What does Bonfire Night mean to you?
As a kid I always looked forward to Bonfire Night. Our neighbours, who I called Aunty Wyn and Uncle Ken, always had a big bonfire party. They didn’t have any children themselves so very much saw my sister and I as their surrogate daughters. Therefore they were a big part of our young lives.
They were also far more affluent than our parents, lived in a bigger house with a bigger garden so it was a treat to spend time there. On Bonfire Night (and New Year’s Eve) there was always a buffet with sausages, and jacket potatoes and, what seemed to me, a huge array of food, followed by the fireworks’ display and bonfire down the far end of the garden. We all lived in a long terrace of homes on a hill so there were no surrounding properties where people could complain.
It does seem rather bizarre but for 416 years, we have been celebrating the foiled Gunpowder Plot, and putting effigies of Guy Fawkes on bonfires.
Fireworks as we recognise them date back in the mid late 60s, early 70s and they were nothing like the ones we have today. They were not as loud, as big, and it did seem when I was a child that the men were always in charge of the fireworks.
At that time, fireworks were only on sale for a couple of weeks before November 5th, and generally they came in selection boxes. You could buy rockets and large fireworks singly. The most popular fireworks were Catherine Wheels, Roman Candles, Bangers, Fountains, Mount Vesuvius, and, of course, the most marvellous to me – the sparklers. The fireworks you could hold in your hand as a child.
Rockets were often placed in milk bottles, and launched, going off in all directions. Catherine Wheels were often nailed to wooden fence posts, or tree trunks, but if they weren’t nailed firmly, they would career off into the air, still spinning.
We didn’t appreciate then how dangerous this was even though I burned my fingers on sparklers many times and Catherine Wheels often span around the garden, creating near misses. Even then the local fire service must have dreaded Bonfire Night.
Bangers are now banned in the UK, as are Jumping Jacks, which literally, after being lit, jumped around erratically. Everyone had sparklers, which you were only allowed to hold in gloved hands, so that you didn’t burn yourself.
Like today, the fun was to try to write your name with the light. Children could even buy small fireworks themselves, with money they had collected from ‘penny for the guy’ – if they could be bothered to create one. I could never be bothered to be honest.
Most people made their effigies out of straw, dressing them in old clothes, and pushed them around the neighbourhood in wheelbarrows! New laws came out in 2004, and now it is an offence to sell fireworks to anyone under the age of 18. Personally I think that’s a good thing.
Apart from bangers, the main noise heard on bonfire night, alongside the crackling of the fire, was the whoosh as rockets went up. The fireworks seemed to be less ‘boomy’ and noisy, as they are today. Even so, the noise often frightened animals, and most people kept them inside on Bonfire Night, although people didn’t tend to complain about the noise. The traditional celebration and fun were accepted. Our dog, a border collie called Prue, hid in the clothes basket which Mum kept full of clothes for ironing. When the fireworks started to go off, she’d crawl under the washing and hide. Each year we’d forget her ‘one night of the year hiding place’ and spent ten minutes trying desperately to find her. She’d be shaking head to toe.
Nowadays, fireworks have become a way to celebrate all types of events, and you can hear them at different times of the year, not just on November 5th. People have them at weddings, birthday parties, New Year and to celebrate religious holidays. I think this is why people tend to complain about scaring pets because at least on Bonfire Night you are expecting loud bangs, but when fireworks suddenly start going off, you or your animals are always prepared. However I’ve noticed that some areas are now using ‘noiseless’ fireworks so we’ll see how that works out.
When we had our own children, we always took them to one of the fantastic displays in Swindon. They are often far more entertaining and have fireworks that are more impressive than any at home.. The ones at Westlea Primary School, where our children went, were brilliant, although one year, a nearby tree did catch alight!
What are your memories of Bonfire Night?