Great Barrels of Fire
The Devonshire town of Ottery St. Mary is a fire fighter’s nightmare every 5th of November. All of Britain indulges in a week of pyromaniacal lunacy for the week preceding with giant bonfires and fireworks celebrating Guy Fawkes. Yet this small village in the south west of England throws gas on the fire (so to speak) by encouraging the locals to run through the crowded streets with flaming barrels of tar on their backs. Teenagers, women, and men all indulge in this quaint practice that sometimes results in scorched scalps and burned shoulders. The huge crowd that turns up to see the event means everybody is at risk from the burning barrels. Shopfronts are often damaged in the crush as people scream and flee the melee.
Its beginning in the afternoon is low key and gives little hint of the madness ahead. The town has a holiday atmosphere and a fairground is set up along the river Otter and a 11m (35 ft.) bonfire waits to be lit. However, there are plenty of signs posted on walls that say “You are here at your own risk” and when the locals start popping off homemade cannons made from plumbing pipe stuffed with gunpowder you know you are in for something different.
Seventeen barrels are lit and hauled through the street. Enthusiastic youths cover themselves in wet clothing and wear gloves before they put a burning barrel on their backs and run through the streets. As the evening proceeds the barrels get bigger and bigger, culminating in a 50kg (110-lb.) monster known as the Midnight Barrel. Runners must have lived in the village for at least 6 years and many guard their right to barrel burn with fierce pride. The idea is to run as long as possible with the barrel on top before the heat becomes unbearable. Experienced barrel runners skillfully spin the barrel on their backs to lessen the heat. Then the barrel is passed to another family member who continues to rush through the screaming crowd like a stuntman whose stunt has gone awry.
Nobody knows why Ottery St. Mary indulges in burning barrels. Some say it is an old pagan ritual to ward off evil, others say it comes from the medieval practice of fumigating cottages. Still others say it’s a centuries-old celebration of defeating the Spanish Armada. Whatever its origins, the barrel burning now coincides with the British tradition of burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, an 18th-century catholic who tried to blow up the protestant parliament in what became known as the Gunpowder Plot. People gather around giant bonfires and it is no understatment to say alcohol is imbibed. In fact every one of the 17 barrels that flames through Ottery St. Mary is sponsored by a local pub from which it is successfully launched with much bravado.
When to Go: Nov 5.
Exeter (21km/13 miles).
$$$ Combe House Devon, Gittisham, Honiton, Exeter ( 44/1404/540-400; www.thishotel.com). $$$ Larkbeare Grange, Larkbeare, Talaton, Exeter ( 44/1404/822-069; www.larkbeare.net).