Flaming Tar Barrels Festival – 5th November

Ottery St Mary, Devon

Carrying a flaming barrel on your back through a town centre may not seem like a very appealing prospect, but it’s a jealously guarded role amongst those selected for the 5th November event each year in the Devonshire town of Ottery St Mary.

The history behind this bizarre tradition seems to have been lost in the mists of time, yet it’s believed to date back to the 17th century and continues to take place every year – to the delight of the crowds that gather to witness the world-famous spectacle.

Lots of colourful theories have emerged as to why this tradition may have taken hold – ranging from the fumigation of local cottages to a warning signal that the Spanish Armada were approaching. No one really knows its true origins, and over the years it has evolved so that rather than simply rolling the flaming barrels along the street as they once did, the bearers now carry them on their shoulders.

Preparing the tar barrels

In preparation for the event, volunteers select barrels for the event in the months leading up to it, and each one is then treated ready for the festival. The barrel’s internal surface has to be coated with coal tar, and then the barrel is stuffed with straw and paper to help it catch alight – and the melting coal tar keeps the flames going as it’s rushed through the town.

A total of 17 barrels are carried throughout the day, starting off with smaller ‘junior’ barrels in the late afternoon, with their size gradually increasing throughout the evening. Each barrel is set alight at one of the town’s public houses or hotels, all sticking to a rigid schedule that ensures the final enormous barrel is carried through the town just as midnight strikes.

See a selection of videos here

A gigantic bonfire more than 10 metres high, crowned with an effigy of Guy Fawkes created by the same local family since 1958, forms an eye-catching backdrop to the event – together with all sorts of fairground rides and other family attractions. In the weeks running up to the 5th November, a tractor and trailer trawls through the town collecting all sorts of material for the bonfire from local residents and businesses, piling them up at the bonfire site at St Saviours Meadow.

If you’re making a trip to Ottery St Mary for the Tar Barrels night, it’s worth trying to get there by the Saturday before the 5th November so you can also enjoy the town’s Carnival Night, which features decorated floats and parades from the area’s surrounding towns and villages, culminating in a big firework display.