In Search of England: Lewes Bonfire Night

Burning tar in Lewes

Bonfire boys pulling carts of burning tar, waiting for the processions in Lewes to begin.

Bonfire Night is on Saturday this year, and where better to head than to Lewes, where one of the country’s oldest bonfire festivities are still celebrated every year? The Lewes Bonfire is held annually on 5th November, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, but Bonfire Night is not just about Guido Fawkes. The Sussex bonfire tradition originated from the Tudor times and commemorates Protestant martyrs as well as protests against unpopular figures and events. Fire processions were seen as dangerous expressions of the common people – in 1847 magistrates who read the Riot Act to the bonfire boys in Lewes were thrown into the river Ouse. Some still held processions illegally though, chanting “we wunt be druv” (“we won’t be driven”), and thanks to them the Lewes Bonfire Night is still celebrated to this day. It is the largest event of its kind in the county, and the largest in the country in terms of the number of people involved in organising and parading. I went to see the spectacle last year, on its 410th anniversary and would heavily recommend it – if you’re able to go despite the Southern Rail strikes, that is. Remember no trains are running to Lewes on the day of the event this year. On a normaly year however, around 50,000 people attend the event, so here’s how to make sense of the crush.


  • Buy tickets for the Cliffe fire site (where effigies are burnt) a week in advance. Because they will be sold out by the day of the event. The Cliffe Bonfire Society has the most popular fire site due to their notorious effigies. Cliffe tickets last year cost £5. There are other fire sites though, the tickets for which you can buy at the gate.
  • Don’t travel by car. There will be no parking space.
  • Be prepared for loud bangs at any moment. People start exploding things on the ground from around 4:30pm.
  • Join the walking tour of Lewes if you arrive early. Last year the organiser ran 2 tours, each lasting roughly 1h30m, meeting at the train station at 3pm and 5pm. Payment proportionate to how much you enjoyed it is accepted at the end of the tour. Click here for more information.
  • Don’t panic if you’re late to the event. The adult procession lasts for 2 hours (6:30-8:30pm; the children’s one is 4:30-6:30pm) and repeats its route several times. Participants may split to head in different directions but all travel down the Lewes High Street from the Tourist Information Centre to the Lewes Fish Bar. The big one featuring almost all the participants starts at around 8pm.
  • Don’t buy bonfire programmes at the first instance you’re approached. There will be sellers throughout Lewes, from several different bonfire societies. The programmes give you an idea of the tradition of the bonfire night, and that one society’s link to it in particular. Not all societies in general. More than one will claim to be the oldest. Programmes cost around £2 to £3.
  • Wear wellies. Even if it is not wet it will still be muddy at the fire sites and the parade route will be filled with rubbish.
  • Watch the procession from the junction where Westgate Street meets the High Street. That’s where all participants will pass through. It’s also where most of the policemen are, which means less shoving and rowdy behaviour allowed.
  • Look out for the topical giant effigies. Last year it was Prime Minister David Cameron, the then-suspended FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, and the former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson. Oh, and a record-breaking attempt by the Lewes Borough Bonfire Society to mark the 410th anniversary of the Lewes Bonfire Night.
  • Do walk along the High Street in between parade-watching. Residents may throw down sweets for the crowd from upper storey windows.
  • Don’t worry if it’s raining. Free rain ponchos will be provided at the train station. And no matter how heavy and long the shower, the show will still go on.
  • Leave at 9pm after the procession. By all means trudge through the mud at the fire sites to watch the effigies burn, but if you’re working the day after you’ll want to get home as quickly and cleanly as possible. There is no queue at this time, and you’ll be able to watch fireworks go off in the distance whilst waiting for the train.

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