Men in striped smugglers’ sweaters push wheelbarrows full of fire and smoldering caldrons made from oil drums. Flares light the sky a brilliant rose.
Crowds cheer as bagpipes play, firecrackers ricochet against the sidewalk and a banner can be made out through the smoke: “We Burn to Remember.”
This is Lewes Bonfire Night, the country’s biggest and boldest celebration of the British holiday Guy Fawkes Day.
The November 5 holiday marks the 1605 arrest of Guy Fawkes, one of a crew of Catholic dissidents whose Gunpowder Plot intended to blow up the parliament and assassinate King James I.
Captured while guarding the explosives, Fawkes was tortured and sentenced to death. Parliament declared November 5 a national day of thanksgiving and ordered an annual public celebration of the plot’s defeat.
Except for civil war and some other disruptions, November 5 has been marked across the country with bonfires, fireworks and other fire- and alcohol-fueled mayhem for the last four centuries.
But nowhere has the tradition burned so brightly as in Lewes, a quiet town of 16,000 in the southeastern county of Sussex.
Its celebrations are the nation’s biggest. Some 30,000 people filled the streets on Tuesday night for what’s a cross between Halloween and Mardi Gras, except with a lot more flaming torches.
Seven different bonfire societies spend the year organizing an explosive evening of processions, costumes, bonfires, effigies and fireworks that has existed in its current form for the last 160 years.
“It means everything,” said Annabel Frost of the Cliffe Bonfire Society, one of the two oldest groups. The chef bounced her 2-year-old son Oliver on her hip, both dressed in the society’s uniform black-and-white striped sweater and red kerchief.
“It’s the identity of Lewes,” she added. “Marching for freedom of speech, the right to protest, the right to march — that’s why we do it. We always have and we always will.”
In Lewes, the event marks both the Gunpowder Plot and the execution of 17 local Protestant martyrs burned at the stake in the 16th century under the Catholic Queen Mary I.
It’s unapologetically politically incorrect. “No Popery,” reads one society banner, in reference to medieval Catholic persecutions.
Effigies paraded along the streets include the hapless Fawkes as well as current public enemies. Osama bin Laden and Muammar Gaddafi were featured in recent years, along with unpopular local officials who have attempted to crack down on the night’s excesses.
“It’s quite rebellious, against anything you don’t like,” said Luke Stewart, a 13-year-old member of the Nevill Juvenile bonfire society. “Last year, we burned Angela Merkel.”
The event fiercely resists corporate sponsorship along with any attempts to sanitize it.
There are lots of open flames and very loud explosions. Organizers urge children to stay home and for revelers to carry ear and eye protection. Dozens are treated for injuries each year. Two people were permanently blinded in 2011.
“It’s probably one of the most wild and authentic manifestations of the Guy Fawkes history in the UK,” said Sebastien Comberbach, a 24-year-old engineer. “Anywhere else is probably just plagued with health and safety regulations.”
Therein lies the appeal of bonfire night, revelers say.
For a society that sometimes chafes under government regulation at home and pressure from Europe abroad, Lewes Bonfire Night remains weirdly, wildly, proudly British.