How Bonfire Night Is Celebrated Around London

Why do people in the UK remember, remember the fifth of November, anyway?
Bonfire night represented by a group of people gathered around a bonfire, with a brilliant night sky and shooting star above them.

We love a quirky celebration in the United Kingdom. There’s Burns Night in January when we feast on haggis and parsnips to celebrate the poet Robert Burns; Shrove Tuesday in February when everyone tries (and fails) to flip pancakes; and, of course, National Tea Day in April, which is self-explanatory.  But perhaps strangest of all is November 5, a.k.a. Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Day.

On this day, the entire country celebrates the capture of a man called Guy Fawkes who, on one dark night in 1605, attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. To this day, the UK celebrates the foiling of this attack by hosting huge bonfires and firework displays across the country. Parks, fields and back gardens are transformed into organized gunpowder parties where straw effigies of Guy Fawkes are thrown onto fires to perish.

The History Behind Bonfire Night

So how did this all begin? Well, Fawkes was part of a group of Roman Catholic activists who were fighting to practice their religion after years of persecution under the Protestant reign of Elizabeth I. Him and his mates rented out a house close to Parliament and smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar beneath the House of Lords. Physicists and historians have calculated the amount of gunpowder would have obliterated Parliament and everything within 500 meters (which would have included our beloved Westminster Abbey and Big Ben).

What stopped them? Someone sent an anonymous letter to tell Parliament to avoid the House of Lords that evening. Fawkes (who was also an expert in explosives) was hiding in the cellar, ready to light the fuse. A search ensued and, at the last moment, Fawkes was found cowering between two barrels by a guard. I won’t go into the gory details of what happened to Guy Fawkes and his mates, but let’s just say they got more than a slap on the wrist.

But the good news is Parliament and the throne were saved! And since November 5, 1606, the day has been marked as a National Day of Thanksgiving (declared as such by King James I). It’s quite sinister when you dig deep. But we’re not here to dig deep, we’re here to have fun! And there’s nothing more fun than Bonfire Night in London.

Since the very first celebration over 450 years ago, the displays and parades have become bigger and better and have grown to encompass a lot more than celebrating the capture of a public menace. It’s about bringing together communities, championing multiculturalism and hearing Katy Perry’s chart banger “Firework” over and over again.

An illustration of a young girl holding a sparkler up into the sky as fireworks burst all around her.
Illustration by Luisa Uribe, courtesy of the Bright Agency.

Where To Celebrate Bonfire Night

The holiday is one of the best nights of the year and totally unique to the United Kingdom, so I’ve made a list of some of my favorite spots around London to celebrate the day. The date of the events change from year to year, so you’ll have to check to see when certain things are occurring.

Alexandra Palace

This isn’t just a fireworks display, it’s a fireworks festival. The event has become so popular that Ally Pally (as the locals affectionately call it) will be hosting it twice over the course of the weekend.

Here you’ll find circus acts, light shows, a jaw-dropping fireworks display, magicians, world-class street food, craft beer, the most incredible laser light show I’ve ever seen (and more!). The best bit, however, has to be the location. Alexandra Palace is perched on one of the highest points in the capital so you can watch the fireworks explode over the London skyline.

Battersea Park Fireworks Display

You can arrive by Thames Clipper to this South London fireworks display and moor up right in the middle of the celebrations to experience the fireworks up close and personal. Not only that, but you can tie in a visit to the incredible Battersea Power Station, which is a historical and cultural gem in the heart of London. After years of lying derelict and unused, the station has undergone a transformation and the beautiful building is now an arts and culture hotspot.

You can enjoy the fireworks display in Battersea Park and soak up everything Battersea Power Station has to offer.

Wembley Park’s Light Up The Night

This multi-cultural event is designed to celebrate both Bonfire Night and Diwali. The northwest London park comes alive with light shows, a range of different musical acts, fire installations and, of course, a banging fireworks display.

The aim is to celebrate the area’s cultural diversity and move November 5th onto the international stage. You can expect to see a Bollywood brass band and street dancers from the Bollywood industry, as well as Dhol drummers, neon dancers and a mechanical elephant. Not to mention delicious cuisine from all around the world. And the best bit — it’s absolutely free. Read all about the event here.

Crystal Palace

You can experience Fireworks Night like a local at Crystal Palace Park in southeast London. The park is a natural auditorium and provides another stunning view of the city skyline. It’s built around the former Crystal Palace, built for the 1851 World’s Fair (though sadly it burned down in 1936). This fireworks display is a great one for families, with a giant statue of a sphinx, a children’s railway and a world-class fireworks display, as well as delicious food trucks, entertainers and more.

The Crystal Palace Fireworks have been canceled for the 2021 season because of the ongoing pandemic, but they hope to be back in full operation in 2022.

Lord Mayor’s Show

Want a celebration that’s right in the heart of the city? Attend the Lord Mayor’s fireworks display — an all-day event and one of the most fascinating cultural displays of the season. It’s usually held a little bit after Bonfire Night, and in fact commemorates an entirely different historical event: the creation of the London Mayoralty by King John in 1215 (think Magna Carta). While it’s technically a separate event, it bookends the many celebrations of Bonfire Night.

The Lord Mayor’s procession commences from Mansion House and ends at the Royal Courts of Justice. You can catch the procession all day long for free and then stick around to watch the magnificent free fireworks display.

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