Undiscovered Britain – The South of England
To celebrate the launch of the 2016 Best Loved Hotel & Travel Guide, we are pleased to bring you a series of stories on Undiscovered Britain by leading travel writers.
Hot Nights Out by Norman Miller
The tall Native American looks at me impassively from beneath a fine, feathered head-dress. Though he’s been out-done by the skull-adorned effort worn by his mate, the Zulu Warrior. Standing by the war memorial on Lewes high street, the unlikely duo hold flaming torches in their hands, which spit heat and smoke into the autumn night.
The medieval lanes of this Sussex town are filled with such fantastic figures. I’ve seen pirates and hooded monks, centurions and convicts, all marching beneath burning sceptres. Flaming barrels of tar rumble by, the whole shebang soundtracked by the hypnotic thud of drums from troupes with names such as “Forlorn Hope Renegade Corps”.
This isn’t a surreal fancy-dress street party that has got very out of hand. It’s Bonfire Sussex-style, which lights up more than 30 towns across the South Downs and along the Channel shore with crazy visions from early September to late November. Thank a host of historic Bonfire Societies, first formed in the 1850s, which gleefully spend months preparing flame-seared reincarnations of wilder pasts on ancient Sussex lanes.
Rebelliousness underpins their costumes, which also handily hid the identities of marchers from authorities in case of mischief (which was frequent) in past times. Each of the societies has chosen links to specific characters: Uckfield majors on Crusaders, Mayfield loves French Revolutionaries, while Vines Cross has a penchant for Shamen. The Native Americans, meanwhile, arose in the late 1800s, when locals returned from building the railroads across America and were keen to express solidarity with the indigenous people they had seen cruelly persecuted.
Most years, I dodge the 30,000-strong crowds at the largest Bonfire gathering in Lewes in favour of more intimate nights elsewhere. Take Seaford. Its coastal setting and smuggling history makes Wreckers and Pirates its leading Bonfire lights – though in a local boozer, before things kick off, the mad miscellany of characters makes the place feel like the alien bar scene in Star Wars. Tumbling into the cool night air, I track the Seaford Soc’s huge ghostly pirate ship “sailing” along the town streets to join a giant skull and crossbones at a rendezvous lit by burning tar barrels.
Marching onward, the narrowing streets intensify the heat and atmosphere as surreal visions unfold. Frock-coated Soldiers march with Saxons (King Alfred had a palace nearby) through the thick wood smoke from the torches – each hand-made with copsed kindling wound in hessian then doused in pitch. The strange, giant silhouette of a shag (a coastal bird) looms through the wood-scented haze – Seaford’s distinctive emblem, tagged with the motto E ventis, vires (From the wind, strength). That’s what I call a hot night out.
For a selection of hotels in the South of England, including the latest special offers, visit Best Loved Hotels in the South.
Norman Miller (http://www.normanmiller.net/) is an award-winning writer for a wide range of national and international titles.