In the town of Ottery St Mary, the birthplace of Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and only a half-hour drive from Exeter, a strange local tradition takes place on or around bonfire night, up there with the likes of the world-famous ‘Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake’ from Gloucestershire. That tradition is tar barreling. This year the event took place on Saturday 4th of November.
The tar barrels are exactly what it says on the tin: wooden barrels filled with tar are set on fire and some brave souls carry the lit barrels on their backs and run through the streets of the town. Many barrels are set alight over the course of the afternoon and evening, with the first one starting at 16:00, and the rest of the barrels taking place at regular intervals until midnight. The barrels start small, with those for women and children (yes, children) and get larger throughout the night, with some of the biggest being 30 kg.
In addition to the flaming barrels of tar, food and drink, as well as music and even merchandise (I got a commemorative plastic cup with my drink, featuring cartoon flames and the slogan “keep Ottery rolling”) are available. There is also a funfair, and bonfire on the banks of the river Otter.
Wooden barrels filled with tar are set on fire and some brave souls carry the lit barrels on their backs and run through the streets of the town.
Visitors flock from far and wide to see this event, during which the town’s population increases from 7,000 to well over 10,000. The crowds are huge, especially on the streets where the barrels take place, so much so that sometimes it is hard to move around, and it is easy to lose people. People were crowded into every available window of the nearby houses, too.
One thing is for sure, tar barrelling is not for the faint-hearted, as even the spectators can get very close to the flaming barrels. At one point, I was in the front row of spectators and could feel the heat of the flames as the ‘barrel roller’ ran past. I got a spectacular view into the burning barrel, an experience I would describe as equal parts exhilarating and frightening.
However, there have been some injuries over the years, some more accidental than others. For example, in 2009 one barrel was sabotaged as someone threw an aerosol can into it, causing it to explode and twelve people needed burn treatment. Incidents such as this mean that public liability insurance for the event has become harder to get in recent years.
I got a spectacular view into the burning barrel, an experience I would describe as equal parts exhilarating and frightening.
Said to have originated in the 17th century, this unique tradition is thought to have begun as a pagan ritual to cleanse the town of evil spirits, making it more similar in origin to Halloween traditions and not actually related to Guy Fawkes and Bonfire night (but I suppose the whole ‘fire’ thing means the two celebrations naturally go hand in hand). The ‘barrel rollers’ themselves must have been born in Ottery, and often generations of the same family take part.
The tar barrels are also not the only weird tradition in Ottery: another is Pixie Day in June, which commemorates when the pixies were banished from the town (obviously) into local caves known as Pixie’s Parlour. The local Cub and Brownie groups recreate the story every year.
All in all, the tar barrels are a slightly insane but nevertheless incredibly enjoyable tradition of a local town, and one I would highly recommend going to if you have never been before, as it is a spectacle that is well worth seeing, and indeed, one that you can’t find anywhere else.