Burning the Prime Minister in Lewes

Published on: Friday, November 6, 2015
Burning the Prime Minister in Lewes - feature


410 years on from the Gunpowder Plot, David Hillier heads to Lewes in East Sussex to watch the Prime Minister go up in flames among the chaos of Bonfire Night.

“Don’t go. You’ll probably die.”

Sentiments from former Lewes Bonfire Night attendees seem to burn. They also lick both sides of the pyre: “You’ve got to go, it’s a mad carnival of flame and drums and heathens – you’d fit right in.”

So with a healthy sense of trepidation, I stepped out upon the wet and wending toy box streets of Lewes, a small East Sussex town bunkered between the eponymous, rosemary-washed Downs.

What would I find at the UK’s most notorious Guy Fawkes Night? Sweet Sussex virgins having their maidenheads lopped off at every corner? The acrid smell of burning animal flesh billowing from windows and doorways?

Something far more exciting: I would see David Cameron go up in flames.

A misconception of Lewes Bonfire Night is that it’s spooky or supernatural, Pagan even, and as a parade of burning crosses passes by, it’s easy to understand why. However, many of the processions are actually in remembrance to the fallen in the two World Wars.

Burning ‘Lest We Forget’ signs tower above the crowd and there’s a minute’s silence. Without doubt, the most powerful part of the evening is when the march stops and a lone bugle plays the First Call as grey smoke blusters across the town square and poppies are set loose to flutter on the breeze. It’s truly poignant.

The night is made up of processions from seven bonfire societies. The numbers fluctuate between processions, but each is at least a few hundred strong.

Down on the ground it’s a case of crowds packed in like sardines, but very little trouble.

“It’s an easy year,” a policeman informs me, stating the progress they’ve made since over 180 people were injured a few years back.

After the procession has finished, each society then hosts their own bonfire at different ends of the town. We find ourselves in Waterloo’s, which, with its burger and chip vans, has the ambience of a festival.

It’s not all affecting tributes, however, and there’s a buzz when, for a finale of sorts, a huge effigy of a naked David Cameron and a pig trundles past.

It’s like an in-joke that we’re all in on, and although a man fails in his attempt to get a chant of “Pig fucker! Pig fucker!” going, there’s a lot of cheers and huzzahs as the torch is taken to the Prime Minister.

It may have taken 410 years, but it looks as if Guy Fawkes has finally got his way (sort of).


Getting there
Trains from London Bridge to Lewes take around an hour.

Event information
Celebrations take place on 5 November each year. Tickets are available from local shops for different bonfire sites across the town.

More information