Tag Archives: tar barrels



‘Goodness Gracious Great Barrels of Fire’

The exact origins of the celebration are unknown but there are various reasons and myths of why it began. The only thing that is known is that it started after the gunpowder plot in 1605 and is now over 400 years old.

The West Country has always had a history of torchlit processions and burning of barrels as well as following the annual tradition of rolling lit barrels down the streets on November the 5th. Somewhere along the line, it was decided that the rolling of the barrels was a little too tame and that there was way much more fun in carrying them through the streets, and therein the new tradition was born. Whilst this practice was initially followed by everyone, it soon fizzled out and now Ottery is the only town in the country that still carry these blazing barrels on the streets celebrating Nov the 5th in a slightly different way to the rest of us.

Each of the 17 local public houses sponsor a barrel to be lit and carried to the river. The day begins with a women’s and children’s event, but the main attraction is the responsibility of the men. Only those men who have been born in the town or who have lived there most of their lives can carry the barrel. Generations of the same families compete against each other in a battle of nerve, strength, and stamina, fighting to remove the 30-kilo barrel from the runner. The crowds also try to join in the action to get near enough to feel the warmth of the barrels flame.

During this incredible fire festival, the population of the town doubles as people from all over the world come to witness the festivities. As the men carry the last of the barrels down to the River Otter they all then join making one of the biggest bonfires to be seen in the region. On one side of the river is the bonfire and on the other reflecting in the water are the flashing neon lights as the annual funfair starts up to entertain everyone in the family.

An amazing fireworks display is on offer that will mark the end of the day’s celebrations for another year and certainly end the evening with a bang.


Bonfire Night Tradition – Burning Barrels of Tar

If you thought Guy Fawkes Night has some weird traditions about it, like burning an effigy of Guy himself on a bonfire after carting him about in a wheelbarrow for a week for example, then have a look at this.

In a tradition that dates back to the 17th century, the residents of the sleepy little Devon town of Ottery St Mary celebrate the 5th of November in a very unique way. By lifting burning barrels of tar on their back and running through the streets with flames billowing behind them. The remarkable thing is, this is not some weird medieval punishment.   Generations of families of Ottery St Mary have fought hard for the privilege and bragging rights that comes with the honour of carrying a 30Kg flaming barrel dripping with burning tar. Indeed only those residents who were born in the town or have lived their most of their lives may carry a barrel.

“So why would anyone want to do such a thing?” I hear you ask, it all becomes clear when you learn where the extraordinary event begins. The local pubs. The public houses sponsor the barrels and the men to carry them. There are 4 pubs in the town and all in all 17 barrels of tar are lit, hoisted and paraded along the tourist lined streets in what can surely be described as a health and safety nightmare. Seriously though, this event is at risk of being lost to the to the paranoid fears of the health and safety officer and is costing more and more each year to insure.

The tradition is thought to have its roots in the practise of lighting fires to ward off evil spirits as in many parts of Britain where fire is used as part of a festival around the time of Halloween. Fireworks, making noise, and fire itself it seems to have always been the weapon of choice for humans in their never-ending battle against invisible ghosts and spirits. This is seen in Britain and in areas all around the world.

Saying that, it has also been put forward that this incredible custom began when the Black Death came to the shores of the UK.  When the rats carrying the plague came to the town the locals used cannons loaded with gunpowder to scare the rats from the buildings and into the streets.

Barrels of tar were then set alight and rolled down the road to kill the diseased vermin. The dead rats were then thrown onto a huge bonfire at the end of town. There is still one of the biggest bonfires in the country there every year.

Whichever legend is true, it has created a surprising alternative to a fireworks display on Bonfire Night and the local people of Ottery St Mary have a 5th of November that is always truly memorable.