To anyone who has grown up in England – particularly in a small village in England – there is probably nothing at all strange about setting fire to things and running around with them, trying not to get burned!
Indeed, our country is renowned for its quirky events and festivals throughout the year.
Nevertheless, there is not much left in Britain that is dangerous, tremendously fun, and still legal and the flaming tar barrel racing at Ottery St Mary – the sweet town in Devon where Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born – stands out as being all three of those things.
November 5 each year is marked by Tar Barrel racing: an ancient tradition pre-dating Guy Fawkes, in which men, women and children as young as 7 years old set light to wooden barrels soaked in tar and run through the streets with them. On their heads. At great speed.
The West Country has a history of torchlight processions and a tradition of burning barrels and rolling them down the streets, but Ottery is the only village where barrels aren’t rolled but carried above the head. At some stage through the ages, Ottery St Mary decided rolling and kicking lighted tar barrels through the streets was a little tame and carrying them aloft was far more appealing.
Each of Ottery’s central public houses sponsors a single barrel, making up to seventeen tar barrels over the course of the evening. In the weeks prior to the day of the event, the barrels are soaked with tar. They are then lit outside each of the pubs in turn and, once the flames begin to pour out, they are hoisted up onto local people’s backs and shoulders.
The participants then make a dash through the streets and alleys packed with onlookers, in an exhilarating and risky spectacle. A veritable barrel of fun.
In the afternoon and early evening there are women’s and boys’ tar barrels but, as the evening progresses, the barrels get larger and by midnight they weigh at least 30 kilos.
Only Ottregians – those born in the town, or who have lived there for most of their lives – may carry a barrel, and a great sense of camaraderie exists between them. The tar barrels get passed from man to man, everyone tussling for control. Generations of the same family carry the tar barrels and take great pride in doing so. It perpetuates Ottery St Mary’s great sense of tradition, of time and of history.
Finally all the tar barrels make their way to the River Otter to be included in one of the biggest bonfires of the region. It is an incredible night to remember.
Opinion differs as to the origin of this festival of fire, but the most widely accepted version is that it began as a pagan ritual to cleanse the streets of evil spirits.
Today this internationally renowned festival is very popular event which raises thousands of pounds for charity and attracts close to 10,000 spectators from around the world.
A word of warning however. Visitors should not expect a fireworks display! The fire brigade are on hand, but take a back seat. There are no barriers, there is no safety net. This is real fire and the heat of the flames is immense. So see it, quick, before health-and-safety have the organisers over a barrel!
Where to stay
To witness tar barrel racing for yourselves, take a look at our glorious East Devon cottages, all located less than 5 miles from the heat of the action.