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Take a wine barrel, fill it with tar, light it on fire, and you’ve got a festival in Ottery St. Mary in England. Writer Cat Allen takes us to the hottest event in the countryside.
Text: Cat Allen
Country: England

ne of my earliest memories —I must have been 7 or 8 and at least a foot shorter than most of the crowd —is of flames swirling above my head. It wasn’t until a friend recounted his time at an Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrels event that the bizarre experience came flooding back.

Let’s start from the beginning.

Ottery St. Mary in England is “a lovely town surrounded by nice countryside. But then, once a year, everything goes a little bit wild and a little bit crazy”, says one resident. With a population of fewer than 8,000 inhabitants, it’s 10 miles (16 km) from the cathedral city of Exeter and is a typical Devonshire town. It has a post office, a couple of pubs, a supermarket, a butcher and a baker and an annual summer fair.

But on November 5 each year, some residents run around town with burning barrels of tar on their shoulders. Legend goes that the tradition has nothing directly to do with Guy Fawkes, a Catholic dissident who plotted to kill King James I in 1604, but does date back to a similar time to when his famous Gunpowder Plot was conceived.

Residents are deeply proud of their town’s unique tradition. “There are one or two other towns in the country that do something perhaps a little similar—they parade around with them in a procession—but no one else picks them up and runs around with them!” says another proud local. The actual tradition was to roll the flaming barrels, kicking them with your feet, but it’s unclear when the first person decided it would be a good idea to lift the flaming object above their head.

There are no safety barriers, crowd control, or set route for where the barrellers run. There are emergency services on hand, and the council makes sure to adorn the town with numerous large, red-and-white “YOU ARE HERE AT YOUR OWN RISKsigns, likely to protect themselves from lawsuits.

The event has a few requirements, the most important of which is that participants have to have been born and bred in Ottery. For generations the town’s residents have gradually worked their way up to carrying full-sized barrels. Each year the event kicks off with the “boys’ barrels”, in which children as young as 7, dressed in multiple layers of clothing and customised burlap sacks to protect their necks and hands, start their “training” with a mini-barrel, a 9-gallon (36-litre) cider barrel. It is filled with tar and set on fire. The surrounding crowd shouts encouragement, advice and tips and starts to roar as soon as the young child hoists the barrel onto his—or occasionally her—shoulders or head, and starts to run. Minor burns are common, although the locals maintain that the danger really is minimal. Any sparks that do land on skin are considered “battle scars” and provide something for the carriers to compare with their friends afterwards.

As the day continues boys and girls turn into men and women and the barrels get larger and heavier. Tradition states that you are invited to run with the next incremental size of barrel only once you are deemed ready by older generations, a rite of passage that can take years. Over time, the mini barrels are replaced by intermediate barrels, which are then replaced by the full-sized barrels. Participating is considered an honour within the town, and the most coveted spot of the event is the “midnight barrel”, a 5-foot (1.5-metre) tall, 54-gallon (204-litre) monstrosity. The final, largest and heaviest barrel of the year is paraded around the village at 12 o’clock.

Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels is steeped heavily in tradition and custom; however, there are many elements open to interpretation. Some barrel carriers use their heads, some use their shoulders. Some run for a few metres in one direction and then quickly turn; others run through the town as fast as the barrel, and immense crowd, will allow them. Still others spin around on the spot. Barrels are heavy objects at the best of times, let alone with intense heat and imminent danger added to the mix. Participants will run for as long or as far as they can and then pass the barrel to an awaiting barreller, similarly dressed in burlap head and hand coverings. This will continue until the barrel burns to the point where it literally falls apart, which is when it is dropped to the ground in a pile of smoking, flaming embers and tar.

Of particular interest—once the sight of burning barrels on top of someone’s head becomes less novel, that is—is the crowd, who are literally close enough to touch the barrel or the person. The unpredictability of where the barreller will turn next and the element of danger adds to the adrenalin and leads to numerous screams and exclamations of excitement. The crowd packed in tightly together exudes an overwhelming sense of community. Encouragement is heard with a plethora of advice: “Hold your head down, mate!” and “Go on, Scotty!” Cheers and admiration are given generously. An almost timeless scene unfolds, the modern year only detectable by the smartphones documenting events, and the branded sport shoes dodging globs of tar on the floor.

The atmosphere isn’t always filled with community spirit. Back in 2009 the event was marred by vandalism. A young man was seen throwing an aerosol can into one of the barrels, which exploded, injuring 12 people. One man was rushed to hospital with burns so serious he required plastic surgery on his face. Surprisingly, such an essentially dangerous event sees very few injuries each year, which is why this intentional act upset event organisers and locals. One of the Tar Barrels Committee members commented after the attack: “Whoever did this was an irresponsible idiot. We put so many safety procedures in place, but how can you control something like that?”

Other people saw the accident as an opportunity to stop the event altogether, citing that the council would get blamed or sued if something more serious were to happen. One man was quoted in the press saying “This has now run its course; it’s time for this very dangerous event to be placed into the history books and stopped forever.” Ottery St. Mary Tar Barrels is unique for having such relaxed attitudes to health and safety. At many other Bonfire Night events around the country, spectators have to stand tens of metres away from the flames of bonfires. The lack of crowd control mixed with moving fires and boiling tar has led to the town’s event being dubbed as “The UK’s most dangerous Bonfire Night celebration”. Organisers of the Tar Barrels have been congratulated for maintaining the authenticity of the event, but their open-mindedness has seen escalating insurance premiums. After the aerosol can explosion the insurance for the day increased from £2,000 ($2,600 USD) to £25,000 (over $32,000 USD). This has not deterred the town, though. Event programmes are now for sale, donations are requested and members of the community are often raising money to help maintain the custom.

The press, both negative and positive, have helped Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels to gain international fame, and each year the crowds are larger than the year before. Hopefully, for adrenaline seekers and locals alike, this ancient tradition will be allowed to continue for many years to come. The young children carrying the mini barrels this year will one day be the proud carriers of the coveted midnight barrel. If you decide you want to celebrate Bonfire Night in this little Devonshire town, remember YOU ARE THERE AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Top fact:

Some locals believe the burning tar barrels were paraded to warn of the approach of the Spanish Armada. Others believe it helped with fumigation of cottages. Barrels can weigh up to 180kg.

17 barrels are paraded throughout the night.

The coveted “midnight barrel” finishes up in the town square.

In the town the “barrellers” are considered to be local heroes.

Today there are 87 barrellers.

Over £250,000 ($327,500 USD) has been raised for local charities.

30 barrels are used each year.




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YOU ARE HERE AT YOUR OWN RISK


Ottery St. Mary in England is "a lovely town surrounded by nice countryside. But then, once a year, everything goes a little bit wild and a little bit crazy", says one resident.

It has a population of fewer than 8,000 inhabitants and is a typical Devonshire town. But on November 5 each year, some residents run around town with burning barrels of tar on their shoulders.

Residents are deeply proud of their town's unique tradition. In the original tradition, people rolled the flaming barrels kicking them with their feet. But then someone decided to lift the flaming barrel above their head and carry it through town.

There are no safety barriers, crowd control, or set route for where the barrellers run. There are emergency services on hand, and the council posts signs all over the town that read: "YOU ARE HERE AT YOUR OWN RISK".

The event has a few requirements. Participants must be born and bred in Ottery and they gradually work their way up to carry full-sized barrels. The event starts with young boys, and sometimes girls, carrying a mini-barrel. Next come young men and women carrying intermediate barrels and then full-sized barrels. The main event is the "midnight barrel", the largest barrel of the year that is paraded around the village at 12 o'clock.

Some barrellers like to run through the town as quickly as possible, others run first in one direction and then quickly turn, while others like to spin around on the spot. The surrounding crowd shouts encouragement and advice.

Minor burns are common among participants, but the danger is really minimal. However, because of the lack of crowd control combined with moving fires and boiling tar, the event is known as "The UK's most dangerous Bonfire Night celebration".

If you decide you want to celebrate Bonfire Night in this little Devonshire town, remember YOU ARE THERE AT YOUR OWN RISK.

 

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