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Celebrating Our First Bonfire Night in London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

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.

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

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.)

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

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.

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

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.

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

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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Celebrating Bonfire Night In London

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  • Erin
    November 16, 2014 at 8:31 AM

    This is my favorite British holiday! One day I need to go back for a proper bonfire night :)

  • rorybore
    November 15, 2014 at 7:22 PM

    Now that’s a bonfire!! holy… I could feel the heat almost!
    Great job capturing those shots. I only took my iPhone for our Canada Day fireworks, but I think this year I will take my Canon. And hopefully Santa brings me a portable tripod.

  • Jenna O'B
    November 14, 2014 at 12:29 PM

    I missed out on guy Fawkes this year, but your photos of them look incredible.

  • Veronica
    November 13, 2014 at 7:20 PM

    Really enjoyed your photos Sarah. I love the shillohette of the people in front of the bonfire. So glad you shared the history too. I never knew the whole story. Very interesting.

  • Sara Louise
    November 13, 2014 at 7:47 PM

    Your fireworks photos are incredible!
    I’ve been to one Guy Fawkes bonfire night in my life and it was in Texas of all places! Go figure x

    • Sarah Shumate
      November 16, 2014 at 10:36 AM

      Texas?! Really?! I read that places in New England occasionally celebrate the holiday (normally as Pope’s Day) but Texas? Yeah, I wouldn’t have expected that.

      • Sara Louise
        November 17, 2014 at 8:01 PM

        An English expat group were hosting it. I’m pretty sure it was the only one for like, a thousand miles!

  • Camila @ AdventitiousViolet
    November 13, 2014 at 5:42 PM

    This year was also my first Guy Fawkes night and I loved it! But I wish I’d gone to an event with a bonfire, I love them so much! I simply walked up a hill in Edinburgh and saw so many fireworks along the coast, it was amazing!

  • Estherina's World
    November 12, 2014 at 7:20 PM

    This looks amazing! I remember my first Bonfire night like it was yesterday. Will definitely have to head back for another one ASAP.

  • Vera
    November 12, 2014 at 5:54 PM

    It looks like you had fun! and the firework and bonfire are amazing!!
    With love,

  • Tina @ Girl-Meets-Globe
    November 12, 2014 at 10:32 PM

    Your bonfire and firework photos are amazing though!! Your celebration was about 100 times better than ours!! We are in the country though!! ;)

  • topchelseagirl
    November 12, 2014 at 3:41 PM

    You got some great shots.

  • Miwa
    November 12, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    What an interesting celebration! I’ve never heard of it before (and I haven’t seen V for Vendetta… I am so behind on things) but it sounds so unique. And your photos of the bonfire are amazing!!! All of them are breathtaking but the last one of the bunch, the one with the silhouettes, is one that will stay etched in my memory for years to come. Love it.

  • Sammy @ Days Like This
    November 12, 2014 at 1:13 PM

    So, we went to watch the Fireworks in our local park, but it was so busy with the longet line and we didn’t get there in time to get in! So we watched the Fireworks through a fence and some trees haha. Bummer!

  • Dannielle @ Chicadeedee
    November 12, 2014 at 3:27 PM

    I love bonfire night, did they not burn a guy fawkes effigy there? They do at most of the bonfires here, kinda creepy!

    • Sarah Shumate
      November 16, 2014 at 10:30 AM

      No, but I’ve heard of other celebrations doing that. I’m kind of glad they didn’t – that’s pretty morbid!

  • Rachel G
    November 12, 2014 at 11:18 AM

    Wow! I’ve heard of Guy Fawkes–for some reason I think it was in the context of a Sherlock Holmes story Guy Fawkes Night was mentioned, but I learned a lot more about the actual history and celebrations from your post!