Photo credit: Ottery Tar Barrels
Remember, Remember, the 5th of November. Bonfire Night and it’s history are well known through out the UK; we all know the tale of the Gunpowder Plot, when thirteen Catholic men tried to blow up Parliament using barrels of gunpowder. They ultimately failed, and Guy Fawkes was captured, killed, and immortalised through his infamy. That was in 1605, and the tradition of lighting a bonfire in celebration of the foiled plot and setting off fireworks is still prevalent to this day. But another tradition, almost as old as the Gunpowder Plot itself, may not be as well known.
I hadn’t heard about the Flaming Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary’s until I came to Exeter, but it seems that hundreds of people congregate in this little town on Bonfire Night to watch men, women and teenagers alike run around with flaming barrels on their shoulders. Although this wasn’t always the case, Ottery is now the only town that carries on this tradition and the townsfolk seem to take great pride in running up and down the streets with these incredibly hot, dangerous barrels on their backs – in fact, in most cases, several generations of the same families have taken part.
The journey from Exeter to Ottery St Marys is fairly easy, and our coach followed the winding country roads to the quaint town of Ottery. The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of spectators – that, and the cold. Walking down the hill, it became apparent that something was happening: there were people crowding around the outside of a pub, some standing patiently on pavements. There was going to be a barrel run. I sat down on an overhanging wall; about five minutes later a marshall told me that it was probably unwise to sit there. “Why?” I asked a local townsperson behind me after the marshall had gone.“Because you’re just the right height for the barrel when you sit there, and they’ll be coming close by here.” Ah.
I decided to risk it; it was a women’s barrel, and a cheer went up as it caught light. Soon there were women running up and down the street with the barrel on their shoulders, whilst members of the crowd scuttled and dodged out the way, screaming and yelling as the heat of the flames brushed their faces. It all seemed very dangerous; there were no ropes dividing the crowd from the participant, and the runners themselves seemed to be equipped only with several layers of clothing – hoods to cover their hair, and giant mittens made of hay. But everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves; the crowd cheered the runners on, and the teamwork between the runners was fantastic as they switched the barrel from one person to another.
After the barrel burnt out, the crowd dispersed and most people carried on down the hill, into the town. Walking through the streets, the bright lights of food stalls drew us closer to them as scents of burgers, candy floss and donuts made our mouths water. A fun fair greeted us at the bottom of the hill with neon lights, music blasting and the screams of people being hurled around inside the rides. There were bumper cars, dart throwing and spinning tea cups – it was all a little over priced, but that was easy enough to forget when people seemed to be having so much fun.
On the other side of the river from the fun fair stood a giant bonfire. When standing by it we must have been at least seven metres away but the heat was still strong enough to sting our faces and warm our freezing hands. After a quick rest bite, though, it was time to head back to the town square for the men’s barrel run – the danger and excitement continued! But soon after that, it was time to head back to Exeter. I sat on the coach with the sounds of excited laugher and chat around me as everyone discussed their experiences, and smiled. The Flaming Tar Barrels at Ottery St Mary’s had been an incredible experience, and it was an exciting, adrenaline-rushing Bonfire Night I will be sure to remember for a very long time.