5 Nov 2022

Gunpowder, treason and plot

In 1605 Parliament was the focus of dissent and conspiracy, when a group of thirteen Roman Catholics, led by Guido (Guy) Fawkes, plotted to blow up Parliament and kill King James I, a Protestant ruler who sought to rid the country of Catholicism. The plot was foiled and the 36 barrels of gunpowder that had been secreted in a cellar beneath the House of Lords, were never exploded. The conspirators were tried for treason and brutally executed.

On the night that the plot was discovered, bonfires were set alight to proclaim the safety of the King. The event, which has resonated throughout the centuries, is known as Bonfire Night. On 5 November the near-assassination of the King is commemorated with bonfires, fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes.

The dark roots of this annual festival have been subsumed by the intervening centuries. Most people now see it as a chance to eat char-grilled sausages and potatoes, get together with friends, and enjoy the fireworks that light up the sky all over the country. In some parts of England, in particular Kent and Sussex, the bonfire traditions have been more resilient. In the town of Lewes, the 5 November is also used to commemorate the burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in the town during the reign of Queen Mary in the 16thcentury. Other towns and villages have their own Bonfire Societies, which prepare all year for the celebrations, which include elaborate parades, costumes, spectacular firework displays, bonfires and the burning of increasingly topical effigies – Guy Fawkes has been supplanted by a selection of figures in the news, from Vladimir Putin and Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

Some people see Bonfire Night as a kind of extension of Halloween – an opportunity to enjoy a week of fireworks and celebrations. Others still maintain that Halloween in its present version is an American import and prefer to adhere to the uniquely English ritual of Bonfire Night. Many people will eschew purchasing their own fireworks and opt for the safe spectacle of civic displays, but for others the opportunity to build a bonfire and let off fireworks is a major thrill.

For people who love their own pyrotechnics, and who are planning a back garden bonfire celebration, it is sensible to keep your fireworks well within the law, and to be hyper-aware of the impact on neighbours:

Bonfire Night Etiquette

• If you’re having a bonfire night party, warn the neighbours, and preferably invite them. Be particularly meticulous about this if you know they have dogs and cats. Many pets are completely petrified of fireworks and will need to be shut up for the night.

• It is generally understood that fireworks on private property should not be let off after midnight on Bonfire Night, so observe the curfew, and don’t torture the neighbourhood with ear-splitting bangs and whistles. Check local by-laws to ensure that more strict guidelines have not been imposed in your locale.

• It is against the law to set off fireworks in the street or in other public places without permission from the local council, so if that happens you are quite entitled to complain to the police.

• You are permitted to have a bonfire in your garden, but there are laws against burning any substances that might release harmful fumes – this will include plastic, rubber or painted items. If you stick to firewood, you won’t be endangering anyone’s health, and your bonfire will be delightfully aromatic. If you’re going to burn a guy, ensure that it is made of natural materials (eg fabric and straw).

• It is vitally important that you keep your bonfire contained, and that the smoke is not causing a nuisance, or obscuring visibility on an adjacent road. Be aware that if your fire gets out of control or damages a neighbour’s property (for example by burning a fence), you will be liable for any destruction and costs incurred. To minimise any risk, it is always a good idea to set your fire on soil, rather than on a grassy or overgrown part of the garden, which can easily ignite if dry.

• Light fireworks at arm’s length, using a taper, then stand back. Never throw a firework. Don’t go near fireworks that have been lit – even if they haven’t gone off they could still explode. Have buckets of water handy for emergencies – they’re also useful for cooling down spent sparklers, which can get very hot (hold them in gloved hands). Never leave matches or lighters lying around.

•Safety is paramount, especially where children are concerned. If you have invited round friends with children, you must do your utmost to ensure that they are supervised at all times, kept well away from the fireworks, and not allowed to encroach on the bonfire where flying sparks are a real hazard.

• If you are holding a bonfire party, be careful about alcohol. Try and have the firework display before too much drink has been consumed, as disinhibition and danger really don’t mix. It’s probably a good idea, therefore, to serve drinks and food well away from the bonfire.

• Ideally, make one sensible adult responsible for supervising the bonfire. They can keep it stoked up, ensure that it’s not getting out of hand (have some buckets of water nearby just in case), and they can also ensure that it is properly extinguished at the end of the evening – pour water over it, stamp on the embers, then spread sand over them.

• If you hate the whole hullabaloo of Bonfire Night, try to be tolerant. It isn’t against the law to light bonfires in private gardens, or to let off fireworks before midnight. The whole thing might make you feel grouchy, but you may very well not have any legitimate grounds for complaint. So try to resist the urge to protest, recognise that your neighbours are entitled to celebrate and convince yourself that it’s an exceptional circumstance. Early November can feel like a cacophony of deafening explosions (especially as people seem to celebrate for several days before and after the 5th), but it will soon be over.

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