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Archive for November 4th, 2010

Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night

Guy Fawkes Effigy

Guy Fawkes Effigy

The tradition of Guy Fawkes-related bonfires actually began the very same year as the failed coup. The Plot was foiled in the night between the 4th and 5th of November 1605. Already on the 5th, agitated Londoners who knew little more than that their King had been saved, joyfully lit bonfires in thanksgiving. As years progressed, however, the ritual became more elaborate.

Soon, people began placing effigies onto bonfires, and fireworks were added to the celebrations. Effigies of Guy Fawkes, and sometimes those of the Pope, graced the pyres. Still today, some communities throw dummies of both Guy Fawkes and the Pope on the bonfire (and even those of a contemporary politician or two), although the gesture is seen by most as a quirky tradition, rather than an expression of hostility towards the Pope.

Preparations for Bonfire Night celebrations include making a dummy of Guy Fawkes, which is called “the Guy”. Some children even keep up an old tradition of walking in the streets, carrying “the Guy” they have just made, and beg passersby for “a penny for the Guy.” The kids use the money to buy fireworks for the evening festivities.

On the night itself, Guy is placed on top of the bonfire, which is then set alight; and fireworks displays fill the sky.

The extent of the celebrations and the size of the bonfire varies from one community to the next. Lewes, in the South East of England, is famous for its Bonfire Night festivities and consistently attracts thousands of people each year to participate.

Bonfire Night is not only celebrated in Britain. The tradition crossed the oceans and established itself in the British colonies during the centuries. It was actively celebrated in New England as “Pope Day” as late as the 18th century. Today, November 5th bonfires still light up in far out places like New Zealand and Newfoundland in Canada.

The Gunpowder Plot of 1605

In 1605, thirteen young men planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Among them was  Guy Fawkes, Britain’s most notorious traitor.

After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, English Catholics who had been persecuted under her rule had hoped that her successor, James I, would be more tolerant of their religion. James I had, after all, had a Catholic mother. Unfortunately, James did not turn out to be more tolerant than Elizabeth and a number of young men, 13 to be exact, decided that violent action was the answer.

A small group took shape, under the leadership of Robert Catesby. Catesby felt that violent action was warranted. Indeed, the thing to do was to blow up the Houses of Parliament. In doing so, they would kill the King, maybe even the Prince of Wales, and the Members of Parliament who were making life difficult for the Catholics. Today these conspirators would be known as extremists, or terrorists.

To carry out their plan, the conspirators got hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder – and stored them in a cellar, just under the House of Lords.

But as the group worked on the plot, it became clear that innocent people would be hurt or killed in the attack, including some people who even fought for more rights for Catholics. Some of the plotters started having second thoughts. One of the group members even sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament on November 5th. Was the letter real?

The warning letter reached the King, and the King’s forces made plans to stop the conspirators.

Guy Fawkes, who was in the cellar of the parliament with the 36 barrels of gunpowder when the authorities stormed it in the early hours of November 5th, was caught, tortured and executed.

It’s unclear if the conspirators would ever have been able to pull off their plan to blow up the Parliament even if they had not been betrayed. Some have suggested that the gunpowder itself was so old as to be useless. Since Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators got caught before trying to ignite the powder, we’ll never know for certain.

Even for the period which was notoriously unstable, the Gunpowder Plot struck a very profound chord for the people of England. In fact, even today, the reigning monarch only enters the Parliament once a year, on what is called “the State Opening of Parliament”. Prior to the Opening, and according to custom, the Yeomen of the Guard search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. Nowadays, the Queen and Parliament still observe this tradition.

On the very night that the Gunpowder Plot was foiled, on November 5th, 1605, bonfires were set alight to celebrate the safety of the King. Since then, November 5th has become known as Bonfire Night. The event is commemorated every year with fireworks and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes on a bonfire.

Some of the English have been known to wonder, in a tongue in cheek kind of way, whether they are celebrating Fawkes’ execution or honoring his attempt to do away with the government.

Doing something different this November 5th – Go to the Ottery st Mary Tar barreling night

Roll Out the Barrel
Pagan Traditions survive in Devon Town

Driving through the main square of Ottery St Mary on the afternoon of November 6th, the only townspeople I see are two elderly gentlemen with sturdy little dogs and a young girl on a bicycle. The quiet Devonshire town in the beautiful Otter Valley shows no signs of the previous night’s revelry. Nearly a week before, on October 31st, the annual festival had started with the traditional procession through the village, complete with Carnival Queen and Princesses and brightly-coloured floats sponsored by local groups.

The final day, November 5th (Guy Fawkes’ Night), culminates in rituals far more hair-raising than the traditional bonfire and fireworks enjoyed by the rest of the country. Before dawn, the local people come out into the streets and fire ‘cannon’ – hand-held pieces of piping which are filled with gunpowder and fired in the traditional way, to create an almighty flash and a loud bang. This is repeated at 1pm and again at 4pm.

However, the real treat is kept for the evening, when thousands of people from across the county and beyond congregate to watch barrels full of burning tar being rolled up and down the streets and through the main square. This is an extremely ancient tradition, possibly older than that of the unhappy Guy Fawkes himself. Fire festivals around the time of Halloween are deeply rooted in British folklore and have been connected with the ritual burning of witches. It is a great honour to be allowed to take part in the barrel rolling and this has continued in some local families for generation after generation.

The weather was against us, both windy and raining hard and we arrived late, around 8pm. It was only a short walk into town from the car park, along the main street past the softly floodlit church. All the roads had been closed since 5pm and the reason was clear: all the public areas were filled with people from elderly pensioners to tiny children, watching the burning barrels and frantically trying to dodge as they came closer and then moved off again. The barrel rollers carry the barrels on their shoulders and protect their hands with dampened sacking. They run back and forth with the barrel until they can no longer stand the heat and then they pass it to the next person in line. The more experienced bearers achieve this by whirling the barrel around their heads until their successor is ready to accept it.

Some of the rollers are quite sedate, clearly experienced, travelling up and down amongst the crowd. Others are keen to prove their strength and race along, taking the crowd by surprise and scattering people in their wake. All end up sooty from head to foot. As I watched, one teenager’s hair caught fire but was rapidly extinguished by his neighbour. The emergency services stand by for more serious situations. Barrels are rolled at designated times at various sites across town, mostly associated with and sponsored by the nearest pub. They start with the smaller barrels for women and boys in the afternoon and progress to ever-larger barrels carried by the men late into the night. As the evening progresses, so the drinking takes effect, the atmosphere becomes wilder and the experience more hazardous. It is not unknown for people to break the glass shop fronts of the main square as the throng heaves to and fro.

For those who lose their nerve or simply want to take a break from the main spectacle, there is a vast bonfire with a traditional Guy on it down by the water. Across the river from the bonfire are the bright lights of the travelling funfair, with all kinds of stalls and rides. The thousands of visitors are catered for by mobile vans selling everything from candy floss to hog roast and the pubs are open all night, although you’d be lucky to get a drink with the numbers of people who gather there. The most highly prized souvenir of the evening is one of the metal rings from the burnt out barrels.

Since the traditional rolling of burning barrels at Lewes in Sussex was banned following a tragic accident some years back, this is probably the most important festival of its kind. The exemplary organisation of the Ottery event has warded off similar threats but be warned: on a damp night the car park becomes a marsh and if you don’t want to go through a change of clothes and several car washes, you might do well to join one of the many coach parties run from Exeter.

Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels link

Have a safe ‘Guy Fawkes’ night

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For 400 years, bonfires have burned on November 5th to mark the failed Gunpowder Plot.

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Engineers are to carry out emergency repairs on an 18th Century bridge in Bath after cracks were found in a support.

Subsidence was found in a basement built into the base of Pulteney Bridge.

Pultney Bridge

Pultney Bridge

Bath and North East Somerset Council (Banes) said mortar from previous repair work had shifted but there was no danger of the bridge collapsing.

The council wants to close the historic structure to traffic, but some residents are objecting to the plans.

Banes says the bridge – a Grade I listed structure – is unsuitable for modern traffic.

They submitted a closure plan before the current repair work was needed.

However, some residents fear the bridge’s closure would cut them off from the city centre.

The issue had been due to go before the council on 3 November, but this has now been put back to some time in 2011.

A temporary scaffolding system is being put in place to support the bridge until permanent repairs can get under way.

History of Pultney Bridge

Pulteney Bridge (Photo Bath and North East Somerset Council)

Pulteney Bridge is one of the most admired buildings in a beautiful city.

Pulteney Bridge is one of only four bridges lined with shops in the world, but Robert Adam’s creation has more than novelty value. His graceful composition is one of the unqualified successes of English Palladianism and provides the perfect integrating link between two halves of a Palladian city.

Across the River Avon from Bath lay the 600 acre estate of Bathwick. This was entirely rural when it was inherited by Frances Pulteney in October 1767, but its potential was obvious. No other English spa could rival Bath in this period and the city was in the midst of a building boom. Frances was married to an Edinburgh lawyer, William Johnstone Pulteney, and this energetic and frugal Scot immediately began to make plans to develop his wife’s estate. His first problem was that the only direct route from Bath to Bathwick was by ferry. By February 1768, he was conferring with Bath City Council about a new bridge. At first Pulteney contemplated just a simple, functional bridge, designed by a local architect, but by the summer of 1770 the brothers Adam were involved and the plans had undergone a dramatic change.

Pulteney Bridge by Thomas Malton 1785 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)

Pulteney had approached the Adams with his new town in Bathwick in mind. We may guess that Robert Adam then suggested putting shops on the bridge. He had visited both Florence and Venice, where he would have seen the ancient Ponte Vecchio and the striking Ponte di Rialto. But the most direct influence on Adam was clearly Andrea Palladio’s rejected design for the Rialto. Stripped of its heavier ornamentation, this tribute to ancient Rome emerged from Adam’s hands as the coolest of English understatements.

England also had housed bridges of medieval origin, but by the 18th century these were being seen as impediments to traffic. Adam’s designs therefore caused some consternation in Bath. The Corporation, who had not been consulted, wrote to Pulteney in protest. They evidently thought it perverse that after London and Bristol had cleared their bridges of houses, he was proposing to bring this outdated phenomenon to Bath. But Pulteney remained adamant. Perhaps the prospect of the bridge paying for itself through shop rents appealed to his love of economy. Pulteney Bridge by Thomas Malton 1779 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)

Adam planned a row of eleven small shops on each side, with staircases to attics above. Lofty Venetian windows formed the centrepiece of his design for the river façades, while matching Venetian doors faced the street. These were echoed in a pattern of recessed, columned windows, creating an interesting play of light and shadow for passers-by. Malton’s aquatint gives us our only view of these lovely street façades, subsequently much altered.

Pulteney Bridge was complete and ready for occupation in late 1773, but tenants were slow to come forward. The shock of the American War of Independence had fallen like an axe on Bath’s development. The plans for Bathwick were shelved and for many years, Adam’s elegant and urbane bridge led out onto meadows, rather than a Palladian townscape. When building eventually began in March 1788, it was Thomas Baldwin, a Bath architect, who provided the detailed plans. Pulteney Bridge was left as Adam’s only work in Bath.

Pulteney at least had the tact to see Adam to his grave before desecrating his handiwork. On 26 March 1792, less than a month after Adam’s death, a lease of most of the bridge was granted, with Baldwin’s plans for conversion to larger shops. The roof was raised and the windows transformed into bays. No doubt it all made sound commercial sense, but Adam’s street elevations were utterly ruined.

This was just the first of many distortions of Adam’s original vision. Disaster struck in September 1799, when a pier gave way after high floods. The remaining pier collapsed when the river rose in a great storm in November 1800. The houses on the north side were so badly damaged that Pulteney seriously considered dismantling the whole structure and building a single-span iron bridge, designed by his protégé Thomas Telford. But in the end only the north side was rebuilt. Adam’s pavilions were reduced to token pediments, but at least the design had unity.

It was not to last. 19th-century shopkeepers altered windows, or cantilevered out over the river as The north side of Pulteney Bridge in 1872 (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath)the fancy took them. By 1948, the buildings had become pathetic travesties of the original design, as Walter Ison sadly noted.

But the tide was already on the turn. Bath City Council showed concern to retain the Adam features of the bridge as early as 1903, when the south-west pavilion had to be moved. In January 1936, Pulteney Bridge was scheduled as a national monument. The Council already owned a few of the shops on it; now they bought the rest and the following year the City Surveyor carefully traced Adam’s own plans and designed a restored façade.

But war intervened. The restoration was finally executed in time for the Festival of Britain in 1951. Then in 1975 the Georgian Group partially restored the southern street facade to mark European Architectural Heritage Year. Now the restored bridge is a delight to photographers and one of the enduring images of Bath that visitors take away with them.

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