Remember, remember the fifth of November? How could I possibly forget? Guy Fawkes Night isn’t celebrated in Northern Ireland, but it’s a huge event in England and one I looked forward to with bated breath when I was a kid growing up in Lancashire.
Although here the occasion passes unremarked (unless you’re watching Corrie, where they always show fireworks on November 5), in England it’s second only to Christmas as an occasion for mass all-inclusive festivities.
The tradition of our English Bonfire Night began the year of the failed coup against King James I by a group of 13 Catholic rebels — including Guy Fawkes — collectively known as The Gunpowder Plot.
The attempt was foiled on the night between November 4 and 5, 1605 when the plotters were caught red-handed trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Fawkes and his fellow men were swiftly executed for treason and 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 of Guy Fawkes onto bonfires, and fireworks were added to the celebrations. Even today, centuries later, preparations for Bonfire Night still include making a dummy of Guy Fawkes, which is called ‘the Guy’.
When I was a kid this was all part and parcel of the excitement. My brothers, sisters and I would cobble one together using old worn-out pyjamas stuffed with rolled-up newspaper and stitched together like a scarecrow. We then kept up the ancient tradition of walking the streets of our neighbourhood, carrying it and begging passers-by for “a penny for the Guy”.
Once we’d made enough money, we went to the corner shop to buy treacle toffee and sparklers for the evening festivities. Such fun it was, too! One year we made so much money I had enough left over to buy myself a Bay City Rollers scarf.
On the night itself, the Guy was placed on top of the bonfire, which was set alight while we all watched agog, and, then as he finally withered and burned, the fireworks would be set off to symbolise the gunpowder.
Now, even though this was originally and essentially an anti-Catholic celebration, the sectarian significance had long since become irrelevant and everyone would join in the fun. From the nuns at my school and the priests at my church to the Hindus and Sikhs who lived down the road, everyone would build a bonfire, set off fireworks and swish sparklers around before tucking into a steaming hot plate of Lancashire hotpot followed by a slab of a special home-made cake called “parkin”. This sticky treacle tray-bake was as much a part of Bonfire Night as the fire and fireworks themselves and something which to this day I still long for every November just out of sheer nostalgia.
So, for all you homesick North West English ex-pats — and I know there are loads of you because you keep emailing me! — here’s the original recipe. There’s nothing included that can’t be bought from your local shop so get fettling! (That’s Lancashire for ‘cooking’.)
TRADITIONAL BONFIRE-NIGHT PARKIN
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
110g (4 oz) dark brown soft sugar
110g (4 oz) butter
125 (4¼ oz) black treacle
140ml (¼ pint) milk
225g (8 oz) plain flour
225g (8 oz) medium oatmeal
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
MAKES 16 SLICES
Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas 4/350°F. Grease and flour a 20x30cm baking tin. Melt the sugar, butter and treacle over a low heat. Beat the egg well and, off the heat, add to the syrup mix with half of the milk.
Combine the flour, oatmeal and ginger in a bowl and pour into the treacle mixture. Dissolve the bicarb in the remaining milk and add to the rest of the mixture. Stir well, then tip into the prepared tin.
Bake for about one hour until the cake tests done — when a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. For best flavour, keep in an airtight container before serving.