A Sussex phenomenon


Many people are surprised to find out that the bonfire societies and processions are not a nationwide occurrence but specific to Sussex. They were formed to commemorate the burning of Protestant martyrs during the Catholic Reformation of Queen Mary I from 1553 to 1558. Protestants who did not renounce their faith were publicly burnt at the stake.

Bonfire Nights in Sussex are not only about the fireworks that round off the end of the night’s celebration. It is the main event, the procession, that draws the crowds in. They are spectacular and Hastings is certainly one of the largest. Societies, drummers, and organisations group together in their own unique and highly identifiable costumes with banners and lights. They burn flaming wooden torches and the excitement is palpable. Marching bands from each society interweave with groups that have no drummers. The colours, the lights and the sounds are mesmerising.

The groups lined up and marched slowly through the streets of Hastings last Saturday, October 15, but the wind decided to play havoc with the event. Sparks flew where they were not supposed to and there was concern in the Old Town with its ageing timbers that there was a potential fire hazard. So, the torches were quenched but the show went on and crowds cheered, and drummers drummed.

Sue Beattie from RNLI Hastings said: “We had fourteen RNLI volunteers, made up of fundraisers and crew, fundraising in the procession. The atmosphere was fantastic despite it being very windy. Drumming bands played, people dressed up, torch flames lit up the streets and the town turned out to watch and join in the fun. It was Hastings community at its best and we in the RNLI were proud to be part of it.”

You may wonder why the Hastings Bonfire takes place in October. The Battle of Hastings occurred on October 14 1066 and Hastings celebrates this event every year by having lots of activities throughout the week culminating in the Parade and Bonfire which always takes place on the last Saturday of Hastings Week.

So, what does it feel like to drum in the parade? I asked some of the Ryebellion Drummers from Rye to tell me what entices them to drum and to be part of such huge spectacles.

Barbie Vane, a drummer in the group told me: “The love of drumming, singing and music is food for the soul and I would not have half the friends I have if I was not involved in music. I married a military tutor of music, Stan, 54 years ago (another drummer in the group) and we still go out drumming at Sussex bonfires at the ages of 73 and 80. Say no more.”

Charlotte, aged 16 this week, loves being part of the group. “It’s the adrenalin that courses through your body that I love. We practise each week and the processions give us the chance to perform and enjoy the buzz and brilliant atmosphere. It’s like being part of another family.”

Image Credits: Kt bruce , Kt bruce .

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