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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.

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