I hadn’t, until I came across this article.
It is nearly sunset on November 5th in the idyllic Devon town of Ottery St Mary. A seven-year-old boy is charging towards me, carrying a fiery wooden barrel belching flames. On his head. Welcome to the annual Ottery Tar Barrels Festival.
The town’s residents are proud and protective of their festival, the exact origins of which are unknown. Some say it started after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605; others that it was a way of fumigating cottages. It has also been seen as something that served as a warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada.
What is certain is that the festival, held every November, gives Ottery St Mary an indelible sense of identity. Many of the so-called “barrel rollers” are heirs to a family tradition which has been passed down countless generations. Sons and daughters of Ottery return from the world over to attend the festival. It is one of the few remaining tar barrel fire festivals in the country – not surprisingly given the fact they that they fly in the face of the heath-and-safety culture in the country – and it is by far the most extraordinary to witness.
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I manage to place myself right in the centre of the crowd for the lighting of “The Midnight”. As it turns out, this is not the most sensible idea as the giant barrel bursts with flames of eyebrow-singeing intensity. As it is rolled round to allow the air to get to the tar, the barrel rollers – grown men now in their forties and fifties – shield their faces with their hessian mitts. The crowd sways this way and that as the fire scorches those nearest the barrel, and when the colossus is finally lifted, the cheer is deafening. It is a team effort, the fruit of a lifetime of practice for the men who are carrying it.
Looks like there sure was ‘a hot time in the old town‘ that night! I must admit, if I’m ever in England in early November, I’d like to see that . . .