Atlas Obscura is Hiring! Join us in pursuit of wonder.

Ottery Saint Mary, England

The Tar Barrels of Ottery St. Mary

Flaming barrels of tar race through these village streets on Bonfire Night, a tradition that dates back centuries. 

In England, the tradition of lighting up bonfires and setting off fireworks on Guy Fawkes Day dates back over 400 years.  In the East Devon village of Ottery St. Mary, on November 5th—also known as Bonfire Night—hundreds of people crowd the narrow streets for some particularly perilous revelry.

When Bonfire Night falls in Ottery, runners grab blazing barrels of tar, hoist them on their shoulders, and race them through the village streets. It’s no joke here—the flames are real, and chaos seems to be in charge. But they’ve been at it for hundreds of years, and only village veterans are given the honor of running the barrels.   

The custom of using tar barrels to kick off Bonfire Night isn’t unique to Ottery. Other towns and villages light them up too, but typically roll them through the streets. It’s not clear exactly when, but at some point (villagers say it was at least a couple hundred years ago) someone thought rolling barrels of flaming tar was kind of a bore, and carrying them on your back was the way to go. It’s been an Ottery tradition, far outliving health and safety regulations, ever since.

The celebration of Guy Fawkes Day/Bonfire Night comes from a failed attempt to assassinate the British monarch. It was 1605, and a rabble-rouser named Guy Fawkes and eleven co-conspirators dreamed up a plot to blow Parliament sky-high while King James was in the House. Discovered lurking in the cellar with thirty-six barrels of gunpowder and a pocket full of matches, Fawkes became the fall-Guy for the thwarted plot. With the King’s life saved, November 5th soon after became a day (well, mostly night) of national thanksgiving.

Know Before You Go

Ottery St. Mary is a small town in East Devon, in southwest England. The burning of the tar barrels is every year on November 5th (unless the 5th falls on a Sunday, then the festivities are on the Saturday before).

Ottery’s Bonfire Night also includes the usual Guy Fawkes bonfire, and has been expanded to include a mini fairground, and stalls selling food and warming drinks. The roads in and out of the village are all closed that day, and everyone must use one of the five designated car parks (the charge is £10 per car). There is no driving, and no other parking allowed. Alternatively, coaches can be booked from key towns surrounding Ottery St Mary, including Taunton and Exeter.

It can be chaotic, with hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people descending on the square and narrow streets. Keep in mind that you will be in close proximity of burning tar barrels, so if you are concerned by flames and/or don't like rowdy crowds, this is definitely NOT the night for you.

Edit Place