Bonfire night in Lewes is the hottest ticket in town

In East Sussex, seven societies compete to make their fireworks and effigies the biggest and best.

'We wunt be druv" goes the motto of Sussex's Bonfire "boys and girls" – "We won't be driven". Given its residents' natural antipathy to being told what to do, it is the perfect phrase to sum up the attitude in the East Sussex town of Lewes on Guy Fawkes Night, an event they simply call Bonfire.

The annual Lewes Bonfire celebration is one of the largest in the country – local people would say the world – and last night organisers were braced for some 60,000 people to take to the streets: four times the town's entire population. The event – six separate bonfires, burning effigies, hours of fireworks, several float-led processions and bonfire prayers – marks not only the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, but also the 17 Protestant martyrs burned at the stake in Lewes in 1555 by a Catholic monarch.

With no fewer than seven societies organising events, the town's Saxon streets were going to throng with hundreds of people in costume, from Mongol warrior armour and stripy, smuggler jumpers to traditional Tudor dress, until the small hours of this morning.

Despite residents joking that the number of health and safety regulations that the ruling Bonfire Council has to comply with has increased exponentially since the riotous celebrations of the 1800s, the sense of anarchy and abandon that the event still engenders is quite apparent.

"This event is an expression of freedom, showing that we make up our own minds here and are not told what to do by anyone," says "boy" Adam Sobot, 48, from Dagenham, a programme-seller and member of Cliffe Bonfire Society, one of the largest and oldest of the seven groups, which boasts more than 1,000 members.

"This tradition has survived because the people of Lewes trust the societies to get on with it themselves," he said. "More than anything, it is about having space to celebrate and to let things of our making happen."

The sense of friendly competition fostered between the societies – compared by some with that "between football fans, at its best" – is most evident by early afternoon, when the first floats start to parade down the streets. Effigies of Guy Fawkes and Pope Paul V, who became head of the Catholic church in 1605, feature every year, but, in addition, the societies create a topical "tableau", usually associated with an iconic figure gracing the headlines of the year before.

Ten years ago, an effigy of Osama bin Laden made the national press; and last year David Cameron appeared, holding his puppet, Nick Clegg. While this year's "Enemies of the Bonfire" are fiercely kept secrets, rumours are rife that the former Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi will go up in flames before the night is out.

Waterloo, a family-orientated Bonfire society, set up in 1964, boasts a papier mâché Rupert Murdoch dragon with Rebekah Brooks riding on top. While South Street Bonfire Society – one of the smallest, with approximately 350 members – has created a 13ft homage to Harry Potter, in tribute to J K Rowling's completion of the book series. Garry Brinkhurst, 27, a wood-seller from Lewes, spent six weeks working on the creation, knowing that his work would appear in the parade for no more than 45 minutes.

Bonfire is the most policed event in the county and, last year, 400 police officers monitored the evening's festivities, brought in from neighbouring villages to ensure the night ran smoothly. While Cliffe society still parades under the sign "No Popery", residents insist there is no longer any anti-Roman Catholic sentiment at the event, just an acknowledgement of tradition.

For Sara Forman, a 52-year-old college teacher who returned to Lewes from Spain four years ago, this is important. "Sometimes it is hard for outsiders to understand. I had to tell my Spanish students that this night is not about Catholics now, but an important point in history," she says.

"More than anything, it is a time when a normally quiet, conscientious town – careful about picking up litter and being respectful – goes a little bonkers," she adds. "I'm not part of a particular society, but I have filled my house with friends, my daughter has returned from university, and we will wander over to Commercial Square bonfire, because that is closest."

Last year, around 21,000 people travelled into Lewes by train. Ambulance services dealt with 127 cases: 14 needed hospital treatment for minor injuries. Twenty-three arrests were made, most for drunken excess, according to police. Despite the odd minor offence, Lucy Freeman, a 27-year-old teacher from Lewes, says Bonfire is "all about family".

She adds: "My dad used to be a chairman of Cliffe, and I have been a member since I was a baby. Even my gran still pays her membership and I have never missed an event," she says. "There are jokes about rivalry between societies but, really, everyone just wants to help each other out. After all, we are all just Bonfire boys and girls."

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