The thrilling, fiery Tar Bar’l festival lights up the night in sleepy Allendale, cut off from the world by heavy snow in 1978. Serenaded by a silver band, the remote Northumbrian village burns in the New Year with a procession of flaming tar barrels, carried aloft to a bonfire in the Market Square by fearless local men in bizarre costumes, known as ‘guisers’. When the fire dies down, folk go first-footing, then gather in the pub for dance and ale.
The amateur filmmaker, Lilian Wincote MBE, a retired headmistress and founder member of South Shields Cine Club, describes the Allendale ritual as ancient and of pagan origin. But a 1933 edition of the Hexham Courant dates the ceremony to around 1858, when a burning tar barrel was used to light a Methodist band’s New Year’s Eve concert at the old Wesleyan Chapel. The original guisers wore top hats and tail coats, which evolved into the eccentric garb still worn today. In the 1940s, a village shopkeeper, Vesta Peart, started to make many of the guisers’ costumes. As a token of their appreciation, in 1949, she became the only woman ever to carry a tar barrel in the procession, traditionally a male preserve.
North East Film Archive is one of a network of regional film archives established to collect, preserve and show film made in, or about the North East of England. Our collections are non-fiction, and date from the early 1900s to the present day, providing a rich record of life in the region over the 20th century. Many of our films are available to watch, free of charge, on our website.