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February 2005
Having a flaming good time
Burning tar barrel
A hard burning tar barrel
Make a list of things you would least like to carry through a Devon town, its a fair bet a heavily burning tar barrel might be high on the list... but not for residents of one town, for them its a loved tradition.
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Ottery Tarbarrels

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Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Fight your way through a busy and crowded town, bad enough.

Carry a barrel weighing anything up to 30 kilos that everyone wants to get their hands on, getting worse.

Soak the barrel in tar and set light to it... and its at that point many a rational person would shy away, but not the hardy residents of Ottery St Mary.

Since around the 17th century the fifth of November has been celebrated by something a little more dramatic than fireworks in this town.

A young child tarbarrelling
Even the children get involved

Each pub in the town sponsor a barrel, making up to 17 barrels over the course of the evening. These are then soaked in tar until they become highly flammable, or as the locals call it... perfect!

The barrels are lit in turn and are graded to make sure that its a fun family occasion, and its not often something can be called that when involving large amounts of fire.

The afternoon and evening start with the women's and children's barrels but the main part of the evening start with the men's barrels, each weighing anything up to 30 kilos by midnight.

The streets of Ottery St Mary soon become packed as people fight for the right to carry the burning cargo and everyone wants to be close enough to feel the flame.

The barrels get passed from man to man, everyone tussling for control and sometimes even moving between families with the barrel passed like a burning heirloom from one family member to another.

Dramatic flames
The late night effect becomes riveting

Finally all the barrels make their way to the River Otter and get included in one of the biggest bonfires seen in the region with the river on one side and the annual funfair giving a neon counterpoint on the other.

The most likely explanation for this tradition is as a way of exorcising evil spirits in the town, a pagan ritual using the cleansing flame and the camaraderie of the townsfolk to keep the karma high and the town free from dark forces.

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