Devon’s Baptism of Fire

Why English villagers carry lit barrels of tar once a year.

Hidden in the verdant valleys of Devon, a rural county in South West England, lies Ottery St Mary. A textbook English countryside town, the average visitor would see nothing suggesting anything out of the ordinary.

But, as darkness falls, one night a year, men, women, and even children, attempt a spectacular feat of daring. Lit barrels of tar atop their shoulders, they race around the streets, headlong into the thousands of spectators who descend upon the town. The air is thick with smoke and heat, the smell of ash and cider omnipresent, and the atmosphere almost pagan. Ottery is unrecognisable.

The Ottery Tar Barrels are a twist on customary Guy Fawkes night celebrations, an annual British tradition normally commemorated with bonfires or fireworks. Similar events—where barrels are rolled rather than carried—have historically been part of some celebrations, especially in the South West. But it is believed that running with the barrel on your shoulders is a tradition unique to Ottery.

The festival’s origins are shrouded in the mists of time. Various explanations abound: a system to warn of the approaching Spanish Armada, or a pagan ritual to ward off evil spirits. No one is entirely sure, but it’s said the Barrels are hundreds of years old.

Most people, upon learning of the existence of the Tar Barrels, react with confusion. Why would anyone want to suffer through that? And why would anyone go and watch? But carrying a barrel is one of the town’s highest honours. The clamour to join the select few is so strong that a special—and secretive—committee exists to decide on the participants. It’s a matter of local pride; rollers must have grown up in the town, with priority given to second-generation residents.

While the tradition may be a source of pride, it’s also a health and safety nightmare. And though preparations for the event used to be a matter of a quick word with the local policeman, insurance for the event now costs around 25,000 euros a year.

Many Ottery residents still remember a simpler time, when the rules were flexible and the festivities abundant. But the Barrels’ continued existence points to a fiery spirit embedded deep in the town—one that all the health and safety executives in the world may struggle to extinguish.

“The air is thick with smoke and heat, the smell of ash and cider omnipresent, and the atmosphere almost pagan.”

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