Remember, remember…

The nights are drawing in, and while some of us may brave the cold outdoors to go Trick-or-Treating this Halloween, there’s still one more event that might sway many of us to get outside again – Bonfire Night!

Bonfire Night, also known as Guy Fawkes Night, is celebrated on the 5th November. It’s an annual British festivity, where people up and down the country become enthusiastic pyromaniacs for the evening, lighting bonfires and fireworks, whilst munching on autumnal treats such as Parkin and toffee apples.

But why on earth do we celebrate this in the first place? Why do we use fireworks and how do they work? Let me reveal all…


Why do Brits celebrate Bonfire Night?

On 5th November 1605, the Houses of Parliament were almost blown up, as part of a conspiracy called the Gunpowder Plot. This was organised by a group of renegade noblemen, who held strongly Catholic views and hoped to kill the protestant ruler of England, King James I. They planned to do this by strategically blowing up the Palace of Westminster, whilst the royals and nobles were all inside. 

Unfortunately for them, once the 36 kegs of gunpowder had been placed, someone let slip of their plans, and the Palace cellars were raided. Sure enough, the man guarding them, with matches in his pocket, was a man named Guy Fawkes – or ‘Guido’ Fawkes to the ladies! He wasn’t the ring leader (that was a man named Robert Catesby), but he was tortured to reveal the names of the other plotters, all fourteen of whom were captured and/or executed!

Each year, Bonfire Night celebrates the the survival of the King and the failure of the rebels. Traditionally, towns will light fires, and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes on the fire, whilst setting off fireworks to represent the gunpowder that was never used.


What is gunpowder?

Gunpowder is a black powder mixture, made from Charcoal (15%), Sulphur (10%) and Potassium Nitrate (75%). The charcoal provides a carbon fuel source, whilst sulphur lowers the burning temperature because it reacts exothermically (gives off heat). The potassium nitrate also burns and releases oxygen, meaning the reaction can take place in the absence of an air supply. It is incredibly volatile (evaporates easily), so requires very careful processing. It is often ground down and moistened, to lessen this risk and also increase the burning time.


How do fireworks work?

Aerial fireworks are essentially controlled explosions, attached to a missile! Here’s what a basic firework can be broken down into:

  • Head – A casing for the compartment that holds the firework effects. The point makes the missile more aerodynamic, but they can also be flat too.
  • Effect(s) – This is where the magic is held. There can be multiple compartments for different effects, and these are all ignited by an internal time-delay fuse – so that it activates once in the sky rather than inches from the ground. The colourful exploding parts are made from fine explosive materials, packaged into small clusters often referred to as ‘stars’. The pattern it makes in the sky depends on how the stars are arranged in the casing and when they are activated – either all at once or in a sequence. The different colours come from using metal salts or metal oxides. Popular ones include copper chloride (blue), strontium carbonate (red), sodium nitrate (yellow) and barium chloride (green).
  • Charge – This works to fire the rocket into the sky. It’s where you will find the gunpowder, tightly packed in to give a quick and powerful blast. This can fire the missile into the sky at between 80-130mph (120-210km/h), depending on the size and weight!
  • Fuse – The part that we set fire to, which ignites the rest of the firework. Traditionally, they are made from a piece of fabric or paper which can be burnt manually, but some modern fireworks can also be activated electronically, using something called a wirebridge fusehead.
  • Tail – This holds the missile together, and allows us to set them up easily, aiming into the air and in the direction we’d like.



What’s on around Cambridge for Bonfire Night?

With all this talk of fireworks, you might like to visit one of the displays in or around Cambridge. Here are a few we’d recommend:

Fireworks look really great in the sky, and you might want to have a little display in your garden. Always be safe when using fireworks – a professional display is usually much better to watch and easier to enjoy than a home-made one.