All Barrels Blazing
“Oh bollocks!” I yelp, suddenly aware that these eloquent words could be my last. Transfixed by the vision of this demented-looking figure bearing down on me, I’ve left it too late to get out of his path. A wall of over-excited onlookers surrounds me and there’s no gap to duck into. It feels like the running of the bulls, with angry bovines replaced by immolating men. And there’s nowhere left to run.
At the last minute, burning man performs a preposterous pirouette, as elegant as it is unexpected. The inferno intensifies with the oxygen rush that his flourish creates and the spectators let out an appreciative roar. Another man steps forward from the throng and the blazing baton is passed to a new runner, who immediately charges up the street, scattering people asunder and leaving a comet tail of sparks in his wake.
A quick self-check confirms I’m not on fire and – except for a few eyelashes that have disappeared in an acrid-smelling puff of smoke – most of my hair is still where I left it before arriving at Ottery St Mary’s Flaming Tar Barrels festival.
I should have known what to expect, I suppose. There’s a clue or two in the name, to be fair. And the town – normally a sleepy ever-so-English hamlet in the heart of bucolic Devon – has put up more than a few signs warning that tonight will be different. Tonight – like every 5th of November in Ottery – the townsfolk will party like it’s 1699.
Still, I wasn’t expecting the festival to throw off the health-and-safety straitjacket in quite such spectacular fashion. I’m awed. And impressed. And a little bit scared – in roughly equal measures.
Impressed because beardy burning-head dude is proof that you can get away with almost anything in supposedly polite and reserved Britain if history is on your side. The people of this idiosyncratic isle have never shied away from bizarre festivals and events that pose a pretty good threat to limb – life even – so long as there’s a tradition behind it.
This holds true, even if the actual origins of that tradition have long since been forgotten. No one really knows how many years people have been running around with burning barrels in Ottery – or, indeed, why – but it’s thought to date back several centuries (at least as far as the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, and the subsequent execution of Guy Fawkes).
Andy Wade, who’s been involved in the event for 30 years, tells me that many places in England’s south-west used to hold festivals where burning barrels were rolled around. “But one year – a long, long time ago – some bright spark in Ottery obviously decided that things would be a lot more exciting if you picked the barrel up,” Andy says. “And our unique tradition was born.”
For centuries, it was just the good folk of Ottery who enjoyed this festival, but in more recent years it’s achieved international fame – along with other eccentric British events like the one that sees people breaking their legs chasing a wheel of cheese down a steep hill in Gloucestershire, or eating stinging nettles in Dorset. This is the kind of thing people watched before reality TV was invented, and I for one glow with nostalgic appreciation of such sensational spectator sports.
For a few mad minutes, caught up in the combustive energy of the event (and feeling the effect of several courage-laced pints of scrumpy), I feel like I want to do more than just watch – I want to have a go and really glow. Fortunately, however, I can’t. Charging around the streets of a small village lined with thatched cottages and wielding a blazing barrel is an honour reserved exclusively for locals (whose houses are, after all, most at risk).
I must be content with the rush produced by getting as close to the action as possible without actually going up in flames. At the beginning, during the children’s event (yep, there really is a kids’ version – the loads are smaller, but they burn just as hot as the big boys’ barrels), this is relatively easy. As the evening wears on, however, the streets get increasingly crowded and just being here becomes an adrenaline sport.
Actually, the shenanigans aren’t quite as explosively anarchic as they may seem from the outside. “The runners are extremely experienced,” Andy explains. “They come up through the ranks, starting with the kids’ barrels when they’re eight years old, then progressing to the intermediate barrels. Then, if they’re big enough and ugly enough, they move up to the men’s barrels.”
The whole thing clearly creates a real sense of local pride, and the community spends months preparing for one night of fire-starting festivities. Throughout the year, 17 barrels are regularly daubed with tar, part of the priming process for when they’ll be set ablaze during the evening of 5 November.
Traditionally, each barrel is sponsored by a public house, although only four of the town’s original pubs remain – The Lamb and Flag, The Volunteer, The London and the Kings Arms. The barrels are lit outside each of these alehouses to an itinerary published in a little booklet that is available on the night.
Officials then roll the barrel around until the flames really take hold, at which point a designated carrier steps forward and hoists it onto his (or her) shoulders and starts running. There’s no competitive element as such – the challenge is simply to keep hold of the barrel for as long as possible (even when it’s disintegrating around the holder’s ears) and to make sure it stays alight.
Inevitably, every year there are complaints from people who feel the event is unsafe. Andy’s message to them is simple: “The atmosphere is light-hearted, but barrels do get run through the streets. If you don’t like it, please stand back. And don’t touch or interfere with the barrels – the boys really don’t like that.
“Visitors have to remember that we don’t make any money out of this – the collections that take place on the night just about cover costs. Every year getting insurance is a problem. Of course there are injuries, but more of these are caused by factors other than the barrels – like people boozing too much and falling over.”
Although the barrel runners aren’t allowed to drink until they’ve finished, the crowd picks up the slack on the cider-swilling front. The older the night gets, the more boisterous the atmosphere becomes. And if detractors think the event is crazy now, it’s a good job they weren’t here a few years ago, before health and safety became such a big issue.
“It was proper mayhem when I was young,” Andy reminisces fondly. “People used to get cidered-up and there was plenty of fighting over the barrels. Things used to get sorted out on November 5.”
For the people of Ottery, it’s more about the perpetuation of a proud tradition than staging an internationally known spectacle. “Many of these guys come from families that have a connection with the event going back generations,” Andy says. “The fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers of these lads carried barrels. It’s an honour to be a barrel runner. There’s an Ottery-born bloke who comes back from Australia most years to take part.”
And for the rest of us non-Otterians, it’s one hell of a shindig. A free one too. So long as you don’t mind donating a few eyelashes to the cause.
Qatar Airways flies from Melbourne to London via Doha. Ottery St Mary is 16 kilometres east of the city of Exeter, about a three-and-a-half hour drive from London.
The London Inn is a charming seventeenth-century bed and breakfast with a large beer garden. Doubles cost from US$100, including breakfast.
Ottery’s Flaming Tar Barrels festival takes place on 5 November, unless that date falls on a Sunday. It’s estimated that 15,000 to 20,000 people come to see the event each year, and the first barrels are set ablaze at 4pm.