Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels (weird and wonderful things to do if you find yourself in Exeter- part 4).

Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels, Devon, England


Before experiencing Ottery St Mary's unique Guy Fawkes celebration, I couldn't have imagined such an event could possibly have survived Britain's nanny state long enough to pass on its legacy. For a first-timer the spectacle is confusing; the village is flooded with spectators, after the enthusiastic locals, a crowd of primarily drunken young people from the surrounding area. The mood is impatient as we strain our necks in anticipation, until a plume of smoke and roaring flames give away the tar barrel's spot. This quietness is the tell tale calm. As the barrel comes up above shoulder height, the furnace seems to mill about in the distance for an eternity. Is this what we've come to see?


Let your mind drift for a moment however and you're likely to find yourself alone in the dragon's pathway...

Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels, Devon, England


With padding on their shoulders and what look like sack cloth oven gloves protecting their hands, the honoured locals take turns to charge through to crowd, scattering screaming bystanders and forging a trench through the throng. Without grace or any where near as much team spirit, we become a writhing ball of bate-fish. Conversely, instead of fleeing, we cower away as it passes before surging in towards its wake. Nervous but chasing the thrill, I wait for the inferno to double back and secretly pray not to be caught in the front line.


Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels, Devon, England


Predictably, we witnessed one unfortunate collision; an elderly man who hadn't kept his "eyes on the prize", the flaming barrel of tar smashing to the ground and panic rippling around the near disaster. Unusually, people are responsible for their own safety. The fight to keep this event running is constant for the community and despite the insanity, I'm grateful for their freedom to continue the legacy of previous generations. 


A very vague History...

Although it's agreed that the tar barrel tradition is at least a couple of hundred years old, the exact origins are lost in a shroud of legend. The most common assumption is that it started to commemorate the famous gunpowder plot of 1605, though various alternatives have suggested that the barrels were burnt to fumigate cottages or even as a warning of the approaching Spanish armada.

Ottery St Mary was originally one of many towns and villages to host an annual tradition of barrel rolling on the 5th of November. The tradition has evolved into its present, more treacherous form. Today Ottery is the only town to attempt carrying full sized lighted tar barrels through the streets.

Information from: and

Ottery St Mary Tar Barrels, Devon, England

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