Sussex Bonfire Celebrations

There’s no better time to attend traditional Sussex bonfire celebrations, re-enactments, and fireworks displays, than this October, when you can see Normans and Saxons at war! For the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, 1066 Country hosts a full weekend of entertainment, starting in Battle on Friday 14 October, with a parade through the High Street, led by King Harold and King William (‘The Conqueror’). At tea time there’s a military band and sunset ceremony, and the evening concludes with song, music, and dance at Hastings Castle.

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The following day, there’s a re-enactment of the Battle of Hastings on the battlefield behind Battle Abbey. Meanwhile, in Hastings, there will be drumming performances, storytelling, music, Norman longboats, archery displays, skirmishes, mead, cider, and a hog roast. Kids and adults alike can have a go at making Norman and Saxon guys for the bonfire. Look out for the costumed parades and processions starting at 4pm, with Normans and Saxons. Celebrations continue into the evening with the torchlight procession at 7.15, followed by a bonfire and fireworks display on Hastings seafront.

Hastings beach - Sussex bonfire

Image Credit: Bob Mazzer

It doesn’t end there. On Sunday 16 October, there’s a 17-mile foot race along the ‘1066 Country Walk’ from Pevensey (where William the Conqueror landed) to Battle (where the Battle of Hastings took place). The battle continues on the battlefield behind Battle Abbey.

See the full programme of events here. Many of the events and attractions are free of charge.

The Annual Bonfire Celebrations

The Sussex tradition of torch lit street parades, bonfires and fireworks, goes back centuries. Every autumn, dozens of small towns nestled in the Sussex countryside come alive with street processions, flaming torches, bonfires, effigies of famous people or characters, and firework displays. Thousands of people descend on quiet communities for evenings of outrageous fun and partying.

Street parties - Sussex bonfire

Image Credit: Bob Mazzer

Bonfire societies spend all year preparing for these events and the end results are dramatic. Twelve weeks of breathtaking street parties include fancy dress, drums, dance, and music. Ghosts, ghouls, vampires, soldiers, and prisoners parade up and down the streets, as thousands of onlookers compete for views of the festivities. Bonfire boys and girls run down the roads with burning tar barrels. It’s a health and safety executive’s worst nightmare, but it’s the highlight of the year for many locals. The parades, huge bonfires, and firework displays create spectacular shows, all across Sussex.

Riots In 1806 Put An End To The Festivities

The Sussex bonfire societies date back to the 18th century when a bonfire was lit in Lewes every year, often accompanied by disturbances and arrests. Then after a riot in 1806, the location of the bonfire was moved, before the activities petered out. The local press said in 1814, ‘we scarcely remember our streets to have been so free from the annoyance of squibs, rockets, and other fireworks’.

Fancy Dress - Sussex bonfire

Image Credit: Bob Mazzer

But the peace didn’t last. During the 1820s, Bonfire celebrations made a resurgence, and lively parties took place with a large bonfire in the high street. Bonfire mania gripped the town. Blazing tar barrels were dragged through the streets, fireballs lit up the sky and the authorities tried to curtail the more unruly elements. In 1847, the Metropolitan Police were drafted into Lewes to try to suppress the bonfire boys’ activities.

Celebrations resumed in a park, away from the centre of town, until 1850 when the authorities permitted the event to return to Lewes High Street. A new culture emerged with bonfire societies operating within a more organised structure, and the rioting and bad behaviour stopped. Marshaled torchlight processions began and the format continues to this day.

Now there are dozens of bonfire societies throughout Sussex. Each society wears different costumes, with smugglers, Tudor royals, Vikings, and Roman centurions all parading in previous years. For 2016, Hastings Bonfire Society has a Norman and Saxon theme, with costumed participants, guys, and giants.

Fireworks - Sussex bonfire

Image Credit: Bob Mazzer

Traditionally, bonfire boys blackened their faces and wore identical stripy jumpers. This was first adopted during the riots of the early 1800s so that individuals couldn’t be identified by the police. Today, the bonfire boys still wear blackened faces and identical striped jumpers, but it’s to uphold the tradition, not to hide from the police. It’s all very civilized, with few, if any, unplanned disturbances.

The events are spread out over 12 weeks, so that different bonfire societies can participate in each other’s festivals. The fun begins with the Uckfield Carnival on the first Saturday of September and continues until the third and fourth Saturdays in November, when Robertsbridge, and then Hawkhurst, hold their celebrations.

Remembering The Dead

The bonfire parades are said to have originally commemorated the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes High Street from 1555 to 1557, during the reign of Mary Tudor. Today, some participants pay their respects to those killed in World War I and II, carrying wreaths and signs reading ‘Lest We Forget’. The events also mark Halloween in October and Bonfire Night in November.


Image Credit: Bob Mazzer

Other Sussex Bonfire Events In October

1 October – Eastbourne

1 October – Rotherfield & Mark Cross

8  October – Northiam

15 October – Hastings

22 October – Ninfield

22 October – Seaford

22 October – Fletching

22 October – Hailsham

22 October – Nevill Juveniles (Lewes)

29 October – Ewhurst & Staplecross

29 October – Newick

29 October – Littlehampton

See all events and dates through to November here


Firework Displays Elsewhere In October

Saturdays in October – Matlock Bath Illuminations, Derbyshire.

22-23 October – Lightwater Valley Theme Park, Ripon.

29 October – Beautlieu Fireworks Spectacular, Hampshire.

29-30 October – Hop Farm Fireworks Spectacular, Kent.

28-30 October – Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Drayton Manor Theme Park, Staffordshire.

31 October – Samhuinn Fire Festival, Edinburgh.

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