Thursday, October 29, 2009


... of the Third Annual UK/US Meeting - Southeast Chapter

No, this isn’t another “24 Hours” post, though if you haven’t posted yours yet, there’s still time.

These are the minutes of the annual meeting of the UK/US Forum members, southeast chapter, more informally known as me, Howard and Molly getting together for a couple of pints. My wife has attended in the past, as has Mrs. Howard and an occasional guest, but the three of us form the core group. And so, finding myself without adult supervision on a weekend in mid-October, I decided to nip over to Lewes for another meeting at the Dorset.

Lewes is a fetching, mid-sized town with a castle, a bustling main street and a river running through its center. It’s friendly, negotiable and has so many landmarks it is impossible to get lost.

I got lost.

Somehow, I missed the castle and the river and ended up walking out of town on the opposite side from where I wanted to be. I eventually had to ask directions from a woman in a Volvo who was kind enough to direct me back toward Lewes’ town center and the Dorset pub.

Lewes. A lovely town, but easy to get lost in. If you're clueless.

One day, I will discover the secret of travelling around Britain without getting lost.

I still managed to arrive at the meeting bang on time and, after order was called (two pints of Harvey’s and a lemonade), we got down to the business at hand. (Once you reach a certain age and imbibe a certain number of drinks, this business generally centers around the appalling state of the young people today; I won’t bore you with details.) Later in the afternoon, however, when the pub suddenly filled with people dressed as cavalry officers, WWI soldiers and smugglers with their trademark striped shirts, discussion turned toward the upcoming Guy Fawkes festivities. And before events became too blurry to recall anything, I learned a thing or two about the Bonfire Night.

Society members in waiting

The first thing I learned was that the guys in the striped shirts were supposed to be smugglers. Prior to this, I was unaware that smugglers had a uniform and that it consisted of a striped shirt. (Good thing I never applied for a job as a smuggler; I would have failed the interview the second I walked through the door wearing a charcoal grey suit and maroon tie.) I also learned that dressing up is a big part of the bonfire celebration, which mirrors our Halloween tradition nicely, though they leave the ritual shake-down of the neighbors to the Americans.

There are, it turns out, a number of Bonfire Societies in Lewes, alone, and Bonfire Society chapters in nearly every town in Sussex (and, for all I know, Britain). In fact, there are so many Bonfire Societies, that they begin having bonfires as early as August. This allows each society to put on a bonfire and invite all the other bonfire societies in the area to the party, which having them all on the same night would preclude. For reasons that I don’t recall, Lewes is the Big Daddy of bonfires and the actual 5th of November Bonfire Night is always held in Lewes and, from all accounts, it is a thing to behold.

A Bonfire Society in action.

If you like a party and don’t mind being in the center of a crowd of about 75 thousand, torch-wielding people, I recommend you go there; it will be an experience you will never forget. If, on the other hand, you shy away from that sort of thing, you’ll have to settle for talking about it in a pub with people who live there, like I do.

When it appeared that the beer garden and pub could not hold any more ersatz smugglers and cavalry officer, they suddenly disappeared.

“The bus must’ve arrived,” Howard explained. “They’re going over to the bonfire in Hastings tonight.”

From there, my meeting notes get a little wooly. The only thing I am certain of is that I managed to find my way back to the train station, and negotiate two connections on my return journey, without getting lost.

I think I’ve finally uncovered the secret of travelling around Britain.


  1. Anonymous10:24 PM

    I've said it before and I'll say it again, what I would have done for the internet when I was living in England. I had almost no resources to find groups like this and they would have been a god send.

  2. Well I learned something new tonight, I did not know there were bonfire societies in Britain. I wonder if its a "Southern Britain" thing, I'm from Northern Britain.

    Gill in Canada

  3. Smitten: Yes, it is nice to meet a friendly face, even if it's one you just know from the Internet. As much as I moan about having no friends here, I seem to be trotting off to meet people on a regular basis.

    Gill: I don't know about the north, but there are loads of them down here in the south.

  4. Hi, Mike - nice article! I can see that communication became bit woozy between you and Howard after I left you unsupervised :-)

    Bonfire is very much a Sussex tradition (there is one Bonfire Society just over the border in Kent), and is centred on Lewes because Lewes is the County Town of Sussex, and it was here that 17 martyrs were burned by Mary Tudor (not personally, you understand; somebody else struck the match) between 1555 and 1557. Lewes has always been a hotbed of nonconformism and radical thought - it was here that Tom Paine first learned to write about political matters - and when Lewes decides to have flaming torches, fireworks and hundreds of costumed people filling the streets, not even reading the Riot Act (which was once tried, and the smugglers' costumes originated as disguises so that participants could not be identified and arrested) can stop it happening.

    But that's enough from me, or this comment will be longer than your blog!


  5. > communication became bit woozy between you and Howard

    Communication was fine, Molly! At one point we simulataneously worked out the solution to the problem of 'Life, the Universe and Everything', but unfortunately forgot to write the answer down.

    > I wonder if its a "Southern Britain" thing, I'm from Northern Britain.

    Gill, it's certainly a South-Eastern thing, as Molly says, though over in Ottery St Mary in the West Country they have a tradition of burning tar barrels like we do (and they also seem to wear striped jerseys. See ). But I don't think they have Socieities like we do.

    In the Lancashire of my boyhood Bonfire Night was celebrated by street parties, neighbours getting together to provide a small bonfire, fireworks and food (chestnuts, baked potatoes, meat-and-potato pie and parkin were the traditional fare).

    I'm not sure about the extent Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in Scotland. Although King James, whom the conspirators tried to assassinate was king of both England and Scotland, it was only the English parliament -- not the Scottish -- that they tried to blow up.

  6. I never knew such groups excisted! I'd put money on the fact that many of them are single. And a bit sad. Imagine meeting the man of your dreams to find out that he was chairman of the bonfire society and dressed up like a smuggler on weekends.

    Great Article Mike! You are becomming more limey-like every post I read!

  7. Molly: Thanks for the info! I should have talked with you about it before things got hazy.

    Howard: I did take notes, I just can't read them ;)

    Pam: Thanks! Am I an honorary Limey now?

  8. > I'd put money on the fact that many of them are single.

    In which case, Pam, you'd lose it! :-)

  9. What a cool event! Great photos and information. Wish I'd been there.

  10. For Howard: Sincere apologies. Sounds like you all had great fun.

  11. Sandy: You haven't missed it yet; the big event isn't until the 5th. And, of course, it happens every year. So c'mon over ;)