Outdoors: When the country was set alight

On Thursday evening 5,000 beacons blazed across Britain. Duff Hart-Davis fans the flames of dissent from a myriad bonfires
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All we wanted for our beacon bonfire was a clear evening. What we got was low cloud and thick Scotch mist, driven in from the west by a blustering wind. So instead of being able to see over the Severn estuary and the Forest of Dean to the Black Mountains, we had a view of only two or three miles.

No matter. Few of the 5,000-odd sites that blazed up all over the country on Thursday night can have been more spectacular than ours, on the westernmost point of Uley Bury, a promontory from the Cotswold escarpment high over the Berkeley Vale.

Here, 3,500 years ago, Iron Age men built a fort to defend themselves against invaders from Wales, reinforcing the steep slopes with ramparts of earth which remain to this day. Here, in the early centuries of the Christian era, Romans made a race track along the rim of the hill, and local riders still gallop their horses round the grass circuit.

As dusk came on, and lights shone out in the plain, dark figures began to loom over the ramparts as people walked up from the village, 400ft below. Not least among them was the bearded Bodger White, who lives in a tent in nearby woods, and arrived bearing a placard that proclaimed his intention of continuing to defy the local council.

The combustible pyramid which we had created was - though I say it myself - a fine construction. Its heart was a half-ton, rectangular bale of linseed straw, dried-out but still containing useful quantities of oil. On top of that was piled brushwood and several hundredweight of off-cuts from a joinery, plus a few old doors, the odd pallet, a superannuated gate and a garden table eaten to the bone by donkeys.

Next came the remains of the pier at Weston-super-Mare - hefty, 9ft- by-3ft pine planks, well seasoned with red anti-fouling paint. Finally, in a teepee shape outside them, stood several dozen long, thin poles, all dead and well seasoned, dragged down out of the surrounding woods over the past few days.

The assembly of material had not proceeded without a hitch. The story of how the planks from Weston pier reached Uley Brewery must await another day. Suffice it to say that they had lain against the retaining wall of the yard for eight years, and when we moved them the wall collapsed, nearly killing one of our helpers. Next the brewery wagon got stuck on the softest part of the Roman racecourse, and had not Chas, its owner, driven like Jehu, it would have been there for the night.

Waiting for the off, I thought of the other distinguished arsonists standing by to north and south: the trainer David Nicholson at Jackdaw's Castle, his racing stables near Ford; Lord Vestey at Crickley Barrow, a prominent crossroads near Northleach, and Tracy, Marchioness of Worcester, at Hawkesbury Upton, near Badminton. Yet we had an igniter to match any of them - the novelist Joanna Trollope, as fair and slim as any fire-goddess of antiquity.

Our given ignition time was 6.24pm. At 6.22 I lit a brand - a strip of old towel soaked in diesel oil and nailed to the end of a pole. Precisely two minutes later, as rockets scorched into the sky behind her, Joanna rammed it into the opening we had left in the windward side of the pile.

For a moment I waited breathlessly, dreading failure. Then flame seared up through the centre of the heap - and away it went. In seconds we had a blaze so violent that the storm of sparks whirling off down-wind looked like the tail of the Hale-Bopp comet.

Shouts began going up as people spotted other beacons: a couple on the ridge across the valley, half a dozen down in the plain. Never mind that we couldn't see any in the far distance: the point about these close fires was that everybody could deduce whose they were. "That's Coombe's Grove!" someone cried. "That's Sheephouse. That's Heneage. That's the Lye."

Great was the general delight when we saw the flashing blue lamp of a fire-engine come speeding along the valley road, only to stop, turn and go back on its tracks. We assumed that the crew had become confused by the multiplicity of potential targets.

Round our own roaring monster all was merriment. Chas the Brewer liberally dispensed pints of Uley ale from a nine-gallon barrel, and struck up the occasional ditty on a squeeze-box. Ron and Margaret, from the village shop, handed out sizzling hot dogs from their portable barbecue. Children rioted on the grass, and grown-ups gossiped happily, mesmerised by the ever-changing patterns of the fire.

Perhaps it was because the talk turned to woad, and the possibility of regenerating the plants which gave Ancient Britons their blue dye; perhaps it was because, with all these signal fires sending messages across the valley, we had suddenly reverted to an era of primitive communications. Whatever the reason, as I stood back from the throng I felt myself suddenly shudder with the feeling that the living were surrounded by phantom spectators from the distant past, hovering out there in the dark, and I moved back closer to the fire.