A Sussex town gets set for impending fireworks

Lewes Letter: Guy Fawkes fire-starters kindle rich heritage away from Whitehall woes

The moon hangs over John Harvey's Brewery, a lunar beer mat for the pints of Dark and Old and Best ale served everywhere in the chalk-cliff-flanked South Downs town. The first explosion rips through the Saturday night: it races acoustic and clear across the cloudless sky. Then a second and a third. The peace of Lewes has been perturbed. There's going to be some fireworks.

Earlier, in The Dorset, three smugglers in black-and-white striped jumpers lean furtively at the bar. The wool is bulleted in burn marks from glowing cinders. Fire-extinguisher foam from Harvey's Old Ale flows freely over the brim of their metal tankards; their red neckerchiefs, white trousers and thick, black leather belts are a historical uniform on this warm October day. One of them looks like Captain Pugwash, who'd pressgang you onboard a leaky tub to sail up the piddly river Ouse. Two huge effigies quake weeks ahead of the November 5th Gunpowder Plot commemorations: a scared Guy Fawkes slouched inside the door and Pope Paul V cornered by the dartboard. The Dorset is the spiritual home of the Cliffe Bonfire Society.

As a heritage town, Lewes – eight or nine miles from coastal mecca Brighton – is riddled with twisty laneways called twittens. At the end of one, a sign proclaims "The Rights of Man" as follows: "Do not place or dump rubbish in our bins or by our property . . . Details of any offenders will be passed to the police." I initially marvel at such modest human rights prevailing in modern England. Then it becomes clear this is the twitten backdoor of a pub named The Rights of Man, near the house where revolutionary Thomas Paine lived between 1768 and 1774.

Tiring topic

In the Gardener’s Arms, the barman professes allegiance to the Commercial Square Bonfire Society. “There are seven historical societies and you stick with the one you know. It’s the way you were brought up.” Customer Bill is not happy the Cliffes charges you five quid to see its pyrotechnics. “It should be free like the other societies,” he says idealistically, sipping Kronenbourg 1664 and tearing open a packet of crackling.


Conversation is dragged dutifully to the tiring topic of Brexit. “Lewes voted 52.1 per cent to remain,” he says. “There has been no progress. We are already paying the price: the pound is weakening. Bloody Brexit.”

A mixed-age clientele wears miniskirts, jeans, tracksuits, fancy-dress WW2 officer garb

Jack sits by the wall and orders another half of Harvey’s Best. “I voted to leave. At work, we run probabilities for outcomes on Brexit and we have a 25 per cent expectation the government will fall.” Another percentage is that of Dark Star Imperial. The barman passes Bill a tasting thimble. He passes it to me: 10.5 per cent. Like tar.

Blazing barrel

Up on Eastgate Street, a piece of plain plywood patches a broken retail outlet window. A few doors along, The Volunteer displays a poster for an upcoming show: “Elvis: a show fit for a king.” Inside, the busty barmaid sidesteps a poking cue and howls at pool players to get their drinks off the table edge.

A mixed-age clientele wears miniskirts, jeans, tracksuits, fancy-dress WW2 officer garb. Some smugglers have found perches at the bar. It’s Captain Pugwash and his pals, no longer furtive. He is an official fire-starter and Lewes is all about bonfires.

He tells me about the ritual of hurling a blazing hogshead tar barrel from the bridge into the Ouse, that there is a lieutenant of enemies, a captain of effigies, a captain of torches, a “captain of fiery pieces”. The beautiful town’s 17,000-strong population focuses on fun-filled fiery punishment for the papacy and foiled anarchist Fawkes who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

For weeks before November 5th, their hearts flicker with practice fires and firework displays. Tonight's trial event was up past St Anne's Church grounds where a Masonic dividers tops the grave of Albert Kennard who died in 1893; up past the Yummy Yummy oriental takeaway on Western Road.

Back down on Friars Walk, a signpost points in one remarkable direction that is simultaneously declared “Town Centre” and “Out of Town”. Next morning in a cafe, they have temporarily suspended hot drinks. There’s a snag with water too: the self-serve glass vat delivers it through a levered spout but the level has sunk too low. A young couple skilled at pragmatic solutions use four hands to tilt the dispenser to feed the spout a miserable half glass each.

The next customers, a thirsty family, bravely lift up the water tank, invert it and clumsily pour the remnant trickle into one glass between them.

Two visitors laugh. “It’s happening already.”