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Bonfire at tar barrels
Bonfire at tar barrels
Photograph by Alex Walton Photography
Life > Experiences

The Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary: An Unmissable Experience

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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Exeter chapter.

Remember, remember the 5th of November… well you won’t forget this. It is officially that time of year again: fluffy socks, pumpkin spiced lattes and of course watching people carry flaming tar barrels on their backs. Yes you read that right.

Tar Barrel
Picture by Alex Walton Photography

The photos used in this article all belong to and were captured by the very talented Alex Walton Photography. More of his unmissable work can be found on https://www.alexwaltonphotography.co.uk .

Every year on Guy Fawkes Night, the 5th of November (or 4th this year to avoid it being held on a Sunday) for over 400 years members of the community in the cosy East Devon town of Ottery St Mary run through the streets with large barrels of burning tar on their backs. This may sound strange to some, but it is the most anticipated night of the year for locals, who look forward to celebrating their slightly crazy tradition as a community.

Celebrations begin as early as 5:30am when residents are shocked out of their beauty sleep by the sound of cannon’s firing in different location’s through the town; continuing shot’s can then be heard throughout the day. Later in the afternoon the brave youngsters of Ottery – as young as six years old – gear up in their many layers of clothes, vaseline and gloves and light up their barrels. As the night draws in, the bigger the barrels get, with the older children and teenagers carrying huge flaming balls of fire (not the Jerry Lee Lewis kind) through the bustling crowds.

The crowd is no joke either, often attracting flocks of over 20,000 people. If you don’t like tight spaces, stay clear, as spectators are forced left, right and everywhere to make space for the barrels to come charging through. While it might be scary at times, the atmosphere is unmissable and the sense of community is heart-warming (couldn’t help myself). Also, there are Marshall’s and medical teams all around the event in case of any accidents and to ensure everybody is having a good time.

Crowd at Tar Barrels
Photographed by Alex Walton Photography

If the flaming barrels haven’t warmed you up enough, then you can visit the huge 35ft bonfire that is located on the green near the River Otter, where the atmosphere is much more quiet and cosy. Locals begin building this bonfire over a month in advanced so it is not one to be missed! There is also a fun-fair on the millennium green with spinning waltzers and sticky candy floss.

The barrels continue through the night with the final monster barrel being lit at midnight, weighing over 30kg. After the drama dies down, the speakers in the square begin to play James Blunt’s ‘Bonfire Heart’ and the crowd begin to sway and sing their hearts out. A beautiful end to a crazy night!

I spoke to local lad 21 year old Patrick Forrest-Robinson, who carried his first barrel at only six years old. When I asked him what he enjoyed about taking part he said:

‘I just loved the fact you could run around with something on fire right on your back and everyone would clear your path and cheer. Where else could you ever do that?’ 

‘Ottery are a close community anyway, but I think it’s really cool you have to have lived in Ottery all your life to take part and have to work your way up to the bigger barrels. It makes you proud to be from the area’

Clearly, community is at the heart of the event, which is why spectators should absolutely respect this.

Here are some things you can do to give your thanks and respect to the town:

  • Buy a programme. The programmes are a must as they have all timings and locations for the barrels as well as other useful information. Also, the funds they receive go directly to the event! You can buy these on the night or right now from The Volunteer Inn pub (grab a pint while you’re in there).
  • Familiarise yourself with the health and safety guidance on the www.tarbarrels.co.uk website. They also have information on how to get to the event via public transport.
  • Pay to park. Instead of causing parking wars and nuisance for locals, pay to park in the designated car parks where the money raised go to the event.
  • Visit even when it isn’t tar barrels! There are some lovely local shops, cafe’s and pubs in Ottery, and a really cool recycling shop called Rio where you can buy second hand furniture, clothes, books and so much more.
  • Stock up on tar barrel merchandise from the www.tarbarrels.co.uk website. They have fleece’s, cups and more awesome stuff!
  • Also stock up on tar barrel booze if you’re a drinker. A lovely local shop Coldharbour Farm Shop have their very own ‘Flaming Barrel Gin’ that is delicious and award winning! Then on the night, there are bars all around the town where you will walk away with your very own tar barrel cup.
  • Bring change and cash. The service can be temperamental in Ottery and you will need cash for the fairground rides. It’s better to be prepared.
  • Bin your rubbish. There are bins located all over the town, use them! Or take your rubbish home.

Having lived in the local area all my life and attended The King’s School in Ottery St Mary, no matter how many times you attend the tar barrels it never loses its magic. People of all ages and backgrounds come together to share laughs, excitement and pride for their yearly tradition. It really is a ‘must-do’ while you are in the area, you will not be disappointed. So mark your calendars for November 4th 2023 and show your support before-hand by exploring the wonderful town of Ottery St Mary.

If you have felt inspired by the photography in this article and wish to get in on capturing all the tar barrel action, here is a very useful guide written by Alex, who has been a part of the tradition for many, many years, on how to photograph the night: https://www.alexwaltonphotography.co.uk/post/ottery-tar-barrel-night-a-guide-to-photographing-the-flaming-barrels .

Hey I’m Esmé. Currently, I’m in my final year studying English (Early Modern & Advanced Critical Theory) at Exeter University in the hope of becoming a writer & lecturer. I want to give a voice to the voiceless and explore all the weird and wonderful things about our world and the people in it. I’m particularly interested in disability, race, sexuality & gender and how these factors have and continue to influence people’s lives.