The Cannons and the Bonfire
Start the day with a bang!
Although the rock cannons aren't part of the Tar Barrels, it is a tradition that has been resurrected and adds to the atmosphere that surrounds the Tar Barrels for those people who know it so well. Many local people are woken at first light on 5th November to the thunderclap sound of the cannons. They are fired throughout the day at various locations around the town.
Ottery's giant bonfire is an integral prt 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 as 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 round 50ft.
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.
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.
World Famous Tar Barrels
The West Country has a history of torchlight processions and burning barrel 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.
November the 5th each year is the traditional day for the Tar Barrels and only changes when the 5th falls on a Sunday.
Not just a tradition – more a way of life
Those who have visited Ottery St Mary on 5th 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 and girls', 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 the 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 of the same family. The Tar Barrels is run for the townspeople 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 to change it, just stand back and enjoy one of the spectacles in our country's history.
Tar Barrel Festival