I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot...
should ever be forgot...
Between fifty and sixty years ago, when I was a child growing up in a small Lancashire village, November 5th, more commonly known in Britain as Bonfire or Guy Fawkes Night, was probably the most important date in the calendar after Christmas, Easter and birthdays. From early October the local village shops would display fireworks for sale and as the month drew on, we would start to hear the occasional ‘banger’ being set off early by local boys.
Towards the end of the month, our parents would give my sisters and me ten shillings between us (50 pence now, but worth a great deal more back then) to buy our annual selection of fireworks before the shops ran out of our favourites. Oh, the agony of selection – almost as bad as that of choosing our Saturday sweets! Catherine wheels, Roman candles, rockets, fountains, and of course the essential handheld sparklers, even the names transport me straight back to childhood and the growing excitement as Bonfire Night came closer.
But there was much more to Bonfire Night than fireworks. Above all there was the bonfire to be built, in a grassy hollow on the hillside above our mother’s laboriously terraced garden. One October Saturday our father would take us down to the local woods, where we would collect fallen branches and tie them in bundles to be dragged home up the steep field above the woods. Later he helped us to build the bonfire, making sure it would burn well and not collapse too soon, and adding to it any odds and ends of burnable material which had been accumulating in the coal cellar for months.
Then there was the guy to be made, a task which was ours alone. An old shirt or jumper or jacket of our father’s or grandfather’s, together with a pair of ancient trousers or overalls and some holey socks would be stuffed with hay, straw or newspaper until we had an approximation of a human figure, with a bag for a head, and, if we were lucky, an old cap or hat on top.
We were never allowed to go out begging for ‘Pennies for the guy’ as more fortunate schoolmates sometimes did. Instead our guy stayed safe and dry indoors until the time came for him to be fixed firmly on top of the bonfire. In the meantime our mother would be busy too, making hard, dark and beautifully brittle treacle toffee to be sucked as we watched the bonfire burn and the fireworks go off.
Finally the day itself would dawn, with fervent prayers from even the most sceptical child that the weather would stay dry and not be too windy. No weekend communal bonfires and firework displays back then. November 5th was Bonfire Night and only the most appalling of weather would change that.
For our small family bonfire wasn't the only one we attended each November 5th. Our farmer neighbours had an old, open-fronted quarry on their land and in it their large extended family would build the biggest bonfire I have ever seen. Once our small bonfire was reduced to glowing embers we children would all decamp to the quarry for a spectacular blaze. Adventurous youngsters would scale the lower reaches of the quarry sides to set off fireworks from vantage points above the enormous bonfire, while the rest of us toasted ourselves and watched the excitement.
Eventually even this fire would die down, which was the signal for everyone to head back to the farmhouse kitchen for meat and potato pie cooked in enormous enamel bowls and shared with the multitude. Finally we would walk down the short lane from the farm to our cottage and fall into bed, exhausted, replete and happy, to dream of flames and fireworks and fun.
This November 5th I shall be otherwise occupied, but on the drive to and from the hospital, I shall while away the miles with Bonfire Night reminiscences and maybe even a piece or two of treacle toffee.
Images via Google