they want – it has to stop”, posted by someone called White Minority. One pithy poster suggests: “Many who are descended from the Viking tradition are deeply offended by the Vikings dressing up and parading in Lewes.” Another has heard a rumour that some of the Scottish pipers aren’t genuinely Scottish.

The other point of contention is the threat to the future of Bonfire by DFLs: “Down from Londoners”. I’m familiar with the arguments, being a “latte-sippin’ blow-in” in my adopted country town in Australia. It’s hardly a new sentiment in Lewes, either. As one verse of “Sussex Won’t Be Druv” – the 1914 poem by W. Victor Cook – goes: “Some folks as comes to Sussex / they reckons as they knows / a darn sight better what to do / then silly folks like me and you / could possibly suppose”.

One society in particular has been put in the village stocks: Southover is renowned for letting DFLs join its ranks. As the abundance of Laura Ashley-type shops suggests, Lewes is well populated by tree-changers, driving up house prices. As one disgruntled bonfire boy puts it, “Bonfire is a working-class event, so the likely result will be that it becomes the preserve of people who live outside of the town. How long then before Bonfire is seen as an invading force and banned as a nuisance? Another decade?”

My own invasion of Lewes ends with the torching of the effigies, when each society’s parade curls off to its fire site to really do some damage. The smugglers’ torches are tossed onto Cliffe’s gigantic bonfire, which topples into a shape of its own making. Men dressed as historical Catholic clergy climb onto a platform and heckle the crowd, some of whom in my vicinity have fallen into a heated argument about the church today. Society members relentlessly hurl rookies at the clergy, making them dance in real pain. A three-storey effigy of Donald Trump, who straddles a rocket with Kim Jong-un dangling from the end in a nappy, is incinerated. The Cliffe fireworks light up our patch of sky, in a display designed to shame the others across town.

I feel a bit like I’ve been in a riot. Like the smell of smoke in my clothes, the sense of unease lingers for weeks. And that’s exactly what I paid for.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 2, 2017 as "Proletariats of fire".

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Jenny Valentish is the author of Everything Harder Than Everyone Else: Why Some of Us Push Our Bodies to Extremes, which will be published in June.