Tag Archives: bonfire

Ouses, ouses, ouses – the Imagined Village – Bonfire 2010

A couple of weeks ago I at last got round to listening to the first Imagined Village album – I had it at the back of my mind for years, I thought I would enjoy it, and of course I do. The Coppers, Billy Bragg, Martin Carthy, sort of down my street. Literally in fact. Until yesterday I did not know that the first track on the album is “ouses, ouses, ouses” which is a sort of extended anecdote about John Copper’s granddad and one of his favourite places in Saltdean Valley.

When I was a kid the top end of Saltdean Valley was, for us, just “The Valley”. It didn’t need another name because it was our valley. Its called “Balsdean Bottom” on the OS map, which made us giggle. Its where me and my brother used to go and play, just round the back of North Woodingdean council estate where we lived. Sort of our special place, where we’d go to get away from whatever kids need to get away from. Its now a national nature reserve called “Castle Hill”. In the near distance we could see the remains of the ruined hamlet at Balsdean, and beyond that the farm that some of the Coppers worked on (not that we would have known anything about them them of course) and beyond that the sea. A few times – not very often, we were urban people, not rural – we’d walk down to the sea at Saltdean over the top of the hill. (To get to Rottingdean – which is where the original “local shop for local people” is – we’d go down the road past Ovingdean) I remember one day when I must have been about 8 or 9 walking with my brother and our Mum and our sister who was then a baby in a pushchair and we would have passed the very boundary stone John Copper mentions:

“When I come to think about it, old Jimmy Copper, my granddad, he was a lucky man, ’cause he worked in a place he really liked to be in, up on those old chalk downs; there’s one spot, just in the valley near ’ere, Saltdean Valley, where he liked to be so much when ’e was up there workin’, and he used to sit on the boundary stone eatin’ ’is lunch, where ’e could look down through the valley to the sea. That was ’is favourite spot. Yeah, ’e liked it so much that ’e asked dad if, after ’e died, ’e’d sprinkle ’is ashes up there; and that’s what dad did. ’n I bin up there with ’im many times, to visit the place. You ’ave to ’ave a good imagination now to imagine it like it was when Jim was younger. In fact, when ’e made a recording for the BBC back in 1951, ’e put it quite graphically; ’e said, ‘I still do like to walk up on those old ’ills, where I was a shepherd boy; but they’ve changed today; they’re all different now’, ’e said…but now, you look down there ’n’ all you see is ’ouses, ’ouses, ’ouses on the land that we used to plough […] ’Ouses, ’ouses, ’ouses. That makes me prostrate with dismal’, ’e said.”

The estate we lived in, North Woodingdean, was built in the mid 50s, and we were I think the second family in there in 1958 or 59. Before then we’d been in a flat in Coldean, opposite Stanmer Park, and my Dad had lived for over twenty years in North Moulsecombe, just off Lewes Road. We had other friends and relations in Bevendean, between the racehill and Moulscoombe, in Hollingdean, and in Saltdean (a much posher place than Woodingdean or Molescoomb). All built in downland valleys between the 1930s and 1950s, mostly by Brighton Council. So we were literally, the inhabitants of those “ouses, ouses, ouses”. (Or the “straight row of houses” that got into the “Dancing at Whitsun” song, though our street wasn’t straight at all.) I mean literally-literally, when Jimmy Copper looked down from his hill he saw us.

We moved into the centre of Brighton in about 1966 or 67, which was (and is) a far better place to live than Woodingdean, though I’ve sometimes been back there – most recently last Bonfire when I walked past the place and over Kingston Hill to Lewes in the dark. When I was at secondary school we went there to watch badgers once or twice. I’ve been birdwatching and botanising there. (Classic chalk downland flora, which is why they made it a nature reserve).

So its not an “imagined village” for me really. Its the one I grew up in. Of course as Tim said on Facebook the imagined village is a re-imagined urban landscape not the old village one. But I suppose I’ve made that journey as well, living in south-east London now in one of the oldest industrial areas in Britain (Lewisham Station is more or less on the site of the old Greenwich or Deptford Armouries, where small-arms were made from the late middle ages to 1816 or so – in the 18th century the British Army made most of its muskets within two or three hundred metres of where I live now), in somewhere much more like the community Benjamin Zephaniah talks about in his Tam Lin reimagined on the album. And of course in a sense the “real” villages sung about in folk songs are to us now imagined villages as well, as they are in our inaccessible past.

Its just an extreme example of the way we make our lives in the same landscapes but move through them differently and model them differently in our minds. My childhood was spent in a suburban environment, on the outskirts of Brighton, but we were urban people, it was Brighton we identified with, and we moved into the centre of town when we could afford it. (And my parents were urban people to start with – Glasgow and Tyneside before moving to Brighton – and their families mostly worked in industrial jobs in the late 19th and early 20th century, shipbuilding, construction, on the railways). The Coppers were more rural people. Farmes and shepherds and shopkeepers and publicans. Our town occupied exactly the same geographical space as their countryside did. (China Mievilles excellent novel The City and the City works by taking a split like that to the limit)

As I said, this time last year I took the train to Brighton and the bus to Woodingdean and walked over to Lewes from Brighton past the top of the valley, close to that boundary stone, and along Juggs Lane over Kingston Ridge to Lewes. (in a straight line North Woodingdean is only about five miles from the centre of Lewes and a lot less from Kingston) I wanted to do that again this year, and maybe revisit that path to Saltdean, but the combination of rain and waiting for a plumber all Friday morning ended that idea.

So I went straight to Lewes by train, hoping to arrive before the barriers went up when I could still walk freely out of the station and have a quiet pint in town.

It seems that everyone else came to the same decision. Standing-room only from Victoria, delayed by passengers unable to get on at Haywards Heath. Took two and a half hours from Lewisham to Lewes (it ought to be about two hours and you could do it in one and a half if you made just the right connections). You could tell it was Bonfire by the clothes the passengers were wearing. I never realised how popular wellies were for 20-something women in short skirts. But I had a seat and chatted to a couple with a couple taking their little kid back to Lewes for Bonfire.

I just about got there in the light. Which is good in some ways but inconvenient in others as now that the peopel I usually stayed with no longer live in Lewes there was nothing to do for the next three ours but walk around or go to pubs. And it was raining…

So a quick pint in the Lamb for old times sake, and a chat to a dad and his two teenage sons up from Bognor, and some Waterloo who don’t seem to have any idea when they are likely to march. Then a ritual celebratory pint of Harveys in the Lewes Arms – my favourite pub for a while in the 1970s and arrguably the Best Pub In The World at that time. Might still be. but I don’t get there even once a year these days (more likely to go to Landsdowne when visiting Lewes by train – NOT a pub I’m likely to try to get in to at Bonfire). I drank the best pint I ever drank in the Lewes Arms one folk club night in the late 70s – Beards Mild and Bitter, about my third or fourth of the night. I felt more sober after it than when I started.

Wet but almost unpleasantly warm. Walked round behind the Castle and ate a cheese and onion roll in the rain under some trees in the gathering dusk, down Castle Lane to New Road to avoid the gathering crush in the High Street, past some youngish Commercial Square revellers who were kicking off a bit early and got a bollocking from an older man about not lighting fireworks near the torches – and seemed to take notice of it and apologised – and up to St Anne’s where there were already large numbers of 14-year-olds crowding into the churchyard, trying to pretend that the almost as large numbers of police beneath them in the street didn’t know that they had cans of lager amd cider hidden under their jackets.

Into the first pub I came to that had somewhere I could sit down, and as usual it was the Black Horse. Sitting by some Canadian and Greek and Chinese students over from Brighton. I suspect they have no idea what’s about to happen. There were also some more local students from Brighton deeply involved in mutual application of facepaint – these ones do seem to know where they are, and one of them it later turned out is a Charlton fan, we had a pleasant discussion on the failings of Crystal Palace. Also a very attractive Asian-looking woman telling the three blokes who seem unable to take their eyes off her that she wasn’t sure whether to do a PhD in sustainable fisheries or sewage. Outside for a smoke and see strange folk in hats with a portable barrier running into the road saying “move on, move on, nothing to see here!”. And a wind-up gramaphone with trad jazz 78s. And a woman with grass growing in her hat. And oddly fragrant roll-up cigarettes. And a bloke called Will from Hastings originally but now in London, talking about landscape and the difference between downland and other landscapes, which he also sees around Hemel and the Chilterns.

After watching a few societies march up, I got a bit physiologically challenged and as theew were so many women quieing up to get into the gents I walked off to go behind a bush behind the prison, and then down to Southover for a quiet last pint of Harveys in the Swan. Which I now know (because I measured it on a map just now)is about the same distance from North Woodingdean as the centre of Brighton is. The pint turned out to be three as I got into a long chat with the landlady about old times and things in general.

Yes again a nightmare getting back to London – about four hours – made worse by the incompetence of the crowd control around the station, diverting small numbers of people walking along almost empty streets back into the main crowd to force them to approach the station from the direction of the War Memorial – idiotic, but no point in moaning. No-One Likes Us But We Don’t Care. And there are some similarities in the attitudes of Millwall supporters and Bonfire boys, no that either is likely to admit it. Time for a South East London Bonfire Society? We need to do something to make sure that Blackheath carries on in the future, and to try to restore it to the people.

All in all a good Bonfire. I think I must have talked to between fifteen and twenty people and had proper conversations with three or four of them. A happy day, on the whole. And I hope the little girl from Forest Row gets her Mum to buy her a pink, fluffy hat.

I’ve got chalk on my boots.

Its the season for fire and remembering so on Thursday I went down to Brighton with the idea of taking a bus to Woodingdean, where I lived when I was a child, and then walking over the Downs to Lewes to see the Bonfire celebrations.

The plan was all but scuppered by public transport. These things are so much harder when you get out of London (so at my age maybe can never leave London – how could I live anywhere else where there is no proper transport? I’d be trapped in a house unless I lived near a mainline railway station) It took about an hour and twenty minutes to get from my front door to Brighton Station. A bus and two trains. Then it took over two hours to get from the centre of Brighton to the top end of Woodingdean. There is only one bus from the station to Woodingdean, its called the 52, and it comes along hourly. I had to wait 35 minutes for it – or would have if it hadn’t been over a quarter of an hour late. (Maybe I could have gone down to St Peter’s and got another bus there but there was no sign or information at the station telling me that.) And the bus was full of schoolkids going home – who gets let out od school before half past three?

And the bus went all round the houses – up to Dyke Road through sidestreets, down the the Steine, along St James’s Street, and through Kemp Town streets that I have leafleted every house in, past the Royal Sussex Hospital (the last time I went in there it was to see my Dad die, about 19 years ago) uselessly in and out of the Marina (ten minutes without once stopping to let anyone of or off), up past St Dunstan’s and through Ovingdean, all round the back of Woodingdean almost to the top so I was about to get off – then it turned left, went down to Warren Road and then turned right back up Falmer Road – by the time I got up there it was after five and getting dark. So it took longer to go by bus from the centre of Brighton to Woodingdean than it did to get to Brighton from Lewisham, or to walk from Woodingdean to Lewes.

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woodingdean_7736 Langley Crescent, Woodingdean

So no time to have a look at any of the places remembered from childhood, and I make my way straight onto the hill, fail to find the path I am sure was there once that leads up to the radio mast at the top, and I don’t want to go down into what I still think of as just “The Valley”, where we used to play when I was a kid. The map calls it “Newmarket Bottom” and “Balsdean Bottom” and part of it is now a nature reserve called “Castle Hill” – none of those words we ever used when we lived there (thugh we did know of Balsdean Farm – I went badger watching there once) So I walk back down to Falmer Road and start again there.

The old road from Brighton to Lewes – called Juggs Lane locally for reasons supposedly to do with fish, a name we did use – starts at Warren Road on the Race Hill above Bevendean, opposite the second bend in the race course, and continues as a muddy track behind the older part of Woodingdean, the plotland bungalows from between the wars in streets like Seaview Road and Downsview Road (I thought those names stupid – they are streets, not roads, and where can’t you see the sea and the Downs from?) Then across Falmer Road and up across barley fields behind Woodingdean, incongruously though patchily tarmaced for the first few hundred metres (I guess it was from the War when presumably the radio masts at the top of the hill and further down on the path to the Valley were radar stations or forward observation post or maybe even anti-aircraft batteries) then just a chalk path along Kingston Ridge.

Navigating on the Downs after dark isn’t as hard as it sounds. There is enough light to see the shape of the hills against the sky, and chalk paths almost shine, so its not that hard to find your way. And, at least on the Brighton side, I’ve known these hills since I was a kid. I used to play up here when I was six years old.

Finding the way is not as hard as not falling over. When you get to the top of the hill you can see the lights of Brighton behind you and Lewes before you and a little later you see Kingston much nearer nestling in the side of its Down. A little Tolkieny moment, seeing Kingston from above, by the pale lights from house windows – no streetlights or moving cars or shop windows. Its not much more than a mile from tarmac to tarmac in a straight line and even in the dark you can walk it in an hour.

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It would be less than an hour if it wasn’t for the last couple of hundred metres. The path comes down steeply from Kingston Ridge to the village through a deep cut lane. In places the sides of the cutting are taller than I can reach – how many centuries of walkers does it take to wear the ground down ten feet?

There is a knack to walking on bare chalk that I picked up as a child but would probably be more difficult to people not used to it. There are also knacks to walking on grassy steep downland (stepping from hummock to hummock) and other ones for shingle and the wave-cut platform

Chalk paths form ruts and ridges easily. The tops and sides of the ridges are often at quite odd angles making it easy to turn your foot over walking on them. The bottom of the ruts can be full of exposed flint – which grips your boots well – but can also be very wet. Bare wet chalk is slipperly, slidy and claggy. The path is steep, maybe one in six or steeper. I walk slowly and carefully, almost falling over three or four times. At one point trying to hold on to some vegetation to steady myself I put my hand in what felt like a gorse bush. Maybe it was only a large burdock, it was too dark to see.

Its easy to see the path, its chalk. It all but glows in the dark. You can even see it by starlight. What you can’t see is what the dark patches are. In the dark a patch of grass, a heap of horseshit, and an eight-inch deep hole you could break your ankle in all look just the same against the chalk. And there are plenty of all of them on this part of Juggs Lane.

And then into Kingston (or rather the Kingston Ridge estate uphill from it) feet and ankles complaining (though it was my back that felt it the next morning) and suddenly the navigation problems start. Kingston is not the sort of place that has streetlights. Or even roadsigns. Its not designed to be easy for strangers to find their way about in. It is also just off the edge of my map of Lewes, but not shown in detail in my OS map of the Downs. It ought to be possible to find the other end of Juggs Lane (“Juggs Street” on the map) and so to Southover that way – but in the dark, I miss it. And find myself in a deep cut road with flint walls and many cars and still no street light. Which is one of two or three such roads in the area and I’m not sure which.

So, on principle, I carry on downhill, hoping to find the pub. And I do. I have half a memory, probably false, of the Juggs Arms (its all “Jugg” round here) being called something else and small and rural and frequented by farmers and retired colonels. Well, now its been extended and its got a restaurant and a car park and a large covered area and the customers seem like the sort of people who live in Lewes (if that makes sense) But the beer is good (Shepherd Neame – some sort of very hoppy ordinary bitter rebranded as Kingston Ale, and also Spitfire kept well) and the bar is warm and I have a couple of pints before setting off for Bonfire.

Lighting up

There she blows barrells_7800

Bonfire 2008, Lewes

Here are a few pictures of Bonfire at Lewes last week:

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Now we have new shiny tags on this site there is no real point in pontificating about the wonder Bonfire – in the unlikely event that anyone wants to see last years rambling wibble, just follow the tags! As usual, click on the pictures to see more.

I didn’t get to any firesites this year because the people I usually stay with weren’t around 🙁 Next year perhaps I ought to organise something rather than just go down on the train at the last minute. So no actual bonfire and no fireworks – well, no large aerial displays anyway 🙂 I hung round Western Road for most of the time I was there, in and out of the Black Horse (lovely St Austell ale!) and the Meridian (Shepherd Neame, but they were running out)

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I avoided the nightmare of overpoliced stations coming down by going to Cooksbridge and walking in from there. A very pleasant stroll on an early evening, apart from the traffic. And a nice pint of Harvey’s in the Chalkpit Inn on the way – though two of the other pubs I passed were closed. Getting out was hassle though,. The western end of town was relatively relaxed – the police were happily joining in and I got the feeling that there were slightly fewer spectators and more marchers than the last couple of years – which makes the atmosphere better (he says, possibly rather hypocritcally, as I am a spectator myself). But at the east end of town near the station there was a lot more intrusive policing and some very silly barriers that forced people to go a long way round into the station and missed me a train. Hence the pictures from the platform.

You can see where Cooksbridge is on the railway on this map:


The pink bit shows where the nice railway kindly withdrew their cheap tickets scheme for the day. Actually, it is a pretty good indicator of the areas of East Sussex where Bonfire is still kept properly. It goes a bit beyond that – there are big Bonfires at Battle and small ones into Kent, and there are even a few in West Sussex, all the way to Littlehampton (in these high matters West Sussex is in many ways less like East Sussex than Kent is). But that pink blob is a good indicator of the heart of the festival.


Overheard at Bonfire

Still getting to grips with this shiny bloggy thing.   Like a lot of websites it seems to take some tweaking to get it to realise that Opera does in fact allow Cookies if you ask it nicely.

Overheard in the street at Lewes:

A to B: “You  wouldn’t recognise a straight line if one was walking in front of you!”

B to A: “I’ve seen you ploughing!”

(two blokes with Sussex accents wearing rather strange costumes)

Overheard on a train:

“I was at the Democrats Abroad party in London”
“How did you get invited to that?”
“I’m a member of Democrats Abroad”
“But you aren’t an American!”
“They didn’t ask me why I wanted to join”.

bonfire2007_4426 St Anne's Churchyard
Borough Bonfire 2007 bonfire2007_4427

Even – in fact especially – the burning of effigies of the living and the dead, offensive though that is. (This year Commercial Square burned a police superintendent on a rocket) It genuinely is a matter of free speech. If you are only free to say nice things you aren’t free. Free speech is the freedom to say evil and offensive things. Who would object to you saying only good things? If everyone burned in effigy was either safely dead, or obviously evil, then someone somewhere would be controlling who we are allowed to insult or protest against. If you can’t burn the Pope, who can you burn?

The same goes for meeting together in large numbers. Freedom of assembly and movement has to be the freedom to assemble in a way that might potentially worry or disturb some others. If you an only meet together in places where everyone agrees it is proper for you to meet, and in numbers that annoy nobody then you are not free to move and meet.

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bonfire_2006_barrells2174 Borough firesite
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Burnings aside (and Bonfire is a memorial to real people who really were burned at the stake in Queen Mary’s time) Bonfire is our carnival, our folk festival. For a value of “our” that is more or less limited to the people of the little blob at the bottom-right-hand corner of England between the Thames and the Channel, and most especially to those born or brought up in East Sussex. And its something we do in public, together. Not a display put on for us by local government or some charity or a private company (though all those are involved). Its not commercialised, packaged, or marketed (though plenty of people make a little money out of it, and why not?) Its something we do of and for ourselves.

And its something we increasingly DON’T do. Public bonfires are dying out, being replaced by managed and controlled firework displays. I love fireworks but they aren’t the whole point of the thing, they are an added extra. Not that many people have bonfire parties in their own gardens any more. When I was a kid there were bonfires all over Brighton. Private ones in gardens – my parents had a Bonfire party every year when we lived in Woodingdean in the 1960s – but also communal ones. On open land outside the council estates, one more or less on the Downs, even one on the beach,. I think there was sometimes one on the Level. These were not, as far as I could tell, run by committees or some organised charity or other trying to raise money. None of your “British Lions” or Heart Foundations or whatever, worthy though they might be (I hated it when the Heart people hijacked the London to Brighton bikeride). They seemed to be mainly built by boys a little older than me nicking old furniture from dumps (and from the next estate’s bonfires) And we stopped doing it. Sometime in my teenage, the practice died out.

Bonfire, 2006 Shaking hands with the bishop (Bonfire, 2006)
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Which I think is why so many Brighton people go to Lewes, even those of us who no longer live in the South Country. Its the one place we can carry on participating in something we were brought up to and have been doing all our lives. Even if only by standing at the side of the road and cheering.

Talking of which, when one of the bands stopped outside St Anne’s and played God save the Queen and some of the crowd joined in, a man standing next to me raised his fist and gave us a verse of the Internationale. And it wasn’t even me 🙂

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Tom Paine's House Cliffe banners 2006
Bush, Blair and the UN Tom Paine's House

Bonfire 2007 (2) Lewes, Fifth of November

Late into town because of an apparently insanely intrusive policing policy at Brighton Station. Crash barriers and a huge snakey queue and passengers allowed on to trains in dribs and drabs by police or security staff at the carriage doors. I was queuing for over an hour, during which two trains left, one little more than half full, the other with at least some empty seats in every carriage, wile hundred of passengers were made to wait on another platform and watch them go. Then we finally got let onto a third train – and that was as crowded as the 08.27 to Charing Cross. Standing room only, aisles full of people, a dozen or more packed into every doorway. And we took over half an hour to get there because they were only letting people off the trains piecemeal at the other end – things were even more tightly controlled at Lewes, the Station Road being divided into four narrow paths by barriers forcing us to walk very slowly, and a complete line of police shoulder-to-shoulder at the bottom of Station Street by the Lansdowne Arms (which is where I would probably have tried to go on any night but Bonfire).

On the whole it was an astonishingly well-behaved crowd. Are people so passive in other countries? But I hate to think what it might have been like a few hours later when a lot more drink had been taken. What looks like a pointless bureaucratic irritation to a sober man at 6pm can seem a lot more like police provocation to the same man drunk at 11pm. Maybe next year I’ll change at Hayward’s Heath!

bonfire2007_4422 Queue at Brighton Station

These things go in cycles. Apparently 1906 was a bad year. In the late 1970s and early 1980s things were quite tolerant. Then there were concerns about Cliffe’s reputation, and too much drinking, and too many oiks like us coming from Brighton and crowding out the pubs, and the usual fuss about rookies and rousers (i.e. home-made, or at least home-repurposed, bangers and jumping-jacks, although rather louder than the little fireworks that most people associate with those names). So they started to close the pubs one by one until the only place you could buy a pint in the centre of town (without being invited to the landlord’s private party) was the bar of Shelley’s Hotel (in these more tolerant years its the only place you can’t) Security became harsh in places, lots of police blocking the roads, barriers everywhere. Nothing very bad happened. So they relaxed a little in the 1990s and opened the bars again. Nothing very bad continued to happen.

Sometimes a clampdown is kicked off by a couple of Friday or Saturday Bonfires in a row, where the crowds are typically larger. Or by a change of guard at County Hall, or a new Chief Constable, eager to make their mark (that’s the rumour about the current situation) But after a year or two of nothing very bad happening the police begin to notice that large numbers of locals think they are behaving like prats and pull back a bit. Or take part in the marches themselves and start having fun. And it is rare for bad things to happen. Sussex Bonfire people tend to look after their safety rather well and the marchers more or less always know what they are doing, as do most of the regular spectators – and they (we) are a lot more used to it than people from some other parts of the world.

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Anyway, I was about two hours late, and there was a huge press of crowd (more or less surrounded by police) completely blocking the way to the High Street. So I worked my round it and along Grange Road and then up the hill by St Pancras and Rotten Row and the little twitten that goes by St Anne’s Church, so I got into the churchyard just a few minutes after the Grand United Procession started.

St Anne’s churchyard is just about the best place to see the GUP from in some ways. I rarely manage to get down that far – we’re usually coming from the other direction, and have a few pints in one of the pubs further up the street. The church is at the top of the bottleneck in the High Street – a turn in the road, a steep place, a narrower than usual street – so its hard to get to other than from the back.

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And while I was there I met an unexpected friend, a crystallographer who used to work at our college and whose parents live round the corner in St Anne’s Crescent. So I not only got to see the procession but had some rather nice lentil soup and mulled wine – but I had to leave to get further up the hill in time for another drink with the friends I had been expecting to see (and was staying with) before we saw the Borough procession on their way to their firesite.

As always the Borough fire site was wonderful. A REAL BONFIRE! And because we are so high up the hill, with a view all over town, we get to see everyone else’s fireworks as well, as three or four displays compete with each other and bangs and flashes echo off the Downs and the cliffs. I guess this year Borough was probably the loudest, and maybe the prettiest with at one point some sort of red and gold flares shooting across each other trailing showers of sparks in front of more or less continuous wall of pink flame. Cliffe as often the most spectacular with some huge aerial bursts that cast clear shadows in the crowd around me perhaps two miles away. And Commercial Square (I think – their firesite was in a close line of sight with another) maybe the flashiest, sending up rings and targets and a couple of times writing “2007” in the sky with bursting mortars.

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(As usual lots more pictures if you select the links)

Bonfire 2007 (1) Blackheath, 3rd November

The Blackheath fireworks are always a bit weird.(And it is only fireworks. There has been no real Bonfire there since some time in the 1980s – I think I was at the last one – a sad loss. Well, there is a funfair, ice cream stalls, disco music and the longest row of portaloos I remember ever seeing, but that doesn’t make up for no Bonfire) It starts when we walk up to the Heath. For miles around people leave their homes and all start walking in the same direction.

Someone must organise the evening – someone from the Borough Councils I suppose, they seem to be the ones through whom we pay for it – but no-one ever seems to announce it, or publicise it. Everyone who lives in Lewisham or Greenwich or Deptford just knows that on the nearest Saturday to Bonfire night (and some other big public occasions) you walk up to the Heath. So we all do. About four or five people in my street were leaving at the same time I was. A couple outside their front door pulling on wellies. A parent packing a child into a pushchair. With no interaction or co-ordination we all start walking in the same direction.

A few metres away we get to the main road. its not crowded with pedestrians (though the motor traffic is totally jammed as always on this night) there are only a few more than normal, but they are all going in the same direction. Slightly disconcerting in a way, Just a little bit odd.

As we walk down towards the station and round the corner into Lewisham Way more people join us from side-roads and shops and pubs. Most of them look happy, many of them have drinks in their hands. The pavements are now crowded. We are all doing the same thing but separately – we are in little parties of two or three or four, or walking on our own, but walking in parallel, all bound the same way. Its like those sentimental photographs of crowds walking to football matches through carless streets in the early 1900s, fans of opposing sides walking together. Or some sort of 1950s or early 1960s horror movie when everyone leaves their homes to eerie theremin or glass harmonica music and sets off to the meeting place or the alien landing site, with no idea why they are going. Keep watching the skies!

These streets aren’t car-free. They are blocked with cars and buses unable to move, jammed for miles. The police try to keep Shooter’s Hill and the A2 open – though they are reduced to a crawl – but every other road in the neighbourhood is blocked by thousands of happy walkers. People who don’t know what is going on look stunned. Has there been an accident? Is there some problem? Pity the poor bus-passenger.

The rest of us are having fun of course. It is fun, in a relaxing sort of social-solidarity way, all walking in the same direction together. It feels good. I take the back way up Granville Park rather than straight up Lewisham Hill which looks too full of people to be easy to walk along. For ten or fifteen minutes I wind up through the narrow tree-lined dark streets on the western slopes of the Heath, past Victorian and Edwardian “villas” and “mansions” and “cottages” whose asking price increases by a thousand pounds for every step you take (genuinely – if I had gone up the quick way it would have been more like a thousand pounds a foot – the Orchard and Lethbridge Estates and Sparta Street council flats at the bottom of the hill are among London’s lower-rent areas, houses on Dartmouth Row only a few hundred metres higher up the hill can fetch well over two million each more than similar houses in Lewisham)

By the time we got to Blackheath we were eighty thousand strong.

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Blackheath always turns out to be bigger than it looks. Urban eyes overlooking it from the edge read it as a flattish open park or recreation ground, crossed by a few roads, and surrounded by large houses and hotels. You expect it to be a larger version of something like Parker’s Piece in Cambridge, or Hackney Downs, or Primrose Hill, or the Level in Brighton. Instead you find a confusing maze of larger and smaller bits and pieces of surprisingly wild open land and lawns and sports grounds mixed up with houses and churches and pubs and shops. As if someone had taken Hampstead and Hampstead Heath and mixed them up together, shaken not stirred, and laid them out at random. And it is only one part of a connected web of open spaces sprawling over suburban south-east London. Its north side overlooks the centre of Greenwich at The Point and is adjacent to the utterly different Greenwich Park, – London;s most beautiful large park, surrounded by its flint walls and landscaped centuries ago, to create a like Bushey park with a posher palace. To the south and east it merges into sports grounds and recreation grounds towards Kidbrook, which can then lead you south to Mottingham and almost to Bromley, or east via Charlton and the old woods on Shooter’s Hill and Plumstead back almost to the Thames at Erith (as in my previous posts here). You wouldn’t think there was a peat bog in inner London would you? I was lucky I was wearing my boots.

The fireworks, as always, were magnificent,

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pumpkinhead_4354 pumpkinhead4356

And so back to Lewisham and a party at the pub and more fireworks and foolishly staying out too late and almost not making it on time to church in Greenwich the next morning, which would have been embarrassing under the circumstances. I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t been picked up by a passing evangelist from my home town in a car who stopped and asked me if I wanted a lift. Genuinely true. I walked into church beaming and grateful. Praise the Lord.

N (he knows who he is) would protest that he is not an evangelist, and if he ever was it was years ago. But he was good news to me on Sunday.


And so to Lewes for the 2006 Bonfire.

I’d thought of all sorts of clever bloglike things to say but I’m knackered so I won’t.

Just that East Sussex is where we do Bonfire properly. And sad to say, Lewes (almost) the last place in East Sussex .

So here are some smallish cutdowns of the 200-odd pictures I took. Some of the larger originals can be found at http://ccs88.ccs.bbk.ac.uk/places/lewes/ at least for a while

bank with banners cliffe bridge with banners
tom paines house meridian pub

Some banners, Tom Paine’s house next to the Rationalist-Unitarian chapel, and the Meridian pub, an hour or so before sunset. If you look very carefully in the picture of Cliffe Bridge (or the much larger ones here) you can probably find the what must be the last “No Popery” banner in England.

burning barrells bush un
procession ghost band

Same location, an hour or so after sunset 😉

Must be the only place in the world you can see neo-pagan morris dancers, techno-drumming new agers, and a gay samba school in the same march as a William of Orange banner.

I realised later that I ought to have taken a photo of people placing using the (occupied) police car we were standing right next to as an improvised bar and convenient place for beer glasses.

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smoke look behind you

Fireworks and smoke a tthe Borough fire site.. The ones at the top were about 100 metres in front of us. The ones in the bottom right hand puicture were abotu two kilometers behind us in the valley. Big mortars!

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borough fire borough fire

And the Bonfire itself! It was rather big. I couldn’t handle standing as near as those folk in the bottom left picture are. Too hot!