Travel Writing Awards

By Linda Alley


If you can’t pluck up the courage to run with Pamplona’s bulls, there is a slightly more controlled thrill to be had in the Devonshire countryside. Burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes is already bizarre enough for many visitors to England, without Ottery St. Mary’s own addition to Bonfire Night.
As our host drives us in into Ottery, hibernating in the Autumn haze, we cannot even begin to imagine the frenzied chaos that will descend with the darkness. But Agatha Christie should have taught us that sleepy English villages are never what they seem.
Every year the inside of giant barrels are coated with coal tar, stuffed with paper and straw, and set alight outside the village’s main drinking holes. Studying our programme, we see that there are nine lightings throughout the evening. The crowds gather outside the Mason’s Arms at half past seven sharp as nervous anticipation mounts. We station ourselves safely in the middle as our host answers our eager questions. What happens once the barrels are lit? Do the carriers really run into the crowds? Has anyone ever been seriously injured?
We strain our necks over the thickening crowd. There is a ripple of movement at the front. A Mexican wave of screaming. Then the people in front of us are screaming. I feel it before I see it – the pressing heat. The stench of burning tar fills my nostrils. I glimpse flames – then the barrel is upon me.
The crowd moves as one body with a thousand legs. Not even the Piccadilly Line in rush hour prepares me for the stampede. I can’t breath. Then the barrel changes direction. A gap opens in the crowd. I am reunited with my friends. We stand gasping and laughing on a street corner.
The ‘Barrel Roller’, equipped with padded mittens resembling oven gloves ‘rolls’ his barrel onto the back of a waiting companion like a hot potato as the heat intensifies. The dancing ball of fire pierces the night like an ancient beacon. The Rollers move as close to frightened faces as possible. Then pull away and double-back. But this is no organised relay race. There is no planned route. There are no winners or losers. Only chaos.
We grow bolder as the fiery fever infects us. Like moths to a candle, we flit to the front of the crowd. My arm is nearly pulled from my socket as we fight to stay together. Our hardened host merely raises an eyebrow as a barrel passes within inches of his nose.
Between barrel-lightings, we wander around the village fair in St. Saviour’s Meadow. Those who can’t get enough thrills twist on stomach-churching rides. We prefer to catch our breath by the towering bonfire nearby. The Guy, who we learn has been made by the same family since 1958, is cremated within moments on this miniature volcano.
The origins of the Tar Barrel Carnival are more obscure than Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot. There is a vague consensus that it started in the seventeenth century. Some say it dates back to when barrels began to smoulder while left to fumigate in shops. Others prefer to believe that the tradition Rolling the barrels: Devon’s Pamplona – Linda Alley originated as a Pagan ritual to cleanse Ottery St. Mary of evil spirits.
The Barrel Rollers take their jobs seriously and there is little time to talk. To carry a barrel is both an honour and a responsibility, often passed from father to son in families that have called Ottery home for generations. Barrels are specially selected up to twelve months in advance. But what drives this community to continue to revere such a tradition? Perhaps it is simply because no other modern activity gives them the opportunity to share the danger and freedom experienced by their ancestors.
We are astonished to learn that boy’s barrels had been lit earlier in the afternoon. These tar barrels are smaller and lighter to suit their younger carriers. These are followed by a round of mediumsized barrels, carried by women. But none of these compare to the Grand Finale.
Just before midnight, the entire village gathers in the Square to await the last and largest barrel. A few lucky locals have coveted safe and spectacular views from rooftops and windows. The crowd gasps. Smoke chokes the Square. The Roller bravely staggers up and down with his 30 kilogram burden. It is not long before he is forced to admit defeat. The midnight barrel falls in a crash of splinters and sparks.
The night’s first ambulance flashes through the smoke. Everyone looks ominously around for singed clothes. One lad has had a few too many ciders and is flat on the cobblestones. Panic over, the Square turns into a dance floor.
As we join the parties of revellers meandering home along the country lanes, a full moon lights our way past foggy fields and farms. Smoky, sweaty but exhilarated, we’ll certainly remember the fifth of November. The distant thud of music echoes from the Square. Intermittent firework squeal and shower the countryside. If there were ever any evil spirits in Ottery, they have certainly been chased away. And any bulls for that matter.