Bonfire Night: 4 Reasons Tar Barrel Burning In Devon Rocks

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A man carries a burning barrel through the streets of Ottery St Mary in 1963. PA
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Ottery St Mary in Devon is home to one of the most unusual – and awesome – bonfire nights on the planet.

Flaming tar barrels are the name of the game in this small town. You can roll them through the streets, as tradition dictates, or you can carry them on your shoulders or above your head, if you dare.

It all makes for a spectacular pyrotechnic display that pulls in crowds from near and afar. Throw a torchlight procession and huge bonfire into the mix and you’ve got yourself the ultimate Guy Fawkes celebration.

Here are 4 reasons why tar barrel burning in Devon rocks…
Men trying to capture a burning barrel back in 1963. PA
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1. No-one’s too bothered about health and safety

As you’ve probably gathered, health and safety isn’t really near the top of the agenda. In fact, it’s way down the list of priorities, which is part of the reason why the spectacle holds legendary status around the world.


Where else can people freely run through the streets while wielding full-sized, fiercely burning tar barrels? 

Kids can even take part in the flaming antics, carrying smaller barrels (of course, because that’s safer!) as the procession makes its way through the town towards the main square before the clock strikes midnight. 
A boy runs through the street carrying a burning barrel in 1963. PA
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2. Barrel bearers are unpredictable

The barrel bearers vary in both experience and agility, adding another element of danger to the event.

Some like to simply roll the fire spitting barrel in front of them at a leisurely pace. This is usually the newcomers.

Others – the barrel burning veterans – like to sprint while twirling the blazing cask above their head, dashing in and out of the crowds that line the streets. You should therefore be prepared for a bit of audience participation!

You can only carry a barrel if you are born and bred in Ottery, or have at least lived in the town for a very, very long time.
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3. No less than 17 barrels are used

Not one, not two, not three but 17 – you heard us correctly, 17 – heavy wood-and-iron barrels are soaked with tar, lit, and then carried through the streets as the lengthy procession counts down to midnight.

That’s 17 times the fun – or danger, depending which way you look at it. 

Once the barrel is engulfed in flames, it’s transported to the next stop in the town by one of the brave participants. The process is then repeated until the final barrel enters the main square at midnight. 
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4. Thousands of visitors make the journey

The carnival atmosphere is one you certainly won’t forget in a hurry.

Tens of thousands of people turn up to watch the procession of the burning tar barrels. The party then continues down by the River Otter where a fun fair lights up one side and one of the largest bonfires in the South West burns on the other.

A massive fireworks display brings down the curtains on the epic night in dramatic fashion. The barrel bearers and spectators then have a year to recover and cool down before the fiery fun starts all over again. 
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Stay safe this bonfire night

Of course, staying safe is the number one priority on bonfire night.

You should stand a safe distance away from the bonfire and fireworks – fireworks can travel at speeds of up to 150mph – and only light one sparkler at a time. You should also keep sparklers at arm’s length and wearing gloves when holding them.

It’s always pretty cold in November, so remember to wrap up warm in winter clothes wherever you’re going. You should wear plenty of layers, including jumpers and coats , while thick socks, woolly hats and big scarves are also a good idea.

Keep a waterproof handy, either on you or in the car, just in case the heavens decide to open when you’re out and about. You should also wear appropriate footwear – Wellington boots or sturdy boots are recommended.

Have fun!
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