The fifth of November is an explosive date on the calendar in many parts of England but few places can match the flaming intensity of the small East Devon town of Ottery St Mary, with its Tar barrel tradition. The custom probably stretch nearly as far back as 1605 itself, although the precise origins have long since been forgotten. There are stories of the barrels being burned to destroy plague-bearing rats, ward off evil spirits or even warn of invading Spaniards but no one is absolutely sure. Suffice it to say, though, that if it’s noise, heat, congestion and danger that you’re looking for – then this is the place to go.
The town of Ottery, as it is usually simply known, has barely 7,000 inhabitants but this number can double each November 5th – unless that date happens to fall on a Sunday, when the festivities all take place the day before. Basically, the focal point of the whole occasion is when seventeen large burning barrels – they have been coated with old-fashioned coal tar – are carried from the town’s four pubs so that they reach the town square at about midnight.
Visitors who arrive with the ambition of turning the evening into their fiery equivalent of Pamplona should be very aware that the ‘Barrel Rollers’ are all local men who have been chosen well in advance and there will be no opportunity of becoming involved. The barrels are balanced precariously on the shoulders of the rollers, who then make their way through the crowded streets. There is a junior equivalent during the afternoon, when the streets are less crowded. If you have young children, this would be the safest time for them to attend – the night runcan be much wilder and thousands of people are crammed together in extremely narrow streets. Apparently, the most prized possession at the end of the evening is a metal ring from one of the burnt out barrels.
There is also a giant bonfire, at St Savious’ Meadow, next to the River Otter – usually more than 35 feet high and with a ceremonial Guy, made by the same family for more than 50 years, perched on the top. There is also a fairground quite close to the bonfire site.
Some of the town shops will be boarded up for safety reasons but there are plenty of mobile food outlets – and the pubs do stay open all night long. By the time the firework display takes place, the atmosphere is distinctly ‘celebratory’!
The streets of Ottery are completely shut off from the late afternoon, with traffic being directed to car parks on the outskirts – but they do tend to be fields so can be quite muddy at this time of the year. Although the car parks cost about £10, you would be unwise to leave your vehicle on roadside verges, as there is a strict ‘tow away’ policy which will result in you having to collect it from Exeter! Those people coming by car might consider leaving it at Exeter and taking one of the coaches into Ottery from there. There are rail stations at both Exeter and nearby Honiton with good connections to the town.
If you’re looking for accommodation, there is only one local hotel, The Tumbling Weir, with just ten rooms and, although there are some good ‘Bed and Breakfast’ places, you might need to look at Honiton, Exeter or perhaps the coastal town of Sidmouth.
The Ottery St Mary tar barrel tradition is a wonderful example of how an essentially local custom can attract thousands of people from outside the area without losing any of its intimacy or connections with its roots. You can get more information at http://www.otterytarbarrels.co.uk/.