Travel: A nation goes up in flames

As winter sets in, Britain burns brightly with fire festivals to ward off the dark spirits of the long, cold nights
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The Independent Culture
It's that time of year again. All over Britain, bonfires are being stacked, Guys are sporting second-hand suits and firework displays have been meticulously planned.

In some places, more arcane rituals are taking place: torches are being soaked in paraffin for Hogmanay in Comrie, Perthshire; a year's worth of tar is being emptied from cider kegs for the Ottery St Mary barrel- rolling in Devon on Guy Fawkes' Night; and Viking galleys are being built for January's Up Helly Aa festivals up north in the Shetland Islands.

This is the winter fire season, when darkness and evil are banished by bonfires and fireworks and when - however sophisticated our modern pyrotechnics - we can look into the flames and feel a link with our more credulous ancestors.

Many ceremonies which take place from Hallowe'en onwards began as pagan traditions, remembering the dead, or giving thanks for the old year and crossing their fingers for the new.

All Hallows' Eve (which used to be on 11 November until the calendars changed in the 18th century), started life in seventh-century Rome, when the pagan gods of the Pantheon were converted to Christian saints.

It has always been associated with fires used to ward off the evil spirits "walking abroad", but until recently in this country has been shouldered aside by a more secular British event - Guy Fawkes' Day - and left to the Americans to celebrate with large, New World vegetables and Trick- or-Treat.

Few traditions are as dramatic as the barrel-rolling at Ottery St Mary, when cider barrels sponsored by the local pubs are set alight and run through the packed streets on the backs of villagers protected only by grease and home-made sacking gloves - and the burning of Viking longboats in the Shetland Islands' Up Helly Aa festivals, which signify Viking reaction to a period of enforced Christianity.

The annual burning of an effigy of the Pope at Lewes in East Sussex is also worth seeing, and there are some local Bonfire Night events - Brockham Green, in Surrey, is a good example - where the size of the spectacle is completely disproportionate to the size of the village. In the Seventies, for safety reasons, people were encouraged to attend public firework events rather than having bonfires at home.

This - and litigation - have increased the pressure on local committees to make their events safe. Ottery, for instance, has had to split the Winter Carnival and the Barrel-Rolling, which together attract as many as 20,000 visitors.

The Lewes celebrations bring in around 50,000 people each 5 November. The old, hard-drinking, home-grown traditions have often been formalised - or sanitised, depending on your point of view - to fit in with the crowds.

As for the real reasons behind them all, they are usually lost in the mists of time. As one woman was heard to mutter recently at an ancient celebration: "Can't be a fertility rite. They're all far too drunk to do anything about it."


Guy Fawkes

Brockham Green Village Fireworks, near Betchworth, Surrey (7 November). This 80-year-old tradition is typical of many small, local celebrations around the country. It starts at around 7.15pm when the Guy is carried around the village by the Bonfire Boys (who collect money for charity) and is eventually burnt on a spectacular 50-ft bonfire. There are special car parks, and the village is closed to cars from 6pm.

Ottery St Mary Tar Barrel Rolling, Devon (5 November). Diehard locals begin at 5.30am with the firing of "rock cannons" outside people's houses. The Boys' Barrels (sherry casks) begin at 4.30pm, the bonfire is lit at 6.30pm and the first of the men's and ladies' barrels begins shortly afterwards. Stay for the last hogshead in the square at around midnight. A funfair will be in town all week, complete with rides and food, but the carnival procession now takes place the week before, on Hallowe'en itself. (Tourist Office: 01404 813964.)

Lewes Bonfire Night, East Sussex (5 November). The Lewes celebrations now attract as many as 50,000 people a year, causing major problems for the little town. There are five different bonfire societies, with flaming barrels and fireworks from 7.45pm on the night, but the infamous effigy of the Pope - which is made by one bonfire society - is no longer allowed to feature in the main procession. Be prepared to park far away from the events.

Lord Mayor's Fireworks Display, River Thames, London (14 November). This is part of the Lord Mayor's Show and while it is not technically a fire festival, fires and fireworks have been part of life on the Thames for centuries. The display starts at 5pm and the best vantage points are Victoria Embankment and Blackfriars and Waterloo Bridges. For more information on this and London's many local bonfire nights, call the premium rate (50p per minute) information line on 0839 123410.


Biggar Ne-Erday Bonfire, Lanarkshire. Midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Biggar's celebration is said to be druidic, with a torchlight procession from 9pm, a bonfire, music and dancing. Very local, rather low-key.

Comrie Flambeaux Procession, Perthshire. Begins at midnight after much drinking, when the torch procession goes to the four points of the compass around the village, banishing evil spirits. There are between five and eight torches, a fancy dress procession, pipe bands and some outrageous carnival floats - the year I went, an effigy of the Queen was wearing an unprintable sign on its back. (Crieff Tourist Information Centre: 01764 652578.)

Up Helly Aa, Shetland Islands. Shetland has several Viking fire festivals, including one at Scalloway, which takes place on 15 January, but the biggest by far is at Lerwick on 26 January. With 900 local residents in costume, and about 5,000 visitors every year, the party goes on throughout the day, but the torchlit procession officially begins at 7pm and makes its way to the bonfire where the Viking galley is lit. Accommodation must be booked in advance, because the place gets packed out. (Shetland Tourist Board: 01595 693434.)