Bonfire Night celebrations are some of the best nights of the year. Something about being chilled to the bone whilst standing beside a blazing mass of wood as people set off small explosions for the sake of beauty gives an adrenaline rush like no other. If you want to take the thrill of inherent danger to the next level, then you have to pay a visit to Devon’s infamous Tar Barrels event.
It’s a peculiar tradition that’s been running for hundreds of years in the relatively small village of Ottery St. Mary. This particular night of the year has it teeming with crowds of people bundled in scarfs and more often than not clutching a cup of cider. The streets are lined with stalls selling drinks and food, anything from toffee apples to burgers and chips. Definitely allow yourself to indulge; I’d recommend the fresh sugared donuts!
This was my first year going to the celebration, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. With a cup of hot mulled cider in hand, I squeezed my way into a crowd gathering in the main square. I couldn’t see much at all and resigned myself that I was probably too far away from the action. How wrong I was! Within five minutes, after seeing a shower of sparks go up on the other side of the square, the people around me parted to let a soot-covered woman run through with a blazing barrel on her back. With a triumphant yell, she transferred it to her partner and they continued carving a path through the exultant crowd. I was hooked.
after seeing a shower of sparks go up on the other side of the square, the people around me parted to let a soot-covered woman run through with a blazing barrel on her back.
I spent most of the evening seeking out barrels. It’s surprisingly easy: there’s always a crowd, an excited roar, and then the barrel “rollers” begin running up and down the street, trailing sparks and embers. The spectacle of it is one thing, and the sheer foolhardiness of the people who have done this for generations is another. Part of me wonders how this hasn’t been shut down yet for violation of health and safety, but watching men wearing what looks essentially like a big pair of oven mitts patting out their smouldering shirts and then going back for more is as intoxicating as it is baffling. It’s obviously dangerous, but don’t let that stop you from going! There’s little chance for a real catastrophe as the crowd simply steps out of the way.
The spectacle of it is one thing, and the sheer foolhardiness of the people who have done this for generations is another.
A lot of people make the most of the beverage stalls and get sufficiently merry on Devon’s finest cider. My friends and I spent a while in the fairground by the bonfire, rediscovering our inner five year olds on the rides. By the end, I couldn’t feel my toes but relished the heat of every barrel that passed by to warm my pink cheeks. It’s a Bonfire Night I’ll never forget, and whilst I still love fireworks displays, I’ll be mourning the fact that my home village isn’t filled with people as reckless as those in Ottery St. Mary.