Every year Ottery St Mary goes a bit crazy on the 5th November. Locals to the town race through the streets with burning tar barrels on their backs. It’s something that has been going on for generations, for hundreds of years. There are conflicting historical roots to the event. Some say it pre-dates Guy Fawkes, others say it may be as a result of it. Whatever the reason, it’s one night where health and safety goes out of the window (kind of) and onlookers at this unique spectacle take their own risk of injury. I would say though that you are more likely to scorch your clothes a little and maybe get bumped on the head by a barrel or someone’s camera lens than get seriously hurt. Nevertheless the event organisers face increasing insurance premiums as accidents do happen. Some shops board up their windows. Not necessarily due to unruly behaviour, far from it, the atmosphere is one of excitement and community spirit. However, when you have a big burly man with a gigantic barrel hurtling towards you at speed, you are not going to stay put; so many of the broken windows are due to people swiftly stepping of the way, and if there is no room, that could mean stepping right back into a window pane.
The people who participate in the event have to have been born in Ottery St Mary, and competitors start young, but with smaller barrels. The largest and last barrel, carried at midnight, can be up to 200Lbs! Although there is a very real danger to those who participate, this is greatly reduced by the fact that those who carry the barrels are well layered up and they also make their own special mittens that they use to hold the barrels. Kind of like a very large oven glove. You could say that making these special mittens is an opportunity for the fathers to pass on their skills and experiences to their children when it comes to them taking part in the event. A number of times I saw these mittens smouldering where they had been in the fire a little too long. The fire is soon put out though ready for the next barrel.
I heard a lot of support from the locals, and people who knew each person who carried the barrel, called out their names. No doubt there are bragging rights earned by those who carry the largest barrels and any singed clothing or burns sustained will later be seen more as battle scars than a cause for concern. Concern there has been for the event though for obvious reasons. However, my personal opinion is that at some point you have to take some responsibility for watching such an event and if you are worried about getting hurt, then stand well back or don’t attend at all.
One visitor to the event told me that they thought the atmosphere isn’t what is used to be. Apparently in previous years there had only been one barrel carried at a time, but this time there were barrels being carried simultaneously in different parts of the town, no doubt to break up the hoards of people who pack the streets. Seeing a local running down the street with a big burning barrel through the crowds, to me is very reminiscent of a shark passing through a school of fish. In fact it doesn’t look possible that they could pass through so many people packed into the street. I can tell you though, they soon move when a big ball of fire is hurtling their way!