In 1588, when the 151 ships of the Spanish Armada arrived off the coast with the intention of invading England and overthrowing Queen Elizabeth I, it is said that beacons–that is, bonfires–were lit throughout the country to warn of attack, the news spreading from hilltop to hilltop from the coast where the Armada was first sighted to London and throughout the rest of the country.
Later, when Sir Francis Drake and the small fleet of English ships vanquished the Spaniards, hilltop bonfires were set to celebrate the victory.
The lighting of bonfires throughout the UK has been used for other national celebrations, including Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 marking her 60 years on the throne, the 400th anniversary of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1988, Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden (50 years) Jubilee in 2002, and now her Diamond Jubilee.
If there’s something profoundly magical about fire and its power to ward off the dark, cold, and danger, there’s something especially magical about huge bonfires on the top of hills, their light visible for miles, inspiring those seeing them to light their own fires as the message–of danger, of celebration–travels from hilltop to hilltop, region to region.
The village of Crich, it is said, had its own bonfire in 1588 on the hill at the top of the village–and had one today as part of the Jubilee celebration.
There was a beautiful “strawberry moon” in the sky, and the weather was quite warm. When we got near Crich Stand, we saw a crowd of people massed about, waiting.
In the light of the moon, people’s faces came into view: our cousins Gordon and Susan, their son Tony, my cousin Kevin and his family, people we know from around Crich, and all of a sudden it became a gathering of friends and family as we stood in the darkness waiting for the beacon to be set afire.
The tower, called Crich Stand, dominates the hill, but a little further down the hillside is a small structure that is used for for the beacon fires. If you look above at the top of this post at the large horizontal view of the village of Crich, you’ll see the beacon as a small whitish vertical shape just to the right of the tower.
Some people were standing close to the little beacon tower; others were at the top of the hill next to Crich Stand, the shapes of the Stand and the people black shapes against the dark grey nighttime sky.
At 10:15, a man approached the small beacon with a lit torch, lifted it to the top of the little beacon tower, and light flared in the darkness.
On nearby hilltops–Black Rocks, Alport Stone, Tansley–other fires were lit as they were on 4,000 other hilltops throughout Britain and also in the British Commonwealth; the last beacon was lit at 10:30 in London by the Queen.
A magical night indeed, as the light from the beacons traveled throughout the land as has been done on this hilltop, and on hilltops around England, for hundreds of years, this time not carrying a message of danger, but of celebration for the Queen’s 60 years on the throne.