Every 5 November, residents of a small town in Devon risk serious injury by carrying flaming tar barrels through the town’s streets. We send Emilee Tombs to find out why.
I’m sitting at the bar in the Volunteer Inn. It’s a traditional Devonshire pub: local ales and ciders on tap, dark-wood floors and a selection of lapping regulars perched at the bar with dogs snoozing at their heels.
But something is disrupting this bucolic scene, not the barman swiping his smartphone or the flickering flatscreen TV, but the troubling images adorning the walls.
I become mesmerised by one in particular: a burning mass with a distinctive pair of male legs sprouting from the bottom. Five men in Michelin Man-style layers of clothing are gathered around this walking fireball with one reaching out towards it, waiting to receive what looks sure to be a slow and painful death.
“That’s me and my son,” says a voice behind me. “We’re just about to exchange the barrel at that point. Nobody ever seems to get a picture of my face when I’m doing it but I can assure you I’m quite happy.”
This is Mike Down, the owner of the Volunteer Inn and, more importantly, an experienced roller.
Ottery St Mary, a quiet town half way between Honiton and Exeter, ignites each 5 November when it hosts its annual Ottery St Mary Carnival; during which local residents carry flaming barrels through the town’s streets.
I’d heard tales of the so-called ‘rollers’, anointed with the prestigious task of carrying a fire barrel, weighing up to 150kg (330lbs), as part of the celebrations, and now I’d made the three-hour coach ride to find out why someone would want to do it.
Mike’s family have been rollers for generations.
“My grandad rolled, me and my wife do too, as do my two sons, my daughter and her husband and – I’m hoping – her kids too; she’s just had her first,” he beams.
As we settle down at a table to chat, a gang of rollers bundle into the pub, famished from a morning adding to an enormous pile of wood that will become the iconic centrepiece of the town’s festivities, which is lit the weekend before the tar barrel procession.
My first question for Mike is one he must be accustomed to answering: why does he do it?
“We do it because we can. I’ve been rolling since I was a kid and I can tell you that once you’ve done it you never want to stop, the buzz you get from it is incredible.”
“Of course there’s the traditions to uphold as well,” interjects his wife Jacqui, frantically preparing tables for the lunchtime trade. “We lose too many traditions these days, but this one has been around since the Doomsday Book.”
Andy Wade, chairman of the Ottery St Mary Carnival, tells me that there are many conflicting stories surrounding the event’s origins. Some claim it initially began to assist with the fumigation of local cottages, while others say it was a warning of an impending Spanish invasion. All Andy knows for sure is that it stretches back to the time of the Gunpowder Plot.
“Back then the townsfolk would roll the barrels through town,” says Andy, who has been the chief organiser of the event for the past 40 years. “It’s unclear at what point we decided to pick them up, but the tradition stuck, and it’s been going for hundreds of years now.”
Some elements have had to change in recent years: the sheer number of spectators who cram into the narrow streets dictates that marshals are now put in place and, perhaps somewhat curmudgeonly, rollers now have to stay sober throughout. But the event’s components have stayed pretty much intact.
Each barrel is still named after the pub it originated from – even if the pub is no longer there – and the number of barrels that are run (19), plus the timings (starting at 4pm, going through to midnight, with the largest barrel, The Midnight, saved for the finale) are all rigorously adhered to.
In years gone by, boys wanting to participate would fight one another for the right, but nowadays a rigorous selection process takes place and you only stand a chance of becoming a roller if you picked up your first burning crate before the age of 15.
Starting at just eight, children in the town cut their teeth rolling with sherry barrels until the age of 15, after which they move on to intermediate barrels weighing up to 30kg (66lbs). Once they’ve reached 18, and have been vetted by the subcommittee of elder and former rollers, they are granted the right to move up to the men’s size of between 80kg (175lbs) and 150kg (330lbs). The women participants follow the same pattern but stop at the intermediate weights.
Jacqui is the only woman roller I meet, and the only person in the pub today that hasn’t been rolling since she could read and write.
“I feel very, very privileged”, she says, sombrely. “I’m only allowed to do it because I started before the legislations [health and safety regulations] came in. I was running one of the other pubs and one day they were short of ladies and said would I like to have a go.
“I had one go and asked if I could do it again, and then the next year I got my official letter asking me to sign on. That was 20 odd years ago,” says Jacqui with a warm smile.
I ask about rituals and superstitions; surely an activity as dangerous as this must warrant all kinds of manic, pre-event practices?
In answer Jacqui proudly holds up what looks to be no more than a rag, spattered with black tar spots and laced with ragged holes. The remains of a collar, near the top of the fabric, is the only real indication that this was once a large cotton shirt.
“I’ve worn it since the first day I lifted a barrel,” says Jacqui smirking. “It’s kind of my trademark, I guess. I just feel comfortable rolling in it.”
By now the hungry group of rollers are crowded around the small bar shovelling down hearty portions of delicious-smelling game pie.
I approach and we strike up a conversation discussing the event and its superstitions (one roller will wear only odd socks on the big day) before I find myself returning to that same old question: what possesses these people to do it?
Setting down his knife and fork, one George Orborne turns towards me.
“Because it’s the most fun you can have with lots of clothes on,” he says with a grin.
NEED TO KNOW
Trains from London Waterloo to Honiton take around 3 hours (fares from £45 return). From Honiton railway station take bus number 4 towards Exeter and alight at the Butchers (stop B) in Ottery St Mary.
Celebrations in Ottery begin on 31 October, when the popular carnival procession takes place, starting at 7.30pm. The carnival ends with the lighting of the 10m-high (35ft) bonfire in St Saviours Meadow along with a fireworks display.
The Tar Barrel procession takes place on 5 November. The first barrel is rolled at 4pm, with the final – and biggest – one being heaved through the streets at midnight.
Major roads close during the festivities. Car parking is provided at four sites around town (fee: £10 per car).
The event relies on donations to subsidise the significant cost of hosting the festival. Visitors are therefore encouraged to make a small donation (via the various collection points) if possible.
The Tumbling Weir Hotel (tel: +44 1404 812 752; www.tumblingweirhotel.com), a characterful hotel converted from a 17th-century thatched cottage, is located within the town of Ottery itself. Double rooms are available from £65 per night.
A more budget, and adventurous, alternative is to pitch up at the Oakdown Touring & Holiday Caravan Park (tel: +44 1297 680 387; www.oakdown.co.uk) roughly 8km (5 miles) from the town. Prices start from £17.10 per night for a lot (tent and thermal underwear not included).