LEWES, England — On Nov. 5, the sun sets at about 5 p.m. on Sussex Down. The people of Lewes have closed their shops early, not because of the snow or the rain, but because this day is very special for all the townsfolk.
Instead of shutting front doors, drawing the blinds and lighting log fires, the people of Lewes have a task more urgent, more pressing, more exciting on their minds.
As night falls, the people of Lewes will transform themselves into another time and space, back to the age of the Vikings and Saxons.
In traditional costume they will parade through High Street at 7 p.m., bearing lighted torches and chanting ancient rhymes as they slowly advance nearer and nearer to a blazing bonfire that will throw its hot flames high into the cold, clear sky.
Seated by the Tudor bay window last year at the White Hart Hotel on Lewes' High Street, sipping sherry, I waited patiently for the festivities to begin.
Honoring Big Failure
The night's celebrations are in honor of Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. He failed. If he had succeeded, James I, the Protestant king, could have been dethroned and a Catholic king would have taken over the British Isles.
Lewes has historically been a Protestant town. When Fawkes failed, the relief was such that the townsfolk vowed to celebrate his dismal failure every year from then on.
Guy, Guy, Guy, stick him up on high.
Hang him on a lamppost, there let him die!
I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!
These are the words to the song sung by children as they wheel their homemade effigies of Fawkes through the streets collecting money for fireworks. Traditionally, Guys are made from old clothes, stuffed with newspaper and tied with string--easy to burn on the stake at the end of town.
Warming my hands before the hot coals and ordering another sherry, I heard somewhere in the distance the slow, dim chanting that marks the beginning of the night's celebrations. It's an ominous chant, low and somber.
Suddenly it began to pick up pace, becoming louder and louder, faster and faster, the old Anglo-Saxon dirge resounding far and wide across the bleak Sussex Downs. Hundreds of stomping feet slowly drew nearer to the town center.
The streets by then were lined with people, many having traveled considerable distances to watch the parade. Suddenly there was silence. I held my breath. Approaching the High Street came the parade, the front lines headed by six heavy-set Viking warriors, each carrying a large ancient torch wrapped at the top with a thick cloth soaked with petroleum.
The hot, deep-orange flames illuminated their painted faces. These leaders of the parade continued on their way, showing no emotion, eyes fixed directly ahead toward the carefully prepared stake.
Behind them came the Lewes townsfolk, six in a row, everyone in costume. Some carried effigies of Fawkes and fireworks, while others carried trays of hot sausages and pastries that they handed out to spectators as they marched.
The Current Custom
According to Lewes custom (at least of late), an enormous present-day political figurehead is made up and pulled by a dozen or so men through the town as part of the parade. That year the victim was Saudi Arabian oil minister Ahmed Yamani, who was represented as a head 12 feet wide and high. Complete with dark mustache and white turban, he was slowly, ritualistically drawn toward the burning embers that beckoned his arrival menacingly.
Children scurried among the crowds, with their Fawkes figures, in a last attempt to collect a few extra coins before the fireworks display began. As if with unspoken knowledge, the last dog hurried into a doorway, tail between its legs, running away from the noise.
The moment Yamani's head was thrust upon the flames there was a roar from the crowd, and thunderous applause, as the figure was consumed. The fireworks display began. A five-piece band struck up Old English music, and celebrations and festivities began.
The town has sought permission to extend its liquor licensing hours this night, and pubs happily remain open until midnight, a rare occurrence in the county of Sussex.
But this is not all that Lewes has to offer. The capital town of the Saxon kings is not a place to pass by. It's a short train journey from Victoria Station in London from Platform 12, on the new Brighton/Gatwick line. You can be there in less than an hour for the round-trip fare of 7 (about $11).
The White Hart Hotel is a favorite of mine. It's old, warm and welcoming, with Tudor beams and wooden ceilings, log fires in every room and a traditional English menu. Breakfast is especially good, offering kippers and kidneys and kedgeree, dishes hard to come by in these days of continental breakfasts.
Rooms range from 40 ($55) for a single to 48 ($60) for a double or twin-bedded. All rooms include a full English breakfast.
Elegant and Inviting