I come from a little town called Lewes in East Sussex. Lewes does 5th November like nowhere else in the world! For one night a year, the town is aflame for Bonfire celebrations. If you haven’t been, you should! Much more info here about what goes on.
Lewes shuts down completely from about 4pm and thousands of visitors arrive. From about 6pm onwards, seven different Bonfire Societies parade through the town in a sea of flames and a cacophony of bangers. There are various different processions and they’re joined by societies from outside the town, before everyone eventually parades to one of five different fire sites for the main event – the fireworks displays.
It’s a truly incredible evening and the town is transformed every time. Visitors come from all over the UK and abroad. When the 5th falls on a weekend (and provided it’s not throwing it down with rain), there can be over 70,000 people on the streets!
Excitement builds from early September, when surrounding towns in Sussex start having smaller meets. Each one involves processions with people in costume carrying flaming torches, followed by a bonfire and fireworks display. Everything’s building up to the 5th in Lewes, when all of the external societies come together in the town and process again but on an enormous scale!
Locals absolutely love it – there is actually a Facebook group called “Bonfire Night in Lewes is better than Christmas”, and I agree! I went to Lewes bonfire every year until the age of 21 and have felt wistful every year that I’ve missed it since.
Bonfire holds a special place in my heart, and I love to see fireworks on the 5th, even if I can’t always get back to Lewes. In 2013, shortly after J gained his night rating in the plane, he and I decided to see what it would be like to fly after dark on bonfire night!
I did some research beforehand and discovered that unfortunately the opening hours at Biggin wouldn’t allow us to be near Lewes for the main fireworks displays, which tend to take place after 10pm. What I did find was that a display would be kicking off at Crystal Palace just before we needed to land, so we planned our approach to coincide with this time. Before that, we flew a loop over Sussex, hoping to catch the earlier organised displays and to see the inevitable ad hoc, back-garden creations as well.
I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who can fly. There is something unique and amazing about the atmosphere in Lewes on the ground, but to experience fireworks from the air is very special too. It gives a totally different perspective, and the fact that you can see so far means you can enjoy multiple displays at once – incredible!
We were surprised that there were relatively few people on pleasure flights despite it being a beautifully clear night. There was the usual business jet traffic inbound to Biggin Hill, but only one other person who seemed to be doing a similar tour of Sussex to us – we kept in touch with him on the radio for safety.
We went out to the coast and had a stunning view of Brighton as we did so. We didn’t manage to catch any organised displays, but there were quite a few ad hoc ones going on, which was lovely.
As we headed East along the coast towards Seaford and Eastbourne, we were lucky enough to catch two larger organised displays. Looking down and across at the fireworks was bizarre but a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
Anyone who has tried to photograph fireworks from the ground will know what a nightmare it is to capture them well. Imagine trying to do that from a plane – they are smaller, further away and there are all sorts of other (important!) lights and reflections in the cockpit that make it almost impossible to get a good shot. Add to that the vibrations of the engine (also important!) and you have a photographic disaster on your hands! After taking several spectacularly bad shots – mostly showing my knee reflected in the window by the light of the dashboard instruments – I decided to put the camera away and just enjoy the experience. I promise it was amazing, but I’m sorry I won’t be able to show you!
What we did see – and this is one of my favourite ever flying experiences – was the town of Lewes aflame as we passed overhead. There were no fireworks displays yet, it was much too early for that, but we could see where in the town each of the processions had reached. We had an overview that the organisers could only dream of – seeing who was stopped where waiting for another procession to pass, who was setting off flares and bangers and where they were heading to next.
I have never felt more love for my little town than on that night – the one photo I managed to take is blurry and zoomed out, but it captures the essence of Lewes so perfectly: A sleepy little town, generally well-behaved, that enjoys going completely crazy with fire for one night a year!
Thank you Lewes, and thank you J, for letting me see Bonfire from a different perspective:
As we flew back into Biggin, the Crystal Palace fireworks kicked off, and we were treated to their display as we flew downwind to land.
Gunpowder, treason, plot and a fabulous flight!