Ottery St. Mary is a unique carnival in which barrels coated with coal tar are burned and carried up and down the streets. What started this tradition and why; nobody knows for sure.
All that is known is that the centuries old tradition either started as a way of warning the approach of Spanish Ships, or to kill the rats when the black death plague had enveloped the country, or maybe to fumigate the cottages. Another popular reason could be that the burning of tar barrels warded off the evil spirits.
Whatever the reason be, it is a very interesting and somewhat risky festival. Originally the torched barrels were rolled down but to add excitement to the event, they are now carried on the backs.
Not everyone is allowed to carry a barrel; in fact some families are Barrel Rollers for generations. The barrels are lit outside a public house. It takes place on the 5th of November which incidentally is also the Guy Fawkes Day.
A total of 17 burning barrels are carried throughout the day. The sizes of the barrels vary from small for boys to medium for women and youth and the big boys get to carry the big barrels which can be as heavy as 30 kg.
The first barrel is lit at 4 o’clock outside a public house and then carried through the streets. The process continues amidst cheering and applauding of the people until the last barrel is lit as the clock strikes midnight.
The event ends with a spectacular bonfire. The bonfire is an important part of the festival. Three weeks prior to the festival material is collected from the community. Just a week preceding the festival the bonfire is completed with a height of 35 feet and width of 50 feet.
On the festival the Guy is placed at the top of the bonfire. In the evening, the base of the bonfire is set ablaze and a manifestation of flame is viewed and enjoyed by all.