Behind the facade of an ordinary village street, catch a glimpse into the world of the Sussex Bonfire season. The Fletching Bonfire Society like many others in the area, was started in 1854, one of a number of Sussex towns who hold the famous bonfire carnivals. The celebrations mark both Guy Fawkes Night and the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes High Street from 1555 to 1557, during the reign of catholic Mary Tudor.
Each town’s bonfire society has its own fancy dress which they wear to march at the Carnivals which are held every Saturday from the start of September to late November. They all participate in one another’s festivals, which is why they are spread out through the locally termed ‘bonfire season’. Some societies play music as they march, whilst others march to the sound of others. There’s plenty of drumming and chanting and all hold burning torches doused in paraffin.
Throughout the year the societies hold events to raise money for charity, relying on the public to donate money for the fireworks through collecting buckets on the evening of the event.
The town of Lewes was the site of the martyrdom and is the capital of the tradition. It has no less than six bonfire societies and is quite an experience on the 5th November, with all the societies converging on the main street during the course of the evening, along with those from the outer villages. Some enjoy dropping bangers as they pass through the narrow streets lined with brave spectators.
The bonfire parade at Fletching is a civilised affair, with householders opening up their doors to welcome friends into their homes for private parties. But the bonfire boys and girls get their chance to let off steam at the battle of the bangers.
Once the fire is lit, and the public happily watching the flames lick up the sides of the pyre, the marchers stay behind the bonfire and pelt one another with home made firecrackers, rook scarers and bangers. It’s all perfectly friendly and after 10 minutes they settle down to watching the fireworks set to music.
Just when you might think it’s all over, the final ‘firework’ is the Fletching Blast which is not really a firework at all, but a wall of orange flame shooting 60 feet up into the air, emitting a heatwave which can be felt for fifty metres. After five hours outside on a chilly October evening it is very welcome!