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Bonfire Societies - a Sussex phenomenon?

Remember, remember the 5th of November... Realising her bonfire night was a Sussex tradition, Kate talks about the world of Bonfire Societies, using MAPP to look at the possible impact of the festivities road closures.

5th November 2021

Growing up in Sussex, I genuinely believed that Bonfire Societies were up and down the country; I believed that on November 5th everyone would line the streets to watch the Bonfire parades, waiting eagerly to see what the effigy would be that year – in recent years the effigies were announced a few days before, so the surprise on the evening was somewhat flattened.

It must be noted that Bonfire Night in Sussex isn’t really about the fireworks that round off the end of the night’s celebration. The main event are the society parades. Historically, each town in Sussex would have it’s own Bonfire Society who would raise money throughout the year (and on the night) to fund both the event itself, and donate to their chosen charity; we were part of the Lindfield Bonfire Society growing up, who raised money for various children’s charities.

The map below shows the Sussex Bonfire Society still active (a few have closed or combined over the years). The most well known is Lewes, marked as a blue triangle – give it a google for some amazing photos of past parades - see image below for an example.

The parades themselves were a thing of wonders. Societies split into segments and represent themselves in each town, so every parade was a concoction of different uniforms, banners, burning barrels and drums. Children and babies were welcomed in the parade, with parents often draping fairy lights over prams; the younger children would hold flaming wooden batons, too young to wheel the burning barrels. It was tradition. Marching bands from each society would be dotted along the parade, and the slow-moving procession would walk down the town streets, crowds eagerly awaiting the arrival of the effigy.

Lindfield Bonfire Parade

The above image is of Lindfield Bonfire Society, which was the parade I grew up attending. The effigies of that year would always be kept top secret - we had family friends on the society committee and they would never spill the beans!

The procession would finish at the bonfire; a mound of wooden crates erected in the days before the 5th November, often on the town green (think massive field), the society members would throw their burning batons and barrels onto the bonfire, along with the effigy; traditionally, there would also always be a Guy Fawkes effigy ready and waiting to burn on the bonfire. The evening would finish off with the fireworks, where often, no expense was spared. The crowds would gather, parents with hot chocolate or mulled wine (it is only 50 days till Christmas), children with flashing toys and donuts, all bought from the stalls lining the parade route – a very lucrative business opportunity.

The reason I write this is because Bonfire Night was such a huge part of my childhood, and I was genuinely surprised when writing this blog that it’s a Sussex phenomenon. Due to COVID, the parades in 2020 were cancelled, and so this year I have a feeling they will be bigger and better. This will wreak havoc on the road networks however, especially around Lewes (marked with a blue triangle on the map above- created on QGIS).

All roads within the orange lines are shut on the day of the bonfire parade.

Roads surrounding the town – enclosed within the box in the map above - are closed from 16:45 with local residents told to ‘get their vehicles home before 4:30pm to avoid any road closures in place’. Within our Road & Network GeoData pack, we have Road Traffic data, modelling UK road traffic volumes. We have written a blog on creating this data pack here. Looking at the roads around Lewes in MAPP, our online mapping tool, we can see that the average daily traffic count across all roads that will be closed ranges from 2,000 to 25,000. Closing these roads does have quite an impact, with residents having little option but to stay in Lewes for the evening; the choice to either stay at home or join in the local bonfire festivities.

If you are looking for a fun way to celebrate Bonfire Night this year and are intrigued by the curiosity of Sussex Bonfire Societies, Lewes or Lindfield would be the events I would recommend – although it may have to be an all-afternoon event (and yes, I may be biased!)

Kate McGoldrick, Communications Officer at Geolytix

Title Image: Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

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