Notting Hill Carnival may be proudly trumpeting its 50th anniversary but the Guy Fawkes carnivals of southern England can trace their history back much farther. Back in 1605 King James I ordered that 5 November be celebrated as a day of thanksgiving for saving the Protestant monarch from the Catholic Gunpowder Plot.
The old law was repealed in 1859, but no one seems to have told Bridgwater in Somerset or Lewes in Sussex, where Bonfire Night is celebrated with extravagant night-time parades and volcanic displays of fireworks.
Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival starts at 7pm on Saturday 5 November and the parade is 2 miles long. More than 100 groups take part, involving 50 floats (known as ‘carts’), illuminated by 300,000 light bulbs, consuming an astonishing 18 megawatts of electricity. It is Britain’s largest winter carnival and takes two hours to pass any one point. Groups are drawn not just from Bridgwater itself but also other towns in Somerset. These towns have their own night carnivals that explode into life between 7 and 19 November.
Bridgwater’s speciality is the squib – a vast firework attached to a pole. Up to 150 squibbers line the streets and let off the explosives at once.
The town even has its own Carnival Centre within the Town Hall (open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 10am-1pm) with historic displays, carnival costumes, an information desk and souvenir shop.
Lewes is even more fiery and exciting, as its groups of costumed ‘bonfire boys’ march through the streets with flambeaux aloft and hurl blazing tar barrels off the bridge into the River Ouse. Each of the Sussex town’s seven bonfire societies (one solely for children) has its own firesite and style of costume. In the lead-up to the 5th, the groups take part in a fiercely fought costume competition.