We’ve lived here seven years and never once been to the Bonfire Celebrations – no excuses about the weather this time – it is unseasonably warm and dry, so no more excuses… and we loved it!
A brief explanation of what is going on for those who live outside East Sussex. Down here, each year around this time, towns and villages have a fiery bonfire plus a parade of locals wielding blazing torches, fireworks and anything else pyrotechnic they can lay their hands on. Almost every town and village, (except for Brighton for some reason) has its own Bonfire Society who keep the traditions alive.
The Sussex Bonfire culture is generally believed to have religious roots – anti-Catholicism, Guy Fawkes and most notably the cult of the protestant Sussex Martyrs, 17 of whom were burned at the stake in Lewes between 1555 and 1557, during the reign of Mary I. This gave rise to the Lewes bonfire celebrations, the largest and scariest of the lot. However, the bonfires, the flaming torches, the parading in the streets and the
burning of an effigy derive from much older end-of-year traditions, including the beating of parish bounds with flaming torches, as a symbolic banishing
of evil in the darker months. There was also a tradition of impoverished farm workers begging from door to door in costume and with soot on their faces. Historians have suggested even older roots
in samhain, the pre-Christian winter festival.
The Hastings celebration is one of the biggest, and this year well over 30 societies took part, including our own Hastings Borough Bonfire Society. There were at least ten groups of drummers and assorted other groups, includeing our neighbour Linda and her belly-dancers – all dressed in fairy-lit costumes. The celebration is attended by well over 20,000 people. As you can imagine, it is a massive feat of organisation, all done by volunteers.
We met friends Jan and Tom and their family in the Stag pub in All Saints Street – apparently the raised pavement there is one of the prime watching sites. The pub was absolutely heaving…. took me about 15 minutes to get a drink while Philosopher bagged space at the railings outside.
The parade, when it appeared, was very large, astonishly fiery, very primitive and really quite scary. You got a real feel of what a massive mob would have been like in the past. Burning embers and sparks from the flaming torches flew everywhere, including in our clothes and hair, and it was very scorchy and smoky. Some people were brandishing whacking great lighted flares. It was headed up by the Hastings Society, pulling along a giant effigy. The parade lasted about half an hour – hundreds of people were involved – and ended with some very eerie ‘fire-carts’ – blazing half-barrels being dragged along, partly, I suppose to pick up dropped torches, which burned busily at the road-sides.
Then, we made our way down to the Beach for the second part of the celebration, the bonfire, burning of the effigy and the fireworks. We called briefly into the house of some other friends – Jenny and Peter who live down All Saints Street. They had some friends from Lyme Regis staying, who I think were totally stunned by what they were seeing…
The bonfire is an enormous tower of old pallets on the beach by Pelham Place – it burned very merrily but we couldn’t get that near it, and then the fireworks were fantastic, One bang was so loud the ground really shook….
It was a good night and Battleaxe would recommend. I’m glad to have done it!
Saturday was a big day for Hastings because earlier, the town had welcomed its new Lifeboat. It came round the coast escorted by the old lifeboat and the Eastbourne boat – it was actually quite moving to see how many of the local people had turned out to watch – the beach and the harbour arm were absolutely packed. Philosopher took the one of the boat coming into land, and I got the ones on shore as it was hauled up onto its state-of-the-art new trailer. This year, the Hastings RNLI is one of our WI’s charities – we are buying some of the crew’s new underwear! We’ve been told we’ll have to get them to model in their long-johns! Lots of our WI ladies were down on the beach, which was good.