Category Archives: Ottery Saint Mary



Goodness gracious great barrels of fire!

As November the 5th approaches, the Ottery locals are preparing the barrels for the last soaking of tar ready for this year’s blazing celebration.

The exact origins of the celebration are unknown, and there are several rationales and myths about how the tradition began.  Alternative reasons are; the fumigation of the cottage and that the flaming barrels were lit as a warning that the Spanish armada was approaching. The only thing of any certainty is that the event dated back to 17th century and the gunpowder plot making it around 300 years old.

Earlier in the history of the event, the barrels were set alight and rolled down the streets.  Somewhere along the line, this was thought as a little too tame, and it was changed to the barrels been carried instead through the town something that the Ottery residents are very proud of and today attracts thousands of visitors to witness the spectacle each year.

Each of the barrels is sponsored by the Ottery St Mary’s town centre pubs, and the rolling takes place outside, or in some cases where a former pub used to be. Not just any Tom, Dick or Harry is permitted to carry the barrel; this is something that you have to be an Ottery St Mary resident to do.

Flaming Tar Barrels at Ottery St Mary

Many of the families have taken part in the event for many generations and there is a strict hierarchy on whomsoever gets to carry a barrel. The adult’s ‘barrel’ events are held at 7pm and there is an event for the children to have a go around 4pm. Make sure that you don’t miss out on the traditional midnight ‘barrel’, the biggest and most spectacular display that is held in Ottery’s main square.

Another fiery and integral part of the annual carnival is the epic bonfire situated on St Saviours Meadow. Three weeks before the carnival, the gathering of the materials for the bonfire takes place, and then a week before the festival is the building of the bonfire.  They are duly proud of their Bonfire as it usually stands at around 35ft high and the girth of it around 50ft.

The guy topping the bonfire was originally made by the young family every year from 1958 to 2009.  Nowadays, there is a guy competition held for the children in the community with the winner topping the bonfire. Most people associate the bonfire with the fairground as they stand adjacent to one another. This is an opportunity for the photographers amongst you to get some perfect shots as the blazing glow of the fire is complemented by the bright coloured lights of the funfair.

To make funds for the event year on year there are sales of memorabilia on offer along with programmes that give you a run-down of where the barrels will be at what times, these sales keep the tradition going. The event is free for all to enjoy but as you can understand due to the popularity of locals and from visitors the population of the town doubles. If you don’t like crowds, then this is not an event for you. But if you’re a bit of fire lover then get along and witness first hand one of the oldest events taking place in the UK today.


Ottery Saint Mary Tar Barrels

King James I at the Tower of London

Bonfire night on the 5th November in the UK celebrates the failed assassination attempt on King James I (as seen above) in 1605.

Normally this involves bonfires and fireworks, but the people of Ottery Saint Mary in Devon hold onto a more dramatic tradition. Wooden barrels are filled with tar and set alight. Once the barrels are ablaze they are carried on the backs of townspeople who charge straight through the large crowds that gather to watch the spectacle, forcing them to dive out of the path of the blazing barrels.