Illustration by Luisa Uribe, courtesy of the Bright Agency.
We love a quirky celebration in the UK. There’s Burns Night in January when we feast on haggis and parsnips, 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 5th, a.k.a. Bonfire Night. 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).
But 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. 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.
It’s one of the best nights of the year and totally unique to the UK, so here are my favorite spots in London to enjoy the celebrations:
November 2nd + 3rd: 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!) — all for £12 per ticket. 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.
November 3rd: 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. Make sure you buy tickets beforehand — £10 adults, children under 10 get in free.
November 4th: 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.
November 5th: 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. This 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.
Again, just make sure you buy your tickets beforehand — £8.50 for adults and £4.50 for kids.
November 10th: Lord Mayor’s Show
Or you can be right in the heart of the city and attend the Lord Mayor’s fireworks display — an all-day event and one of the most fascinating cultural displays of the season. The Lord Mayor’s procession commences at 11 a.m. 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 at 5:15 p.m.
You can also purchase tickets to a 2.5-hour sightseeing cruise on a boat with commentary from the captain, a glass of prosecco and spectacular views of the fireworks display here.