Ottery fires up once more for its tar barrel tradition

Ottery Tar Barrels

A 'roller' at Ottery Tar Barrels in 2018 - Credit: Picture: Alex Walton Photography

November 5 always starts with a loud bang in Ottery St Mary, as the sound of cannon fire echoes around the town from 5am, with shots fired at various locations. This early morning wake-up call heralds the start of the town's most celebrated event - the Tar Barrels.

The traditions of Ottery's Tar Barrel day have been going for hundreds of years, but their exact origins are less clear, although it's likely to have started after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  Many assume it was used as a method to fumigate cottages and others have suggested it was linked to warning people about the approaching Spanish Armada.

Ottery Tar Barrels 2019. Picture: Alex Walton Photography

Carrying a burning barrel is considered an honour and an exclusive privilege to people from the town. - Credit: Picture: Alex Walton Photography

It is thought that in the early days the flame-ridden barrels were rolled in the streets, yet at some point, the daring Ottery folk decided to add an extra thrill when they took turns carrying the flaming wooden barrels on their shoulders instead. 
The burning barrel event isn't exclusive to the East Devon market town, with other towns such as Hatherleigh in the north of the county hosting its own version, yet without doubt, the Ottery event is the biggest and most prestigious. 

Carrying a burning barrel is considered an honour and an exclusive privilege to people from the town.  The tradition is often a family affair passed on through the generations who continue to be passionate about the event and fiercely fight for its existence, especially when doubts about the event's safety have been raised in the past. There is a Tar Barrels sub-committee that looks at the credentials of willing participants and decides who can take part.
When it comes to the dress code, traditionally barrel carriers don’t wear modern fireproof clothing. Instead, they tend to wear old rugby shirts or hoodies and large padded gloves made out of hessian and wire. 

Ottery Tar Barrels 2018. Picture: Alex Walton Photography

Barrel carriers tend to wear old rugby shirts or hoodies and large padded gloves made out of hessian and wire - Credit: Picture: Alex Walton Photography

On the day, the cannon firing continues until the main event gets underway when the first tar barrels are lit in the afternoon and the youngsters take part.  Once the children have finished, the barrels get progressively bigger, with men and women all taking their turn.  The fiery spectacle goes on throughout the evening and culminates with the traditional midnight barrel, the biggest and most thrilling, weighing in at almost five stone, that takes place in Ottery’s main square.