The final two months of the year are prime time for fireworks displays, with Guy Fawkes Night (otherwise known as ‘Bonfire Night’ to some) and New Year’s Eve. Across the United Kingdom, the night sky will be lit up by fireworks and bonfires as people celebrate these two landmark events.
Reporter: Jack Leslie | Sub-Editor: Joseph Carey
But as visitor numbers to these events increase, pressures rise for event organisers to set their events apart from the rest, break even financially and make sure it’s a fun and pleasant experience for everyone.
In some cases, this has meant restricting the number of tickets to events. For others, it’s led to people having to apply for tickets way in advance and the vast majority have now moved to charging the public fees to attend. There are few free fireworks displays in densely populated areas like the UK’s capital city, London, and many New Year’s Eve celebrations are ticketed at a price too.
While this may make for a more stress-free experience to many, it also limits the number of people being able to experience the displays on offer. But you can still find a few needles in the haystack and this year I attended the Blackheath Fireworks display in south-east London on Bonfire Night, “remember, remember the fifth of November”.
Just a 15-minute train ride from London Bridge station, the Blackheath Fireworks display cost nothing to attend and there was no restriction on the number of people. But while this opened it up to everyone, there were both positives and negatives to attending an event that’s free of charge. These are likely to be the same across London and other events across the festive period, too.
Here are the pros and cons of free fireworks events in London:
A free fireworks display is free. What’s not to like? That was undoubtedly the best bit about the Blackheath event I went to. As a student and a young person, I’m not particularly keen on spending a lot of money on outings — I have rent to pay and need to keep myself alive with food and drink. It’s always handy to have some money spare in case of emergencies too.
So with an invite to a free fireworks display, the only answer I was going to have was “yes”. It also made the whole journey worth it, because I was spending roughly the amount of an entrance ticket on travel to and from the location. Not having to pay for a ticket was a big plus point and makes any event much more worthwhile.
At Blackheath you were asked to donate some money towards the show if you wanted too, but it was completely voluntary. This is probably the case for many free events, as the only other source of funding will be through sponsorship. I still dropped a quid in the pot, because every little helps, right? It looked like a fair few people were also donating as well, which made me feel a bit better about parting with such a small amount of money.
Another plus to the free fireworks display was that it was open to everyone. Not just in the respect of being able to afford to go and enjoy an event like Blackheath Fireworks, but also the fact there was no restriction in the number of people attending. The fireworks could be enjoyed by so many and that made for a cool, bustling and lively atmosphere – almost like a festival. It’s a good job Blackheath had such a big spectator area.
Because of the many thousands of people expected, Blackheath certainly went all-out with the extras too. There wasn’t just a fireworks display, as is often the case with these kind of events. They had a huge funfair with a vast array of rides and many food and drink stalls to choose from.
I attended the display with my Rebecca Christoforo, who is currently studying at South Bank University in London and travelled to Blackheath from Elephant and Castle. I got her thoughts on the free event afterwards:
“I’d say the biggest pro would be that travel in London is an issue and a free event makes me more likely to go to the event and enjoy myself, and as it was free and needed no ticket it was a spontaneous trip with a friend.”
It’s an important factor for many people, especially students. Not only was Blackheath easy to get to – like many events in London – but the fact it was free offset the costs needed to get to the display location too. Travel in the city isn’t exactly cheap, but the fact it was open to everyone at no cost made it worthwhile from a financial sense, regardless of whether you enjoyed it or not.
But, naturally, with the pros also come the cons. The first point is definitely not exclusive to Blackheath and is an issue all popular events in London suffer with – public transport. Getting to the fireworks display wasn’t too bad, but getting back was a complete nightmare and took far longer than it should. I can’t imagine what it must be like on New Year’s Eve – so be sure you have alternative travel options.
With any tube or train station, there’s only a certain volume of people the transportation systems can take and this can cause a huge backlog of people desperate to get back to their warm homes and apartments. There were huge crowds outside Blackheath train station, a fairly small two-platform station that can’t handle the number of passengers that descend on it every Guy Fawkes Night.
It proved to be an uncomfortable, stressful and awkward journey home – mainly trying to get into the station itself. Once on the train, there was actually room for quite a few more people, but only a certain amount were being let down to the platforms at the time. Perhaps improved communication would solve this issue.
Another problem was the road network in the area. This is especially relevant to Blackheath, where the main roads near the venue were shut for people to get to and from the display. They were also staggered, especially when two roads merged together. It was basically like a traffic light system, but with the police in control. While it was the only way for everyone to get home relatively safely, it still was an uncomfortable and squished situation to be in.
Rebecca and I got there early to find a good spot, but that made things trickier when trying to navigate the crowds and get home. She said: “The biggest con would be the amount of people that were present, because it was free getting to and from the event via the trains and streets were difficult as they couldn’t handle the amount of people at the free fireworks display.”
Of course, getting there early to snap up the best view of the display also meant waiting around in the cold for (in extreme cases, for complete firework aficionados) several hours. A November or December night is never going to be pleasant, but even with a few layers and gloves on, it was still frightfully chilly. We were all in the same boat though, as the crowd was already healthy when we arrived an hour before the display began.
While you can see fireworks from wherever you stand, there’s something that bit more special about being at the front with a clear view – especially if you want to get those beautiful Instagram shots. But to do so, you have to sacrifice part of your evening and get there early to beat the rush and that makes life harder when trying to get home. So you can’t really win.
There was also the fact that fireworks displays don’t go on for that long. At Blackheath, it lasted around 15 minutes or so and was beautifully done. But, especially for those who don’t want to spend a lot of money on food, drink and other activities at the venue, it’s a long way to come and a lot of effort for 15 minutes of fireworks.
In general, though, it all depends on the type of person you are and what you’re willing to sacrifice for a good fireworks display or free event. I was more than happy to get a big cramped and crushed in the crowds when leaving the event and travel out of central London for it, but others won’t be so committed.