Events / Lifestyle

Something for the fire fans

By Frisco Rosso

Remember, remember the 5th of November? The residents of Ottery St Mary, Devon certainly do and subsequently celebrated this year’s Guy Fawkes Night in splendidly fiery fashion with the town’s annual tar barrel-carrying festival.

Each year the town’s locals participate in this cherished ritual that involves burly types brandishing flaming barrels and roaming around the streets to the joyous cries from the large crowds attracted each year.

The tar barrels are lit outside sponsoring pubs before being held aloft on the shoulders of carriers who then charge around the town of their own free will, although specific routes tend to be designated. When the strain and heat of said cargo becomes overwhelming the carrier passes the flaming baton on to the next willing participants who continue to storm through the crowds until the barrels become too unstable to carry.

A total of seventeen barrels are carefully selected and prepared for the event. Coal tar is used to line the inside of the barrel which is then filled with straw and paper. Although the process and eventual carrying sounds like utter insanity the festival is carefully controlled and safety marshals and emergency services keep a keen eye on proceedings.

This tradition of narrowly dodging second through to fourth degree burns extends back to the 17th Century, shortly after Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when the aforementioned tried unsuccessfully to assassinate King James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament. Towns and villages in England thereafter began engaged in torch processions and barrel rolling, which involved trundling ignited barrels through the streets. However, one or two locals decided that merely rolling the barrels was in no way manly or fun enough and so participants began hoisting the burning tar barrels onto their shoulders and the rest is smouldering history.

Some believe the tradition originates from an ancient pagan ritual when burning barrels were used to cleanse towns and villages of evil spirits, but whatever the case it is now firmly rooted as an exciting celebration of Guy Fawkes day.

Ottery St Mary prides itself on being the only place in the British Isles still keeping the tradition alive and its residents are fiercely protective of it, although similar events take place at different times of the year elsewhere in the UK.

Strangely, although visitors flock to the spectacle every 5 November, organisers are anything but falling over themselves to attract outsiders to the event. Having once lived in the West County for many, many years I can frankly say this sort of attitude is fairly typical in Devon and Cornwall, in that events such as this are for the benefit of the town’s people rather than tourists.

It also seems that only Ottery locals have the historic right to carry barrels on the night in question so avoid trying to get involved and stand well back when the carriers are in action if you wish to keep your skin blemish-free.

So, if you’re in the mood for something more adventurous than the usual bonfire and fireworks fare Guy Fawkes nights tend to offer then head to Ottery St Mary next year for some blistering pyro entertainment of the Devonian kind.



Frisco Rosso

With more tension than your mother’s suspension, I am Frisco Rosso. I’m likely to deliver a few lines worth at any given moment regarding film, music, sport, books and anything morally unsound that strikes a blow between the eyes in the name of entertainment.


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