The Tar Barrel tradition is hundreds of years old. The exact origins are unknown but probably started after the gunpowder plot of 1605. Various alternative reasons suggested for burning barrels have included fumigation of cottages and as a warning of the approach of the Spanish armada.
The West Country has a history of torchlight processions and burning barrels and Ottery was only one of the many towns and villages following an annual tradition containing barrels which were rolled in the streets on November 5th each year. Somewhere along the line someone decided rolling was tame and carrying barrels on your shoulders was far more appealing and so the present tradition was born and now Ottery is the only Town in the country carrying full sized lighted tar barrels through the streets.
The procession of tableaux is also an old West Country tradition and is still a popular part of the winter months when most weekends will see a procession of brightly lit tableaux in a great many Towns and villages.
November the 5th each year is the traditional day for the Tar Barrels and only changes when the 5th falls on a Sunday. The procession and fireworks are normally on the Saturday before the 5th of November.
Not just a tradition more a way of life
Those who have visited Ottery St Mary on 5 November, still find it difficult to understand what motivates the townspeople into carrying flaming tar barrels through the streets.
Seventeen barrels are carried during the day. They start in the afternoon and range in size from small for the "boys", medium for the women and youths, up to "gert big unz" for the men. Traditionally, the barrels are set alight at various public houses and hotels around the town and follow a tight schedule until the final barrel is carried in the square around midnight.
Over a 12 month period, barrels are selected and their internal surface coated with good old fashioned coal tar, available from only one source in the country. Straw and paper is placed inside to help the lighting process and the melting tar does the rest.
The "Barrel Rollers" jealously guard their right to carry barrels. Unlike bygone days, the present day "Rolling" has a high element of control but the fervour and commitment is no less now than in olden days. The motivation is borne from a deep sense of tradition and in many cases this has involved generations o the same family. The Tar Barrels is run for the towns people of Ottery and commercial considerations take second place. Although we welcome visitors, the object of the evening is to perpetuate a tradition, so if you attend it, don't try and change it, just stand back and enjoy one of the spectacles in our country's history.
A grand bonfire in St Saviours Meadow
(By kind permission of the Millennium Green Committee) is lit by the Carnival Vice President Mrs J M Lovell.
Ottery's giant bonfire is an integral part of the annual tar barrels and has many sites throughout its history. It is hard to visualise a bonfire being sited on the Flexton near the town's monument, but it was.
The present site on St Saviours Meadow has been the home for the bonfire in more recent times and alternate banks on the River Otter have been used over the years. most people associate the bonfire with the fairground as they stand adjacent to one another. Many a photographer has caught the magic moment at the fire blazes, complemented by the coloured lights of the big fairground in the background.
Three weeks before the tar barrels, all manner of material is collected from the community to build the bonfire. The sight of the first fully laden tractor and trailer seems to herald the coming of the tar barrels and in turn generates a bout of communal pruning. On the week before the tar barrels the bonfire is finalised and usually stands about 35ft high with a girth of around 50ft.
The Guy for the bonfire has been made by the same family since 1958. Peter Young has prepared him for the last 10 years and his father Archie before him. The committee would like to express their appreciation for their continued support.
On tar barrels day the ceremonial Guy is placed on top of the bonfire and in the evening the Carnival Vice President sets a flaming torch to the base and a spectacle of flame is enjoyed by all.