The town of Lewes is one of those quintessential English towns. Nestled in the bucolic Sussex countryside, the historic market town home to around 17,000 people. If you’re arriving by train the main street is reached by traversing a small but steep hill, along which you’ll find cafes and independent shops. It has a castle (of course!) and one of the two main battles in the second Baron’s war was fought here in 1284 (the battle of Lewes, in case you were wondering).
But underneath the picture postcard exterior, the town of Lewes holds a secret. A burning ember of madness that once a year, sets the town alight in a fiery fever.
Bonfire night, or Guy Fawkes night, is celebrated every year on or around the 5th November. It marks the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot by the eponymous Fawkes, to blow up Parliament as it was being opened by the king. Within three months of the plot being discovered, an Act of Parliament was passed on 21st January 1606 to appoint 5th November as a day of thanksgiving. The ‘joyful day of deliverance’ would see bell ringing, bonfires and more latterly, fireworks. The Act remained in force until 1859 but to this day people up and down the country gather to celebrate the demise of a man many now hold up as the ‘last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions’.
In Lewes these celebrations continue with great aplomb. Across the night, which is held on 5th November or the closest Saturday to it if it falls on a Sunday, dozens of different bonfire societies from Lewes and across Sussex hold firelight marches, processions and burns throughout the town. The oldest of these, ‘Ye Old Lewes Borough Bonfire Society’ was founded in 1853.
Each year each society creates an effigy, known as a tableau, to burn on the bonfire. They’re often a topical commentary on the news of the moment. 2015 saw a particularly memorable tableau of a naked David Cameron, then Prime Minister, holding a pigs head after rumours he allegedly defiled one during his University days came to light from Lord Ashcroft’s memoir.
This year, mercifully, no pig on pig action was to be found. An effigy of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak coming out of a train with the head of Mick Lynch was paraded through the streets. Other transport based tableaus included Chancellor Jeremy Hunt atop a train with a sign saying "HS2 Last stop London" - with "The North" crossed out. Home Secretary Suella Braverman was also paraded around the streets as the sea with Ursula from the Little Mermaid.
Throughout the night 17 crosses are burnt in memory of the 17 Martyrs burnt at the stake in Lewes, Sussex, during the period of 1555–1557.
Despite road closures, train cancellations, parking restrictions and a severe weather warning tens of thousands descended upon the town to mark the occasion. Photographer Theo McInnes was there to capture the action.