Tar barrels, treason and plot!

The tar barrels of Ottery St Mary are a world famous spectacle. On the 5th November [unless that falls on a Sunday, in which case it happens on the Saturday] the residents of Ottery St Mary celebrate Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night with a HUGE bonfire.

The day starts with the firing of rock cannon, the traditional, hand held pieces of piping, filled with gunpowder and ignited. This results in a big flash and a really loud bang, which can be heard for miles around. It’s repeated throughout the day, culminating in a massive bonfire and firework display.

Adding to the atmosphere are the flaming tar barrels that are carried through the streets at intervals. The central pubs in Ottery sponsor the barrels and it’s considered a great honour to carry a barrel on tar barrel night. It’s a practice that’s been carried on for many hundreds of years and was originally connected with the ritual burning of witches.

The most likely explanation is that the fire pouring from the burning tar barrels originates from a pagan ceremony to cleanse the streets of evil spirits so the town will be safe for the coming year.

The barrel bearers vary in both experience and agility. Some are very dignified and simply roll the barrel along, others run, twirling the barrel above their head and dashing in and out of the crowds that have gathered to watch the spectacle. You can only carry a barrel if you are born and bred in Ottery or at least have lived here for a very, very long time.

Starting at around 4pm are the boy’s barrels. These are followed at intervals by the women’s and finally around midnight the largest of the men’s barrels [as the evening progresses the barrels get larger and heavier]. The bearers vie with one another to carry the flaming barrels as far as they can before they get either too hot to handle or disintegrate in a burning heap in the street. The idea is to carry them as close to the town bonfire as possible.

It is important to remember that the tar barrels are on fire and there is a very real risk of injury to both the barrel carriers and the spectators, so caution is advised.

The carnival atmosphere that is created by around 25,000 visitors continues down by the River Otter where the fun fair is on one side of the river and one of the largest bonfires in the South West burns on the other side in the millennium green. To end the evening is a massive firework display

The bonfire and fireworks commemorate the uncovering of the so-called Gunpowder Plot of 1605 in which Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar under the House of Lords. The cellar had been packed with gunpowder and the purpose of the plot was to murder King James I and most of the Protestant aristocracy all in one go.

People in general knew only that the King had been saved from a plot to kill him and so they lit bonfires as a means of expressing their joy. November 5th has become associated with Guy Fawkes, although he was not the instigator of the plot, merely the “fall guy” who was sent to light the fuse and today he is remembered with the burning of bonfires and letting off fireworks.

Meanwhile, back in Ottery the bonfire burns and the tar barrels are paraded through the streets in an admixture of the secular, religious and pagan origins that have been lost in the mists of time.

Find out more about the tar barrels and see more pictures by visiting the official website


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The Tar Barrels are a unique experience. It can be exciting but at the same time dangerous.

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Tar Barrels pull the crowds 
For such a small town it's really amazing how many people come to see this weird spectacle! When we went last year the streets were packed. I couldn't …

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