Bonfire History

Brockham Bonfire 2007

Riot or Plastic ?

Twenty eight years ago, in 1979 I reproduced this article in the first Bonfire Brochure. I was fascinated by it then and still am. Written by someone called Falkland and I believe printed in one of the local newspapers. It captured the magic of bonfire night for me then and it still does today. I hope you can see the magic of bonfire night too! At the end of the article, I have re-visited the second sentence, to see if we have ‘Gone plastic’ and whether or not it makes any difference to you, or to us. Enjoy the article.


The Falkland Column

We do things much better in this area, and we do it best of all at Brockham, where; little, if anything is left to chance. It is one of the festivals that has not ‘gone plastic’, as it were. There is nothing false about it; no half measures, no self-consciousness. It is an annual fiery wonder.

A riot

To take part in it, no matter how humble the capacity in which one serves, is to take part in the best organised riot that happens anywhere. A riot? Well, look at it this way – if about 500 men marched through the middle of any town or village, bearing torches and burned an effigy on a fire in the centre of the green or square, that would be a riot, if it had not been pre-arranged.

If you and I and several hundred others constructed a stuffed replica of … (fill in the gap with the name of your most burnable enemy), and burned it in the middle of Dorking, letting off fireworks awhile, a jail big enough to contain the lot of us would no doubt be found. We should all pay a heavy fine, or do time for the privilege of expressing our feelings. At Brockham on November 5th, you can do all of those things and get away with it, with a group of Policeman looking on to observe fair play. There is even a loudspeaker commentator to make sure that everyone riots properly.

Preparation is the keyword for what happens. The bonfire, for anyone who passes through Brockham from mid-October onwards, is carefully piled up around its central pole. The village is cleared of all its hedge clippings and tree-pollings to make up the stack. In the middle of the stack goes the heavy items, the pianos, the remains of demolished tool-sheds and so forth. Round the edges go the boughs of trees, leaves outwards, the whole pile being laid in the fashion of a rick and therefore proof against damping by any but the heaviest of rains.

The bonfire grants privileges too. The cricket square alone is left as sacred ground on the Green, but farm tractors and trailers trundle over the rest, completely proof against the harsh words which would be directed against them if they tried it on in the cricket season.

Guards are set up on the bonfire stack as soon as it begins to gain height. Run across the Green on any night between the foundation of the stack and its completion, and you may find a heavily muffled fire-guard running after you.

The Brockham fire-guards are men who could well receive medals for their devotion to duty; many a conscript soldier has guarded less important things for less time and thought far more of himself than these men.

As a conscript soldier, once upon a time, I spent many nights guarding something which I had been told was a telephone exchange with immense strategic importance. It was nothing more to look at than a vast cube of concrete. Occasional signallers went into it and wires sprouted out of it in all directions. No one ever thanked me, or anyone else, for walking round it all night with a boltless rifle, and the element of joy in those proceedings was totally absent.

But if I had been told that, after keeping an eye on it for a week or so, I could help burn it down, perhaps I could have felt considerably better about it. I wonder?

The best place to watch the bonfire proceedings is from an upper window a mile or so down the road from the Green. The Band and torch-bearers set out about seven o’clock and march southwards along Wheelers Lane, the procession glowing with points of light and crowned by drifts of smoke.

The crackle of explosions follow it, the band brays and tinkles, the drums thump. It is like having a window into the past. It is the French Revolution; it is the Gordon Riots, the storming of the Bastille, anything that you would like it to be. The line of fire-carriers marches bravely up to the “Spotted Cow” – and stops. No one that I spoke to knew quite what happens at the “Spotted Cow”.

The torches are recharged, maybe, or the processionalists recharge themselves from their favourite beer-pumps and bottles – who can say? It is probably a great secret; a custom dating back to Palaeolithic times perhaps. Do the young men learn words of Power from the Elders? It might be better not to know.

At any rate, after a halt of some length, the band and the Guy-bearers, come down the long straight towards the Green in full stream. The torches flare reddish-yellow, the road is crowded with the walking throng, traffic that has taken this way as a short cut through the lanes bleeps feebly in the rear. This is the night when the omnipotent cars can wait, or move at foot pace only.

As the procession passes, marching on to the consummation of its desires, it can be joined. It moves on quickly toward the Green, then halts in a flaming mass a couple of hundred yards away from the bonfire stack to reform and await the signal.

And then it moves on, unchecked, to surround the leaf-browned column, as the Guy-carriers finish their work of securing the stuffed martyr, with fireworks concealed under his tall-crowned hat, to the top of the pole.

The commentator implores mercy for those who are lashing Guy to his fate. The stack after all is drenched with oil, and would go up like a bomb. They scramble down - the ladder is pulled away - and up go the torches, whirling like a swarm of big, drunken fireflies, to lodge in the side of the pile. Yellow patches appear, grow, and with a roar the bonfire is away. It is done.

I would rather be a torch-bearer at Brockham and collect money in the name of joy, fireworks and charity, than to have taken part in the most magnificent moon shot of all, wherein men travelled half a million miles to return with a handful of dust. And that’s the truth.


What do you think? This is my view.

Undated, but I suspect from the reference to moon shots, published first in about 1965. So have we ‘gone plastic’? Is the magic still the same?

Of course things have changed. Society has changed over the last forty years, but is the magic still as brilliant as ever? The procession still follows the same route and yes, The ‘Spotted Cow’ was a place to give the Band a break and to recharge the processionalists. The procession still stops at the ‘Spotted Cow’, but it’s not their any more.

The cricket is gone from the Village Green, too many broken windows and damaged motor vehicles. Cars could (but should not) become entwined in amongst the procession.

Has Brockham Bonfire Gone plastic? Not in my opinion, but we have changed. A traffic exclusion zone now exists to ensure your safety. The bonfire guards still get cold protecting an asset - now worth over fifty thousand pounds and many hundreds of man and women hours to build.

The bonfire is built much the same way except that progress has reduced hedge cuttings from farmer’s fields to pulp. The Guy still follows a journey of consummation, the carriers not exposed to a ring of fireflies on sticks for their safety. It still halts to reform, the yellow patches still grow but no oil soaks the stack.

A riot? No. Carefully and meticulously planned entertainment, still under the watchful eye of Policemen, Stewards, Firemen, Doctors and Medical Staff – still in the name of fun, fireworks and charity.

The article says to me, you must ‘leave it as you found it’, is as motivational today as it was when I first read it 25 years ago.

Tony Hines

Brockham Bonfire Ltd

With thanks to Falkland, whoever you may be!