Every year on 5 November, for reasons lost in antiquity, the villagers of Ottery, Saint Mary, Devon in England’s West Country race through the streets carrying heavy barrels full of flaming tar in one of the quirkiest of British traditions.
The West Country has a history of torchlight processions and a tradition of burning barrels and rolling them down the streets, but Ottery is the only village where barrels aren’t rolled but carried above the head.
The tradition is believed to have started in the 17th century, possibly when someone decided that rolling barrels were tame and carrying barrels on the shoulders was far more appealing.
Each of Ottery’s central public houses sponsors a single barrel, making up to 17 barrels over the course of the evening. In the weeks prior to the day of the event, the barrels are soaked with tar until they become highly flammable.
The barrels are lit outside each of the pubs in turn and once the flames begin to pour out, they are hoisted up onto local people’s backs and shoulders. The participants then make a dash through the streets and alleys packed with onlookers, in an exhilarating and risky spectacle.
The festivities begin in the early evening with small barrels for children, and medium-sized barrels for youths and women, but the main attraction is the men’s event where barrels weighing up to 30 kilos are hoisted over the head.
The barrels get passed from man to man, everyone tussling for control. Only those born in the town, or who have lived there for most of their lives, may carry a barrel.
Generations of the same family have been known to compete across the years.
Finally all the barrels make their way to the River Otter and get included in one of the biggest bonfires of the region.