United Kingdom

Signal Fires

For centuries, people lit beacons to unite across distances. England keeps this ancient tradition alive.

by Alexandra Marvar

It was the Queen’s birthday, and it was the night that Prince died—a cold, damp April evening in 2016—and the village of Steventon, Oxfordshire was gathered in a muddy field on a hilltop, participating in the most primitive human meditation: staring into a blazing fire.

I was visiting my friends in their quiet eleventh-century English village, lined with centuries-old thatched-roof houses. Earlier that day, a small committee of residents had stacked shipping pallets six by six and twenty high at the village’s highest point, an unplanted field at a local churchwarden’s farm. They crowned the heap with a lorry-load of dry brush and drenched the pyre in gasoline. 

As the sun started to sink, we set out on a chilly walk.

We made our way down the elevated cobblestone causeway built by monks in the 1200s. We passed the North Star, the seventeenth-century public house that the owner himself attempted to bulldoze some New Year’s Eves ago when the barman refused to serve him. As we neared the edge of town, dozens of neighbors funneled out of Steventon’s windy streets to a single path up the hillside. 

At the pyre, a crowd of fifty or so people gathered: moms in puffy coats, dads holding pints of ale in plastic cups from the makeshift bar on the tailgate of a neighbor’s cargo van (they’d hung little English flag banners along the top of the back doors), an entire schoolhouse of children in hoodies and wellies, huddled around their parents, fitful with anticipation.

While we watched, our hosts approached the stack with torches, and sparks began to fly.

The churchwarden, a village elder, with a box of long matches in his hand, gestured toward the growing blaze. “We’re number 998,” he called to the crowd. “That means that around the country, there are probably 2,000 fires going. If we’re lucky,”—he panned his hand eastward—“we may see others over there.” 

They crowned the heap with a lorry-load of dry brush and drenched the pyre in gasoline. 

A woman bundled in a bright orange coat piped up right away: “There’s one!” We all turned our heads and squinted past the blaze of our own fire, now more than two stories tall.

“And there’s one there,” a girl pointed due north. 

Orange dots sparkled along the rim of the dark stretches between us and the horizon. We could see the fires burning in three other villages from here. Then four. Then six. Each of those villages could see a number of other fires, farther afield.

More than a thousand bonfire beacons raged across the Commonwealth in solidarity and celebration of her majesty’s ninetieth: In church towers, on hilltops, across the United Kingdom, on the peak of Scotland’s Ben Nevis, Snowdonia in Wales and Slieve Donard in Northern Ireland, fires connected a nation by sight.

For these moments, by our participation, we were bound to other villages across the shire, and to the whole of England. 

. . .

When I walk through an ancient fortress or cathedral or palazzo, I like to rest my hand for a moment on the worn-smooth surface of a marble column or a bannister or the base of a statue, and try to imagine how many people have rested a hand in that same place over thousands of years. Staring into Steventon’s beacon that night, my cheeks and forehead feeling sunburnt from its heat, brought the same sensation, of overlapping with people millennia ago, sharing footsteps, sharing palm prints, sharing the trajectory of a rapt gaze. But rarely if ever would a beacon of yore be lit to celebrate someone’s birthday. 

As long as humans have known about fire—its powers of comfort and protection, or of danger and destruction—they have used it to communicate. By day, there were smoke signals, from the beacon network along the Great Wall of China to the tower of the Vatican to Native Americans’ smoke morse code in the Wild West. By night, there were signal fires, lit to warn of the approach of an enemy or send a call to arms. 

Staring into Steventon’s beacon that night … brought the same sensation, of overlapping with people millennia ago, sharing footsteps, sharing palm prints, sharing the trajectory of a rapt gaze.

Signal fires burned in 10th-century Constantinople, in Jerusalem and Babylon, and in the Norse Isles of Orkney to share news of war or of victory.  

In our fiction, too, fires have been warnings, as far back as fiction reaches. In 458 BC a Green tragedian wrote in Agamemnon of a chain of eight signal fires that alerted Argos to the fall of Troy, hundreds of miles away. In Lord of the Rings, signal fires called to allies when Gondor’s cities were under siege. 

England relied on signal fires as a defense network from the reign of the Roman Empire, to Saxon times, into the early 1800s. For hundreds of years, in the books of Jeremiah and Isaiah and in ancient English writings, they were simply signals by fire—signum per ignem—rudimentary bonfires on hilltops like the one we surrounded in Steventon. 

Over time, they evolved, first appearing by name in England’s royal decrees and municipal records in the late 1300s as beknes. Beacons became more sophisticated then: stone-block beehives, stone towers, or iron baskets on top of wooden or iron poles. They were fueled by shrubs—gorse and broom—that the citizenry was paid to gather and tend. 

When the signal ignited along the Thames in the 1370s, it meant the French had landed, and every man age 16 to 60 was to take up arms and line the riverbanks. If not for its vast, mapped, centuries-old county-by-county beacon networks—like spiderwebs splaying out from the most vulnerable points of its coasts—the island may have been taken by Norse raiders, by France, by Spain, by Napoleon. Beacons helped make this vulnerable island defensible, and without them, it may not have remained England all this time.

Nineteenth-century English poet Thomas Babington Macaulay recounted their critical role in his fragment “The Armada,” about the night in August 1588 when Spain’s King Phillip sailed a massive war fleet on England. That night was as bright as day, Macaulay wrote, the entire country lit by beacon fires at every visible point.

For swift to east and swift to west the ghastly war-flame spread,

High on St. Michael’s Mount it shone: it shone on Beachy Head.

Far on the deep the Spaniard saw, along each southern shire,

Cape beyond cape, in endless range, those twinkling points of fire.      

The “fiery herald flew,” Macaulay rhymed, “roused the shepherds of Stonehenge, the rangers of Beaulieu” to crush the Spanish fleet. And after the enemy was defeated, they lit fires for another purpose: to celebrate.

. . .

For a century, the memory of fire beacons in England was all but lost to time. In the 1800s and early 1900s, the networks eroded, the maps were mostly forgotten. A renewed interest flared up with archaeological pursuits of the twentieth century, and today, beacons nod to eternal flames, honoring landmark occasions: Queen Elizabeth’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees, the 400th anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the hundred-year anniversary of the end of the First World War. Just as on Independence Day in the U.S., and on Bastille Day in France, people who could not be more divided will be connected for some bright, firelit minutes, when fireworks explode above them.

As long as humans have known about fire—its powers of comfort and protection, or of danger and destruction—they have used it to communicate.

We can’t be sure if this churchwarden’s hilltop farm has always been the site of a beacon in Steventon, or how many beacons might have burned in the broader Vale of White Horse. But from our sweeping vantage in that muddy field, we could see all that history and intent sparkling before us.

Around our beacon, kids bounded through giant mud puddles that were lit up like windows in the dark. The cottage-sized stack of kindling shifted ominously as the fire roared. 

Somehow around our beacon, no one held up a phone. Maybe this was a phenomenon of the English countryside. Maybe, a method of witnessing something beautiful that is now, three years later, virtually extinct. But, no matter how far we advance our ability to communicate, the most primitive modes of connecting remain the most powerful, in their simplicity, in their humanity and in their warmth. 

That night at our beacon, we spun in circles, looking to the east or south or into the woods, because if we stared at the fire for too long, our backs were cold, while our fronts and faces were hot to the touch.

CONTRIBUTOR

Alexandra Marvar

Alexandra Marvar is a journalist and photographer based in Savannah, Georgia.

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