Bonfire Night and Halloween come together in Langdon Hills

There is something deliciously primal about a decent bonfire.

The best take time and effort to build. The hours spent cutting wood in different seasons, from field and copse, heaped up on Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons. The brambles cleared from the hedge. The scrub cleared from the meadow.

That wood has its own unremarkable stories.

The branch of an old, dying pear tree, broken under the weight of its own fruit. It had lain there on the lawn like some skeletal limb bedecked with pears. I dragged it through the arch and slung it high.

A leylandii, a gift from a cousin, planted as a tiny sapling in 1976. Over the years it grew to a tremendous height but it cast such a dark gloom on the garden that nothing could grow in its shadow. Matt, who cut it down, said that no-one was really sure how high they grew in the UK, as they were always brought down before they reached their potential. It was a difficult decision to fell it, but, as it crashed down, light flooded in to coax new blooms from hitherto dead earth. We cut it up where it lay, tugging it from the slopes where it grew to its funeral pyre.

The magnificent birch that stood in the meadow but was claimed by the  Great Storm of 1987. It crushed Mrs Croft’s old iron roller as it fell. In time new growth sprouted and, like the old apple tree by the “camp” that was also claimed by the winds that night, it began a new life, growing horizontally. To clear round it I cut back some of those new branches, hanging over hedge and ditch.

These were just my recent efforts.

Underneath lay the results of earlier culls by other hands on other days. Birch, holly, fir, oak, chestnut, ash, blackthorn, bramble and nettle all heaped up together, weathering quietly in rain and frost and snow and under Summer’s lazy sunshine. As we lived our lives, so the wood seasoned, day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year.

I don’t know how many times we postponed the decision to light that bonfire over the last two or three years.

Three times? Four?

As time passes, people enter and leave our lives. Some get caught up with other things. Some simply drift away. Each decision not to burn changes the configuration of companions who might eventually come together for that final striking of the match.

Tonight we gathered in the gloaming, the table laden with beer and jacket potatoes and sausages and toffee apples and cakes. We were a motley mixture of three generations, all young at heart, each of us missing family and friends who might otherwise have joined us – some of us more reflective than others.

Paths and our feast were lit with hurricane lamps, the smell of burning paraffin a strange comfort that evoked memories of past happy times.  Rod had set his moth trap on the lawn. The three youngest had carved pumpkins – eerie, flickering imps that watched us silently through the evening.

There is something about that sort of gathering that I love – the camaraderie, the friendship, the food, the excitement of children adventuring safely in the dark. Then there is that moment of nervous quiet as the match is struck, all those looking on willing it to catch properly. And finally, the cheers as the paper is lit and the kindling fired. When a little person tugged at my arm and looked up at me with big wide eyes, her words took me straight back to my own childhood. “This is my first ever bonfire!” she exclaimed, nervous and eager all at once.

It was a spectacular bonfire.

It caught from a single strike, the hiss and spit of the kindling soon becoming a roar as flames leapt into the dark, showering the meadow with sparks, and raging through the heap before us. The food was delicious and the beer refreshing. We talked and laughed against the whine and crack of the blaze and small hands held glow tubes and sparklers, colours dancing away like magic into the night.

Everyone there had lost someone.

Everyone there was missing someone.

Everyone there was enjoying the comfort of family and friends.

Before we finished, Rod checked his moth-trap. He called us over excitedly. Inside was a rare moth that in all his years searching on the hills he had never found: Merveille du Jour. How apt to end the evening with the Marvel of the Day.

Enjoy the pictures.

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And the video.

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