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Who was Guy Fawkes? An international student's guide to Bonfire Night

Two students at a Bonfire Night event in Scotland

By Ellie Buchdahl

Crash! Bang! Smash!

Don’t expect a quiet night in the UK on 5 November – or any time around it.

It all goes back to the same day in 1605, when a man called Guy Fawkes was caught with explosives in a cellar below the Houses of Parliament, attempting to assassinate the King and all his ministers. Since then, people in the UK have celebrated the fact that he didn’t succeed, by setting off a few explosions of their own.

From massive displays drawing thousands of spectators to private family firework parties, it’s harder to find somewhere in the UK that isn’t celebrating Bonfire Night than it is to escape the festivities... so you might as well join in!

If you’re new to the whole thing, some of the traditions around 5 November might seem a bit – well – extreme. Don’t be concerned, for example, if you see people shoving a model of a man into a flaming pile of wood. Burning ‘the Guy’, an effigy of Guy Fawkes, on the bonfire is part of the commemoration.

With the help of this handy guide you’ll soon be speaking the language of Bonfire Night like a native (and surprising your new UK friends with some weird firework facts)...

Where to go

There are bonfire celebrations all across the UK – nearly every city, town and village will host at least one! – but here are some of our favourites.

For the ultimate Bonfire Night experience, travel to Lewes in East Sussex. The town has six bonfire societies that spend the whole year working up to 5 November, when they are joined with more firework fan clubs from around the country and tens of thousands of visitors to see the medieval town fill with flames, flashes and fun. A grand parade travels through the streets of the town, with burning torches and other spectacular sights.

A large bonfire in Hastings, a town near Lewes in Sussex  ©VisitEngland Images

In Ottery St Mary, Devon, flaming barrels of tar are rolled through the streets during an annual Bonfire Night carnival. Historically, this was said to cleanse the streets of evil spirits and keep the town safe for the coming year.

For a modern take on Guy-burning, go to Edenbridge in Kent. Here, people select a public figure to make fun of – such as a celebrity or a politician – and a model is burned in place of Mr Fawkes.

London puts on a showstopper each year, which combines with the spectacular Lord Mayor’s Show – a traditional event, dating back to the 16th century – on the closest Saturday to 5 November. There’s a parade through the streets and a flotilla of ships sails up the River Thames, followed by a gigantic fireworks display along the river.

Fireworks over the London Eye and the South Bank (the south side of the Thames) ©VisitBritain/Britain on View

But often the most fun displays are the ones just around the corner. Check out events organised by your students' union, keep your eyes peeled for posters advertising fireworks festivals in local parks or check social media and ask around to find out what friends are doing.

What to do

Sure, fireworks and bonfires are spectacular, but there’s a lot more to Guy Fawkes’ night than standing around and gasping.

Buy a packet of sparklers – small sticks that sprinkle tiny sparks when you light them – and try ‘writing words’ in the air with them. Make sure you wear gloves, as a burn from a rogue sparkle can be pretty painful, or grab a glow stick instead to be ultra-safe.

With some clever photography, you can 'draw' in the air with sparklers!

Mind you, you might want to palm those sparklers off on someone else to leave both your own hands free to grab as much Bonfire Night food as you can!

Look out for parkin, a traditional spiced cake eaten on 5 November in the north of England, that contains oatmeal and is flavoured with ginger. A baked potato is also a must, as are grilled sausages (vegetarian or meaty, whichever you prefer). For a sugar hit, get yourself a toffee apple (an apple on a stick coated in hard caramel).

Big fireworks events usually have food stalls perfect for sugary treats, or a cup of hot chocolate to keep warm.

What to say

'Remember, remember, the fifth of November': Lots of UK people will chant these words – so why not impress them by finishing the rhyme, which originated in the 18th century?

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.
I see no reason why Gunpowder, Treason,
Should ever be forgot

(Yes, we know it’s not exactly grammatically correct…)

'Penny for the Guy': As if it wasn’t enough being set on fire, poor old Guy Fawkes has to put up with being pushed around in a wheelbarrow dressed in rags. Traditionally, children in the UK make scarecrow-like models of ‘Guy’ out of straw and take these around the town asking for money to pay for bonfire celebrations, with the words ‘penny for the Guy’, though this is a less common sight nowadays.

'Oooh! Aaaah!' …and any other noises of general amazement, as you stand gaping like a goldfish at the incredible fireworks displays above you.

How to stay safe

Don’t make this a Bonfire Night to remember for the wrong reasons. Nearly 1,000 injuries are caused by fireworks every October and November in the UK, with nearly half of those injured needing hospital treatment.

Make sure you stand well back from fireworks – behind the officials, if you’re at a public display, or check the fireworks packet for guidelines if you’re hosting your own. Make sure you wear gloves if you’re handling anything that might be lit. And don’t let any children go anywhere near where fireworks are being set off. Also, remember it’s illegal to set fireworks off after 11pm in the UK.

Bonfire-night-safety.co.uk has a useful guide to staying safe, as does the Chief Fire Officers’ Association website.

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