Devon has some interesting festivals routed in pagan rituals and historic events, but few are as wacky as the Flaming Tar Barrels at Ottery St Mary. This amazing spectacle of locals carrying 17 burning (and very heavy!) tar-coated wooden barrels around the streets of the village takes place on Bonfire Night each year, but the origins of the practice are a little unclear.

History of Ottery's Flaming Tar Barrels

As this awesome spectacle takes place on November 5th, most people assume it is connected with the failed attempt of Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the unpopular king in 1605. This may well be the case. As news of the foiled plot reached the far-flung reaches of Cornwall, no doubt there would have been a public rejoicing each year around a celebratory bonfire.

Other people believe that the practice of rolling barrels which have been coated in tar and set alight is a more pagan practice. It certainly was a common festival in many Westcountry villages, although it has died out or been adapted in most other villages. One belief is that the flaming barrels were rolled down the streets to cleanse the village of evil spirits and witchcraft.

Whatever the history behind it, the Flaming Tar Barrels at Ottery St Mary are a novel way to celebrate Bonfire Night.

Barrels, bonfires and fireworks!

The Flaming Tar Barrels generate a wonderful carnival atmosphere throughout the normally quiet and sleepy village of Ottery St Mary. The event attracts around 25,000 spectators and there are the usual side stalls, food, entertainment and a fair down by the River Otter.

The day starts with the firing of noisy rock cannon. These are large rocks or boulders with holes bored in them of various sizes. The holes are filled with gunpowder and ignited to explode with a loud boom and an eye-searing flash.

Rock guns were a common part of 18th century celebrations, from announcing royal births and coronations to celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Today, handheld pipes packed with gunpowder may be used instead of rocks.

After dark, the flaming tar barrels are lit. Smaller barrels are carried first, by youths and women with the big barrels carried by men to end the event around midnight. Local pubs sponsor the flaming tar barrels, so they are the best place to hang around for a good view of the barrels as they pass.

A local privilege

Only local Ottery-born residents can have the honour of transporting a tar barrel and they really make the most of their moment of glory, dashing from side to side in the street or spinning around with the heavy barrels aloft on their shoulder. Others actually roll the burning barrels down the street ‐ a risky business with little means of controlling the runaway flaming tar barrel, so do keep your wits about you and your children close!

The aim of the tar barrel rolling is to get the barrel as close as possible to the town bonfire which is lit on Millennium Green and is one of the largest in Devon. Few barrels make it all the way as they are either burnt up or dropped once they are too hot to handle, and they become a pile of ash in a very short time.

In between the parade of burning barrels there is a huge fireworks display ‐ a more traditional way of celebrating Bonfire Night.

Have you ever attended a flaming tar barrel event in the Westcountry? Do you think it is dangerous to make this a public spectacle for families? We'd love to hear your views in our comments box below.