What does a peaceful little riverside town in Devon (UK) have to do with law and order? Ottery St Mary (pop. 7,000) sleeps in a patchwork of fields and meadows around the River Otter, appearing to have fallen here from the higher ground at the top of the Otter Valley, collecting haphazardly as a glut of buildings, cobbled streets, and a smart town square. There’s a church (St Mary’s, which looks as though a mad scientist has blasted Exeter Cathedral with a shrinking ray and dropped it onto a chocolate box); a graveyard; and four pubs (writes Jim Alexander).
Nothing much happens here. The 7,000 inhabitants go about their business. Cows low. In June, re-enacting an historic event, all the children of the village pretend to be pixies and abduct the town’s bell ringers. Three times daily, the Old Ottery song, in a kind of bucolic version of those announcements from Ho Chi Minh you hear crackling out of street speakers every morning in Vietnam, is pealed by the bells of St Mary’s.
In short, a contemplative (if a little weird) rural idyll: until November 5th, when everything goes crazy.
There are various rumours and explanations about the origin of the legendary Ottery tradition of the Tar Barrels. Ask the history books why increasingly large burning tar barrels are hauled through the town’s perfect streets on Bonfire Night, and you’ll be told that it commemorates the Great Plague, when flaming barrels were rolled through the streets to kill all the rats; that it has something to do with the approach of the Spanish Armada; or that the barrels represent the gunpowder kegs used by Guy Fawkes in his ill-fated attempt to send Parliament into orbit.
The procession starts in the middle of the afternoon. Children carry small lighted barrels through the streets. Later, they are supplanted by the town’s women, who tote medium sized barrels. As night falls, the men take over, bearing immensely heavy firkins that contain huge gouts of flame. Every barrel is named, either for its starting point or destination, with the last barrel coming to rest in the town square at midnight.
It’s an awesome sight: huge, soot-streaked men charging through the streets like gods, or ogres, the populace boiling behind them. It’s unclear whether the chasers are rats, fleeing, driving the ogre before them; or supplicants, reaching out to touch the boiling sides of the barrels. What is clear is that it’s a chase. The men duck and weave, leaping from side to side apparently without effort while their loads spill great trails of fire into the night sky. Touching a tar barrel, apparently, brings the toucher a year’s luck. A good dividend for the price of a severely burned hand.
Ask an Ottregian why he (or she) feels the need to run through Ottery’s streets under the presumably lethal weight of a flaming tar barrel, and you’ll be given a very simple reason: because they want to, and because they always have. It’s no coincidence that the Tar Barrels are run on Guy Fawkes Night. Guy Fawkes, love it or loathe it, is emblematic of something that Ottery, as a town, has taken to heart: the ability - or, as these wonderful East Devonians would have it, the right - of the individual to tell the state to get knotted.
It’s something that the UK has lost the knack of, these last 20 years – and, while no-one in Ottery would seriously endorse violence against Parliament (well, not much, anyway), they would claim that they’ve every right to run through the streets chasing barrels of burning tar. And why the hell not. If there were more places that hung onto their cherished lunacies that way Ottery does, with its’ re-enacted pixie-nappings, and its bell-rung daily call to all its sons and daughters – well, then the world might still be a little magical. A bit less grey and ordered.
Which makes it all the more depressing that the whole thing has been permanently endangered by some idiot (non-Ottregian), who bowled an aerosol into the Factory Barrel last year. Several injuries resulted, and the long arm of Health and Safety (which has preferred to ignore Ottery, presumably in the hope that it will go away) is threatening to pluck this last act of self-expression from the British calendar. The Ottregians, who’ve seen trouble from the authorities before, aren’t worried. If the law wants to stop a tradition that’s been going on unchanged for nearly half a millennium, they reckon, it’s going to have to try harder than that. Maybe, if it comes down to it, they’ll set the pixies on them.
About the author
Jim Alexander is a writer and roadie who has been travelling Europe and the rest of the world for the last ten years. He currently calls a little village in Devon (UK) his home – for now, at least...