For most of the year, Lewes (pronounced Loo-wiss) is a small market town with a cool castle, a large sixth-form college, and the smell of brewing beer wafting over the rooftops. However, once a year the city explodes (almost literally) into the UK’s most amazing fireworks night celebration. Visiting Lewes Bonfire Night? Make sure your day goes with a bang, and not a damp fizzle with these top tips!
Most of these photos are blurry, shot on a woefully inadequate camera phone. We had no idea we would have a travel blog and Lewes would be featured on it!
Remember, Remember the 5th of November
Every year, when the sun goes down on the 5th of November, the UK bursts into life. Bonfires, fireworks and plenty of baked potatoes abound across the country.
On 5th November 1605, a plan to assassinate King James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament in London was thwarted. There was a group of conspiracies but the fall guy was a hapless chap called Guy Fawkes. He was discovered in a room underneath parliament full of poorly concealed gunpowder. The group was subsequently executed and people took to the street to celebrate with bonfires and general merriment, it soon because a tradition to burn a likeness of Guy Fawkes and some clever clogs added fireworks to the night, creating a huge celebration.
Remember, remember the fifth of November. Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason that gunpowder treason, should ever…be…forgot!Children’s Rhyme
Bonfire Night / Fireworks Night / Guy Fawkes Night has evolved into a night of family fun, mostly known for fireworks displays, be they huge spectaculars arranged by city councils or your dad running around the garden with a box of matches and childlike glee.
We love fireworks. Check out all our articles on fireworks here
Lewes, on the other hand, does things a little differently. For a start, it is not entirely family-friendly. Crazy crowds, burning effigies and exposed flames make it a bit hairy for little ones. There is a bit of a different atmosphere. It has an anarchic edge. The whole place is a health and safety officer’s worst nightmare!
Not only that, but it commemorates more than just the Gunpowder Plot. The local societies use it as a chance to remember those who were lost to war and religious persecution (17 very specific people, but more about that later). It isn’t sombre, but it is definitely darker than your average fairground rides and candy floss affair.
1.) Book in Advance
Lewes Bonfire Night is wildly popular.. So popular that there are several curbs in place to put off the casual visitor. This means that you need to book, and the earlier you do it, the better!
- Hotels and Airbnbs book up months in advance. Some are gone over a year before bonfire night. If you are planning to stay, look now and get it booked. It won’t get cheaper and rooms probably won’t come up between now and then.
- Train tickets can be bought ahead of time on the Southern website. They are usually released 3 months in advance. It is not the end of the world if you don’t book in advance, you can pick them up on the day, but it is nice to know it is done.
- In the last few years, the firework displays were all ticketed. You are no longer able to wander up and pay your way in. If you are local (firstly, you probably aren’t reading this) you can pick up your tickets from any of the independent pubs or businesses in central Lewes on a couple of weekends running up to 5th November. Alternatively, you can google the bonfire society websites and purchase tickets through them directly.
2.) What to Bring to Lewes Bonfire NIght
You will be carrying everything you bring with you all night so keep it to the essentials. I recommend bringing a rucksack rather than a handbag, not only is it easier on your shoulders but you can squeeze through crowds easily with a small backpack and it leaves your hands free for other things. You might also want a small crossbody bag or zipped up pockets to protect your valuables. Inside your bag, you should have:
What to Put In The Bag
The mobile signal will die at some point throughout the night. There are too many people for the network to cope with. Your phone will be working overtime to try and connect so either turn it off or bring an external battery charger.
If you are a little uncomfortable about loud noises or flying embers it might be worth bringing ear plugs or defenders and protective eyewear. You might want to bring a facemask to avoid inhaling too much smoke and it is also a good idea to bring an inhaler if you suffer from asthma at all.
There are going to be plenty of collections for charity and if you are feeling generous, they would appreciate cash. You might also want cash for street food or drinks. This isn’t the time for Apple Pay.
Leave personal fireworks at home. They will be confiscated and the sheer number of people make it incredibly dangerous to play with them.
Food and Drink
Drinks are a big part of my Lewes Bonfire night celebrations. For bathroom trip reasons, I tend to bring something that is very strong that I can slowly sip. You can usually see me with a teenage strength vodka and coke or similar in a plastic bottle. It is just another way to keep warm…however false the beer jacket actually is.
There are limited food options. There are usually a few greasy food trucks in Friars Walk Car Park but this is very much a burger and chips meal. If you want a sit down meal, once you have found somewhere to do so, you will be queueing for a long time. Most places won’t take reservations so it’s walk-ins only. If you want to make sure you have food, bring some snacks.
3.) What to Wear to Lewes Bonfire Night
You know that coat that you were going to get rid of this year? Hang on to it! If there is one piece of advice that you take away from this article, it is that you are going to STINK! You may have spent an evening by a fire pit in the past, emerging the next morning smelling like a charming log fire. Well, after a night at Lewes, you will not be able to wear some of your clothes again. Not only does the bonfire work its smoky magic, but the parade will have burning torches smouldering by your feet, and flares raining ash down upon you. Personally, I like to wear a coat that firmly is on its way out and just recycle it afterwards.
The same goes for your shoes. You will be standing for hours and hours on end (in town, for the parade, at the fireworks and maybe on the train) so wear comfy shoes. This is not the time to bust out your best white trainers though. The floors get filthy with people, burning embers, ash and drink. Some displays are on fields and it is November so expect at least some mud. Oh, and your shoes will stink too. Wear some that you were going to get rid of any way or a pair you can chuck in a washing machine the next day.
There will be a chill in the air so bring all your “warm bits“. I suggest a pair of gloves, a headband/hat/ear muffs, a scarf and maybe some reusable heat pads. Obviously, you can warm up by the bonfires but there will definitely be some waiting around in the cold.
If the forecast hints at rain, it might be worth wearing some proper waterproofs. Don’t expect an umbrella to work with the crowds, flames and people trying to see behind. Instead, a waterproof jacket and trousers would be great. You don’t have to wear them the whole time but having them handy if it does start to chuck it down.
Finally, skip the hairspray. There are enough flaming torches already!
4.) How to Get to Lewes Bonfire Night
Getting the train to Lewes is the most popular way to reach the town. There are direct links from London, Brighton and Eastbourne. Tickets are cheap and the trains are reliable. Trains stop running to Lewes in the late afternoon (for arrivals between 16:00 and 17:00). This also applies to nearby stations, Southease, Glynde, Falmer and Cooksbridge.
There are buses from Brighton and other surrounding towns but with the road closures that kick in in the afternoon, they will be on diversion. If you are taking the bus, be prepared for a bit of a walk. You will be able to hop off the bus at Malling Hill. It’s about 15 minutes into town from here. However, the buses will be packed so be prepared to stand. It is also worth noting that there is only one late bus. Check the Brighton and Hove Buses website to see if there are any special services on offer.
If you are thinking of driving to Lewes, can I just suggest that you change your mind? The roads are filled very quickly first thing in the morning and then shut to all traffic. This isn’t just the centre of town but extends rather far out. If you do make it in and find a space, you will not be able to move your car back out of Lewes until the wee hours of the 6th.
A few years ago, my friend decided to drive and we parked at around 12:00 in a nearby village before walking to Lewes. It was pretty awful. The road was not a safe place to walk, especially late at night and boy, was it COLD on the way back. It was silly and I wouldn’t recommend it.
5.) Arrive Early
Like…really early. Lewes is a small town, it normally has around 17,000 but on Bonfire Night, it hosts 80,000 visitors. Obviously, this can get mad and so as mentioned, a lot of the transport options are withdrawn in the afternoon. Our advice is to head to Lewes from 10:00 onwards. it is a lovely town to look around and it will allow you to pop to a pub and enjoy a drink without worrying about the bathroom situation. As the day goes on, businesses will shut, the owners boarding up the windows for protection against the fiery fun.
If you do decide to do a little touristing, here are some cool spots to seek out:
- Lewes Priory – The priory is an old monastery that once housed Benedictine monks. There are ruins here that date back to the 1050s. The website has a nice audio tour to help you discover the history beyond the stones.
- Lewes Castle – A wonderful Norman castle, built by the armies of Wiliam the Conqueror. It gives a nice view of the town. Attached is the Museum of Sussex Archaeology, featuring artefacts from ancient to medieval Sussex.
- Anne of Cleve’s House – A little insight into Tudor England lies within this adorable 15th century property. Although it bears the name of Henry VIII’s 4th wife, she never actually lived here, it was just given to her after the divorce.
- Charleston – The famous location of the Bloomsbury Group which included some of the most interesting, radical and famous artists, writers and philosophers of the past century. The iterior is covered in gorgeous artwork from the owners Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.
- Middle Farm – A family-friendly farm with all that entails PLUS a cute tea room, lovely farm shop and an astonishing cider shop.
- Southover Grange – It probably won’t be sunbathing weather but it is still nice to have a wander through Southover Grange. The pretty walls and lovely lawns are a little slice of peace.
- Needlemakers – Once a needle factory during WWI, it is now a unique shopping centre full of nice cafes and intriguing independent boutiques.
Why not explore other things to do in East Sussex
6.) Prepare for The Parade
You are going to have to get your parade spot early if you want to see anything. Officially, things kick off at 17:45 so we are usually in place around 16:00. My favured spot is just outside the Lewes Crown Court. It isn’t as hemmed down as further down the hill but you do miss some of the fun. If you want to see everything up close and personal then I would recommend getting there even earlier and staking a spot near the top of the steep Cliffe High Street.
The Barrel Run
Before the parades kick off, a clutch of burning barrels, in trailers full of tar are raced down High Street and pushed into the River Ouse at the bottom. This is a big middle finger to the government officials that tried to quieten down the Lewes celebrations by reading out the Riot Act in the 1800s. The celebrations had become a centre of civil unrest and protest and local officials even brought down London police to try and subdue the Bonfire Boys. As you can tell, it just didn’t work.
The Bonfire Societies
During the parade, you may come across as many as 30 bonfire societies, 6 of which are from Lewes and are here every year. Some of these bonfire societies go back over 150 years. In fact, if you spot Battel Bonfire Boyes, they have been around for over 400 years! The evening starts with these societies parading through the streets, each on their own route. As they go past, you can identify them, not only by their signs but by their dress:
- Cliffe – Most members wear black and white striped tops and walk with costumed Vikings and French revolution era dress.
- South Street – This society has cream and brown striped tops and is accompanied by Civil War soldiers and colonial Britsh dresses…they have an almost pirate wench-ish vibe.
- Southover – Speaking of pirates, Southover has plenty, alongside monks and the ed and black tops of its members. They have a samba band too!
- Lewes Borough – Lewes Borough wears blue and white stripes with some parades sporting Tudor dress and mildly controversial Zulu costumes.
- Commercial Square – Commercial Square celebrates 18th century USA in its costumes with Native American and American Civil War soldiers with the yellow and black jumpered society members.
- Waterloo – Finally, look out for the red and black stripes of Waterloo and their ancient Greek, Ancient Roman and Ancient Mongol costumes.
At 21:00 every society comes together for the BIG parade!
Things to Look Out For During the BIG Parade
17 Burning Crosses
Between 1555 and 1557, 17 people were burnt at the stake here in Lewes for being protestant. This was the rule of Mary I (Bloody Mary) who fought to make England Catholic again after her father Henry VIII created the protestant Church of England. This brutal cull was known as the Marian Persecutions. To commemorate these 17 individuals, 17 burning crosses are carried in the parade.
A series of figures are paraded around Lewes before being burned on the giant bonfires. The most famous of these is of course Guy Fawkes, his effigy is burned across the country but the one Lewes is renowned for is the Pope. This is a nod to the formation of the bonfire societies in the martyr’s memory. Finally, keep an eye out for the current affairs submissions. Popular and more typically unpopular political figures are portrayed and burnt. We have seen Donald Trump, Putin, David Cameron and Rupert Murdoch being ridden by Rebekah Brooks.
Lest We Forget
If you are located near the war memorial, you will see a series of small ceremonies. Lewes Bonfire Night might seem like it is all based on pure anarchy but there are still moments of respect that are built in. Wreaths are laid, flares lit and bands silenced to remember those that were lost from Lewes through war and the 17 martyrs we have already mentioned.
Bonfire Boyes and Belles
These cheeky chaps and chappesses make their way around pubs letting off loud bangs. They use bird scaring devices called rookies so don’t worry if they make you jump, they won’t burn your feet.
7.) What Not to Do
- Pictures – Taking photos is fun but do NOT stray into the road. Either the stewards will come and get you back to the side or a society member will shift you with a determined stomp of a boot or a waving flaming torch.
- Torches – Don’t try and pick or move a smouldering torch if it is dropped at your feet, a rumbling cart will be along to collect it soon enough.
8.) Braving The Bathrooms
One thing that is severely lacking at Lewes Bonfire Night is the availability of toilets. You have to go far and wide in search of a loo and when you find one, be prepared to queue. Even the gents can wait up to 15 minutes so DO NOT leave it to the last minute. It might be a good plan to bring some tissues with you, just in case the toilets run short. Some good bets for bathrooms are the portaloos usually set up in East car park, Phoenix Causeway car park, and dotted around the other car parks of town to a lesser extent. These can shut quite early though. The other option is to pee in the pubs you can squeeze into.
9.) Doing The Displays
There are six displays around Lewes. Personally, I have always been to Waterloo (it used to be free and I was a poor student) but each has its own personality. Don’t worry though, they are all truly spectacular! (There is a reason this is called the best fireworks night in Britain).
At allof the sites, you will get a blockbuster display with plenty of giant rockets. One year, Waterloo sent about 25 of my favourite gold glittery fireworks up in about a minute and it was genuinely beautiful. There will also be a huge pile of wooden palettes or similar just ready to go up in flames. They used to light the fires and let the heat push revellers back to a safe distance but now there are proper fences. Don’t worry though, you’ll still be nice and toasty.
Alternatively, you can take a steep walk up to Lewes Golf Course from which you can see all of the displays. It is an amazing overview but you do miss out on the roar of the giant bonfires.
10.) The End of the Night
You won’t have a lot of options. The trains won’t run, the buses won’t really run and the roads are shut until 03:00 or 04:00. Stay over….that’s all I have for you!
Final Thoughts About Visiting Lewes Bonfire Night
Growing up in Brighton, and attending Sussex Downs College in Lewes itself, I have always felt a close connection to Lewes Bonfire Night. It is weird, wonderful and just a little frightening…in a good way. There was the year I had a new boyfriend and got to watch fireworks wrapped in his coat. Another year, we drank some very questionable vodka (that has since been banned) and Mr Fluskey had a panic attack. That particular drink has now been discontinued in the UK, maybe that’s why! Every year has its routine but they are all different and so much fun!
Prepare for discomfort, disbelief, delight and the disgusting funk of your coat the next day. See you there!