Sunday, November 23, 2008

Tar Barrels of Ottery

Phil and I had an exciting night out in Devon when we went to the “Tar Barrels of Ottery” festival in a nearby tiny village. According to Phil, this event is on some list of "100 Things to do Before You Die". It’s not an easy thing to describe, but I'll try. All afternoon and into the night, the locals light big barrels on fire, hoist them on their shoulders with big asbestos mitts to protect their hands (but nothing visible to protect anything else), and run around the village with them. The barrels are well coated with tar to ensure that they burn vigorously. They get passed around to the lucky “barrel rollers” until they are completely burned. From time to time, they’ll set them down and pour wax in them to get them flaming better. Only one barrel is burned at a time. So picture this: the old village square is packed with people shoulder to shoulder. There’s a guy with a barrel on his back with flames shooting out the ends. He’s running (not walking, but running) around the square and the crowd parts around him. There’s no predicting which way he’ll go. He has a few “blockers” running with him trying to keep people from tapping the barrel (I guess they do this for luck????) or otherwise hurting either themselves or the barrel roller. We watched people literally get run over by the barrel dude and got way closer to the action than I needed to!
The barrel burning starts with the kids (that's right) in the afternoon. I guess they get the little barrels. The women start later and the men get the biggest barrels. Nobody is exactly sure how this tradition began or why (or if they are, they're not saying), but I have to think that there wasn't a single sober participant nor spectator on that first night of barrel burning or surely someone would have put the drunken fools to bed. It's not surprising that drinking remains a big part of the event (as if the hazards aren't significant enough!). There is also a giant bonfire, some amusement rides, and lots of food stands - a proper festival for the whole family!
On our way out through the crowd, I noticed that we were following a path of glowing embers where the barrel had just been. And then I noticed a glowing ember on the back of the rugby shirt of the guy I was squeezing past. I brushed him out as we went by. I’m sure he had no idea he was smoldering. Crazy. You can check it out at

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