Known as the largest 5th of November extravaganza in the world, Lewes Bonfire Night has been running for over 300 years. With an average of about 5,000 people taking part in the displays and the processions, this world-famous event draws in more than 80,000 spectators each year from around the south of England and further afield. Beautifully historic, Lewes is a fabulous holiday destination at any time of year, with many fascinating sites and shops to explore, but if you’re looking for an outrageous event alongside a quintessential stay, visiting in early November is a must.
If you’re unsure what to expect, the Daily Telegraph once summed it up beautifully by describing it as ‘a head-on collision of Halloween and Mardi Gras’ and we would be inclined to agree!
There’s a lot going on at this event and preparation is absolutely key. We’ve put together this guide on everything you need to know about Lewes Bonfire Night to help you plan ahead and make the most of this incredible experience.
What’s the history behind Lewes Bonfire Night?
Held on the 5th of November every year (unless it falls on a Sunday, in which case it’s held on Saturday the 4th of November), Lewes becomes the bonfire capital of the world to mark Guy Fawkes Night, the date the Gunpowder Plot was uncovered back in 1605 when Fawkes was discovered hiding explosives under the House of Lords. It also pays tribute to the failed assassination attempt of King James I.
East Sussex itself has a long history of bonfires and torchlit processions. The tradition of torch carrying and bonfire lighting on the 5th of November has evolved over the years to include fireworks and more of a festival vibe, and Lewes is the only town in the country that still honours the old traditions along with the new: 17 burning crosses are paraded through the town along with a number of large effigies, the latter of which are later burned in the bonfires. This mammoth collaboration of old and new could be why bonfire night in Lewes is so big! More recent years have seen the introduction of some more modern-day names featuring as effigies: 3D caricatures of Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, and Angela Merkel have made an appearance at this historic event.
There’s also a wreath-laying memorial to mark the execution of a group of protestants, known as the ‘17 Lewes Martyrs’, who were burned at the stake in Lewes between 1555 and 1557 under the reign of Mary I.
The event concludes with multiple bonfire displays, each magical and utterly spectacular, as you would expect from such a world-famous event.
Who organises Lewes Bonfire Night?
In conjunction with the local emergency services, there are seven societies responsible for organising six separate firework displays and multiple processions throughout this East Sussex town. You’ll notice that each Lewes bonfire society has a recognisable dress code. Here’s how to spot them:
Waterloo: You’ll recognise this group due to their red-and-white striped tops and the Ancient Greek, Roman, and Mongol invader costumes.
Southover: Dressed as pirates and monks, this society wears red and black and is known for carrying burning crosses as they proceed with their very own Samba band.
Lewes Borough: Known for dressing as smugglers in blue-and-white striped tops, this group is also easily recognisable owing to its Zulu and Tudor costumes.
Cliffe: Wearing Viking and French Revolution costumes, this society is also known for donning black-and-white tops.
Nevill Juvenile: This group comprises children wearing medieval, Valencian and early-20th-century British military costumes or wearing green-and-white tops.
Commercial Square: Dressed in Native American and American Civil War soldier costumes, this group wears gold-and-black striped tops.
South Street: This society is easily recognisable due to its cream-and-brown striped tops, English Civil War soldier costumes, and 18th-century British Colonial clothing.
In addition to this, there are between 25 and 30 additional societies based across Sussex that come to this historic event and take part in the processions and displays.
What to expect from Lewes Bonfire Night
Lewes Bonfire Night starts at around 5pm and runs throughout the evening, with the Grand Procession beginning at 9pm and the lighting of the bonfires starting at around 9.30pm. The party goes on until the fires die down in the early hours, so take lots of layers and clear the diary the next day for a much-needed lie-in.
Another iconic part of this event is the ‘barrel run’, which happens at the beginning of the evening and involves teams of people pulling flaming tar barrels down Cliffe High Street and subsequently hurling them into the River Ouse.
The main event takes place in the town with the parade going down the high street a few times. Each society then disperses to its own area of the town where more displays and processions take place and effigies are set alight in one of the large roaring bonfires.
In addition to the displays and processions, plenty of local venues and locations are also involved, providing both indoor and outdoor entertainment for adults and children.
Is Lewes Bonfire Night suitable for all children?
Although this historical event will be an unforgettable experience for older children, Lewes Bonfire Night may not be suitable if your child is of buggy/pushchair age. The town gets very busy making it difficult to navigate with a small child in tow. Similarly, this event may not be suitable for anyone with restricted mobility.
What logistics should you be aware of?
In terms of local facilities, access to toilets as well as food and drink is extremely limited. Because of the sheer volume of footfall to the town, pubs, restaurants, and bars are full to the brim, although sometimes they host private parties that have been booked far in advance. For food and drink, you’ll want to pack up enough supplies to keep you going long into the early hours: think carbs, snacks, and plenty of water. There are also street vendors selling food and drink.
When nature calls, toilet facilities are limited but there are usually a few toilets dotted throughout the town and some pubs or restaurants may allow you to use their toilets but don’t rely on it. There are toilets in the magistrates’ court car park but they’re not open for the entire event so the facilities in place for the event are probably your best bet.
Access to Lewes Bonfire Night
Lewes itself is quite a small town so it’s best to avoid arriving by car. There are lots of road closures and parking restrictions that happen throughout many parts of the town from as early as noon on the day. The roads coming in and out of Lewes are closed completely from around 4.45pm onwards. Even if you decide to beat the crowds and arrive nice and early in the morning to bag a parking spot, you’ll likely get caught out as it’ll be difficult to retrieve your car until the event has wrapped up, usually 2am or even later. Public transport is also tricky: No trains run to Lewes during Lewes Bonfire Night from late afternoon/early evening in order to manage the vast crowds arriving. Local train services won’t stop in the town or even the nearby villages from about 4pm onwards and usually won’t do until the following morning.
Staying locally to Lewes is most definitely a wise choice if you want to fully experience this spectacular event without getting bogged down with travel logistics, so accommodation planning is key. After filling up on a full English at your cosy cottage, pack up a bag of supplies and plan to travel to the town via foot, on a bike, or by public transport if you leave early enough to beat the crowds.
Do you need tickets for Lewes Bonfire Night?
While general access to Lewes Bonfire Night is free, each of the bonfire sites are ticket-only. You’ll be able to purchase tickets in advance from each of the sites, or many of the local pubs and retailers, as well as the tourist information centre. You can sometimes book them at the entry gate, but it’s best to pre-purchase your ticket if you can. Ticket costs will vary depending on which area of the town you decide to go to. Some of the society bonfires are more family friendly than others and each has quite a different feel to the next so it’s worth doing your research beforehand. Don’t forget to bring cash: you’ll need it for ticket-entry purchases and for the many charitable donation boxes doing the rounds on the day.
It goes without saying that the British weather in November can be unpredictable, but we’ll say it anyway: bring waterproofs, boots, and coats and be fully prepared for them to smell like firecracker smoke for days to come!
How to stay safe at bonfire night in Lewes
It’s worth bearing in mind that sparks will likely fly from the bonfires so keep a safe distance at all times. Bringing your own fireworks is not permitted and police will confiscate them.
If you’re an asthma sufferer, make sure you take your inhaler along to the event due to smoke from the bonfire. Visitors to the event can help to ease the pressure on St John’s Ambulance by ensuring you have any necessary medications with you.
Protective eyewear and earplugs may also be favourable if you want to take extra caution.
Lastly, if you or your child see a discarded torch in the street, do not pick it up: a specialist team responsible for collecting used torches will arrive at the end of each procession.
Above all, have fun! The vibe of this event is fast-paced, exciting, and exhilarating and is the undisputed frontrunner of all 5th of November celebrations that take place across the world.
Book your exciting stay in a cosy cottage in Lewes and remember, remember the 5th of November for many years to come!