The Best Bonfires

James Brown

James Brown is the author of Above Head height: A Five A Side Life, published by Quercus in February 2017 http://amzn.to/2dJg6i3

Published

13/10/2016

If you stand on Rye High Street on a specific Saturday night in early November you’ll encounter hundreds of masked people waving flaming torches as they march through the ancient East Sussex town to the sound of drums, bangers and steel buckets dragging along the road. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re on the set of a Hammer House of Horror film, perhaps the finale where angry villagers are set to burn Dracula or Frankenstein’s Monster out of their castle.  But this isn’t the horror of a vigilante mob it’s council approved and somewhere along the way sandwiched between the watching crowds on the pavement and marching parade on the road you’ll glimpse the neon lemon and lime bibs we now recognise as police uniforms.

This is what Saturday nights are like during the East Sussex Bonfire Season. The air crackles with expectation, the streets are rich with fairground smells and, in Rye, children squeal at the sight of a huge mechanical dragon breathing flames. The Sussex Bonfire Season, is just that, a season, it lasts from Autumn into Winter, providing three months of Saturday nights where fire is the word, processions are the order of the day, and effigies are sacrificed on towering bonfires made of pallets. At the end of each procession you’ll find the best bonfires Britain has to offer.

The Hardcore Bonfire Society look is a ragged woollen jumper with broad horizontal black and white stripes, three cornered hat, leather waistcoats covered in badges and a banner held high announcing the society each part of the march belong to.

There are over 40 Bonfire Societies in the area spilling over its county boundaries into Kent and across into central-Sussex.  The weekly activities move from town to town, starting as early as September then happening weekly until the end of November.  Members of each of the societies are in full force for each other’s bonfire processions, turning up in an array of startling uniforms and outfits. The Hardcore Bonfire Society look is a ragged woollen jumper with broad horizontal black and white stripes, three cornered hat, leather waistcoats covered in badges and a banner held high announcing the society each part of the march belong to.  The look appears to have descended from the days when smugglers ruled this part of the country and were later glamorised at the start of the 20th Century in Russell Thorndyke’s gripping Dr Syn novels.  Like Thorndyke’s infamous Scarecrow, leader of the Romney Marsh smugglers, many of the modern marchers disguise their faces behind Skeletal  make up and masks. Alongside them all sorts of fancy dress is part of the night, ranging from Mexican Wrestlers to vintage mid 20th century air force uniforms and burlesque wear to hooded monks.

Rye’s ancient shop fronts and citadel make for a fascinating spectacle as the torchlit march curves up through the ancient stone Landgate, over the hill which was once an island, and back round it’s base to the Salt Flats where the fire is torched by marchers flinging their burning staffs onto it.  You can get close to the action in the park itself or look down from the road the procession has just marched up. Across the River Rother an impressively huge fireworks display crowns the event.

Despite Jazz, Arts, Literature, Wild Boar and Scallop festivals, the procession and bonfire stand out as the social highlight of the year.

Bonfire weekend aside Rye’s not the sort of place you’d expect to find a rampant mob (OK, an orderly mob) armed with flaming torches, drums and bangers.  The high street cafes host tables full of white haired locals and curious visitors.  They sit scattered between Dress Agencies, Charity Shops, gift stores, art galleries, second hand book  and record shops. The pace is slow and anyone in a rush stands out a mile.  And yet it attracts all type of visitors.

The new Kino cinema with it’s smashing architectural design, interiors and two plush screening rooms of well picked films and live broadcasts has injected a bit of hidden modernity to the citadel. But it’s not a place you’d otherwise call modern. Because of this it attracts plenty of foreign and British tourists, drawn by a sense of curiosity and a desire to encounter something of the past.

It has plenty of historical character and architecture to draw your eye and keep you occupied, from genuine Tudor houses and the famous Mermaid Inn with it’s fireplace made from boughs of broken up Armada battle ships to the tiny cobbled lanes.  The BBC filmed its light costume series Mapp and Lucia here, a perfectly appropriate location as it was written and based in the town.

Further up the entertainment scale a host of Hollywood A-Listers descended on the town just a few years ago when George Clooney chose to film his Second World War Art Heist movie, The Monuments Men, within the city walls and on nearby Camber Sands. Clooney, Bill Murray, Matt Damon and John Goodman could all be seen wandering the town, eating in the local fish restaurant, staying in luxurious main hotel The George, and earning their living in front of the cameras and throngs of disbelieving residents. A little closer to the pace of the place, was its choice as a location for the recent Dad’s Army feature film.

The town’s sense of history allows the Bonfire Procession to thrive and despite Jazz, Arts, Literature, Wild Boar and Scallop festivals, the procession and bonfire stand out as the social highlight of the year.  There are a variety of explanations as to its origination. One suggests that almost a bthousand years ago when the town was almost an island, the men of Rye would burn their own boats rather than let French marauders do it for them. Another suggests the East Sussex Bonfire Societies are collectively honouring the memory of Protestant martyrs. The most famous and subsequent reason was of course the Treason Plot led by Guy Fawkes.

Rye, Lewis and co have continued to have a splash of anarchy and a whiff of sedition to their events.

The most famous East Sussex bonfire is 40 miles East from Rye, in Lewes.  They have 7 Bonfire societies, and their festivities attract up to 60,000 people on the night and features annually in the national press.

Throughout the last century when wars made gunpowder illegal and scarce and then later when health and safety concerns shifted November 5th celebrations away from bonfires and towards fireworks displays, Rye, Lewis and co have continued to have a splash of anarchy and a whiff of sedition to their events.

Every year Lewes top their bonfire with a dummy caricature topical establishment figure the crowd are happy to see go up in smoke and flames. Recent effigies have included the leaders of Russia, Syria and North Korea.

There are plenty of unusual ancient regional celebrations across the UK but unless you look out for them you’d be hard pressed to remember where they are. Bonfire Night is the 5th of November and depending on which day of the week that falls, you’ll probably be celebrating that day on that date or the nearest Saturday. In East Sussex, however, they love the smell of gunpowder and wood smoke of an autumn evening. If you’re really keen you can go to every one of them and make a Bonfire season of it.

 

WORDS BY JAMES BROWN

PICTURES BY MATT SANKEY