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The Flaming Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary

Unique tradition of Ottery St Mary’s flaming tar barrels rolls on

News 1978 2 mins Silent

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The Annual Tar Barrels Festival of Ottery St Mary takes place on Guy Fawkes Night or 5 November. The townspeople who take part in this relay race are known as rollers. The young boys roll the nine-gallon barrels or firkins through the streets, the older boys roll the eighteen-gallon barrels or kilderkins and the men wrestle with the hogshead at fifty-four gallons. The barrels are lined with tar and filled with straw and lit before being carried through the streets.

The tradition is steeped in mystery. It may date back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688 or the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 or the practice of fumigating and purifying cottages in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries during outbreaks of plague and disease. It may have been used as a warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Nowadays, the locals are proud of the tradition and of being the only town in the country to hold such a festival. Each barrel is sponsored by a pub and the action takes place around The Square, Mill Street and Yonder Street. The event includes a bonfire, fireworks and funfair and another tradition at dawn and dusk is the firing of the Rock Cannons.