Last week we celebrated our first Bonfire Night in London. This time last year, we were sitting in our flat eating dinner when we heard the first pops. We disregarded it as people shooting off leftover fireworks from Halloween. But then there were more pops and louder pops and it sounded like our flat was under siege, so we jumped up to look out the window and there were fireworks in every direction – at least a dozen different shows going on at the exact same time. It was beautiful, but baffling – what was so special about the 5th of November? Our friend Google, who we posed questions to nearly every day of our first year in London, informed us it was Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night. And that’s when it hit me – bald Natalie Portman, a masked vigilante, and remember, remember, the fifth of November – V For Vendetta! I know this day!
While the movie shares a few elements in common with the Guy Fawkes story, it really has little to do with the actual history behind Guy Fawkes Night. As the story goes, back in 1605, a group of 13 men had a plot to assassinate King James I in hopes that his death would end the persecution of Catholics by the reigning monarchy. Their plan, known as the Gunpowder Plot, was to secretly store 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament (the famous building with the Big Ben clocktower, for those of you outside the UK) and then blow the whole building up during a ceremony on the 5th of November where both the King and members of Parliament would be in attendance. Their plot was foiled when an anonymous tip alerted the King of their plans the morning before the attack. Guy Fawkes was found under the House of Lords, guarding the barrels, and was arrested, tortured, and executed along with the rest of the conspirators.
Thanks to the movie, I was under the impression that Bonfire Night was celebrating the rebellion of Guy Fawkes and company, but it’s actually the opposite. Bonfire Night gets its name from the small, celebratory bonfires that the English set burning outside their homes once they’d heard the assassination attempt had been unsuccessful and their King was safe. The tradition continues today, with entertainment, fireworks displays, and much, much bigger bonfires.
Since we live pretty far out in west London, we chose to join in the celebrations in Richmond, the borough neighboring our own, rather than spend an hour trying to get into the city. The celebration started with food, as all the best things do, with food trucks offering everything from burgers, hot dogs, and overflowing BBQ sandwiches to a variety of sweet fair treats. For me, the choice was clear as soon as I got a whiff of the crêpes stand – homemade salted caramel crêpe, it is! And you guys, after over a month of denying myself anything sweet, that crêpe brought tears to my eyes. I even drank the caramel that spilled out of the crêpe and into the cardboard container. So good.
Besides food, fall drinks were a big part of the celebration, too. Prosecco, beer, winter Pimm’s, mulled wine, coffee drinks, and hot cocoa were flowing a-plenty – but not for me. Thanks to an ill-timed diet (seriously, who starts a diet during the holidays?), that crêpe was my only indulgence. (Whew. Tomorrow morning scale crisis averted.)
Next on the agenda – rides and entertainment! Practically all the same rides that came to the funfair this past summer were at Richmond’s Bonfire Night, save for one new one – The Extreme. Probably the scariest non-rollercoaster ride I’ve ever seen, and of course that’s the one Lexie wanted to try. Right before the ride began, I watched Lexie take off her glasses and grip them in her hands and the thought crossed my mind, this might not be the best idea we’ve ever had. Next thing I knew, the ride was swinging and tossing Lexie around like a ragdoll – her legs were actually flailing through the air, and I thought I might be sick if I kept watching. When it was all over, with shaky hands covered in red marks where her nails had been digging into them, she told me it was okay if she didn’t go on anymore rides that evening. Fine by me – I don’t think I could have watched that again anyway.
After that, our evening was a little more tame – we watched the performers, one a Michael Jackson impersonator who wasn’t actually half bad. The rest of the acts ranged from just so-so to absolutely terrible. What we were really gearing up for was the bonfire, though.
I had asked ahead of time when the bonfire would be lit so we could get into position at the front of the crowds early enough. We were just standing around, bouncing from foot to foot in the cold, when out of nowhere, there was a frightening bang and a rocket shot into the air from the pile of wood in the bonfire. The bonfire quickly burst into flames, and just as we all began to clap, it quickly fizzled out. We were all left standing there, looking at each other like, well, that was anti-climactic, as a team of guys buzzed around trying to figure out how to re-light the fire. If we were in Tennessee, we’d have just walked next door and borrowed the neighbor’s blowtorch.
I’m not exactly sure what they did – maybe doused the whole thing in accelerant? – but the next thing I know, there’s a big whoosh of flames and all of us in the front row had lost our eyebrows. Okay, I kid, but seriously – I’ve never seen a pallet of wood catch fire as quickly as this one did the second time around, and it was beautiful. I had never photographed fire before, so it took a little trial and error for me to figure out how to capture the detail of the flames, but I did it! Watching those flames lick in and out of the wood was mesmerizing. We stood around as long as we could, but as the fire grew, we feared our faces might actually melt off and moved to the back of the crowd for a few shots. This was definitely a bonfire worth waiting for.
The night ended with a dazzling fireworks display set to Michael Jackson songs. (Obviously there was a theme going here.) This was also my first time photographing fireworks, and this I got to have a lot of fun with, without a lot of effort on my part. We set up the tripod at the back of the crowd, and at the very beginning of the show, I took a few test shots to get my settings right, and then, because I didn’t want to experience the whole show from behind the lens, I put the camera on its 2-sec timer and every few moments would just press the shutter without even looking. Because of the 2-second delay, what I ended up with was about 40 shots of fizzling fireworks (I really need a wireless remote) and only 5-10 decent ones, but hey, fireworks are best seen in person rather than photos anyway!
Since we missed celebrating Independence Day with our friends and families this year, our first Bonfire Night in London was kind of like a really cold replacement Fourth of July celebration. Regardless of which holiday it’s for, I’m always a fan of bonfires and fireworks, so I can’t wait to do this again next year!
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