2007-11-08 : Not as many otters as you may be led to believe

I'm lucky enough to have been around a bit of England, and gotten involved in a few different traditional and folky fixtures & endeavours. Often they're steeped in tradition, so much so that the origins are often obscured or even totally lost to modern knowledge. However this is the first time I've ever found myself scratching my head and genuinely asking myself, “Why?”.

K, her Dad (Vic) and I went to the Devon township of Ottery St Mary for their annual and widely famed Tar Barrels night. When I agreed to do this, I didn't really know if I was registering as a spectator or a participant, and as the date drew closer I got more nervous in the absence of any more information on this point.

For starters, despite the name, there's bugger all in the way of otters there – the name comes from the nearby river, the River Otter. That's not relevant, I just thought I'd throw it in for free.

The sequence of the tar barrels event is: every half hour or so from about 4pm through til midnight a barrel is run in the designated spot, starting from wee little quarter-casks for the kids, progressing up to the last 3 barrels, which appeared to be sherry butts. Each barrel is coated inside with coal tar so it's nice & flammable, and a “run” consists of the barrel being set fire to, and then the runner (sporting hessian gloves and protective clothing that looked a lot like rugby tops) mounts the barrel across the back of their shoulders, and then runs up the street with it. As the barrel gets too hot or heavy, or if the gloves catch fire, the barrel is passed off to the next runner, who then carries on in much the same fashion. This continues until the barrel has burnt down to the point where there's not much barrel left to burn, and the charred smoldering remains are abandoned by the side of the road. The runners are nominated from the local population, and evidently to be selected as a runner is something of an honour.

What puzzled me most initially was how they picked where to run – was there any pattern to it (and thereby, was there some sort of goal to this?), or were they just running about with a burning barrel? The answer, it seems, was the latter.

The event is quite a big one, and as such draws quite a crowd – this year it was estimated to be 23,000 people, but they get more when bonfire night falls on a weekend – so part of the running process involves the crowd getting the f*ck out of the way when a huge great flaming barrel comes towards them. The sites for the barrel runs are dotted all over Ottery, typically in the vilalge square or in front of pubs, but as pubs close down they now hold them in the streets where there used to be pubs. Quite a lot of the local shopkeepers and residents board up their windows in preparation for the surging masses, and during Monday afternoon it was quite a bizarre sight to see the town bolstering itself for the onslaught.

As well as this, safety signage is put up around the place to warn people that there will be flaming tar barrels in the area. I'm not 100% sure for whose benefit these are, as the only reason you'd be anywhere near the place at this point would specifically be to see the tar barrels…

As interesting as it all was though, I just still can't get my brain around WHY they do it. A YouTube video on the 2006 “festival” opens with the caption “Men, woman (sic) & Children have braved the flames to carry flaming barrels of tar through the streets”. I don't know, maybe I'm missing something. To me, “braving the flames” is something that firefighters do.

As well as the tar barrels, there's the bonfire (a key fixture of bonfire night, I suppose), and Ottery holds one of the biggest bonfires in the region.

Bloody hell, they weren't kidding. I think I have a better appreciation now for what CFS bushfire fighters deal with in Australia. The Ottery bonfire was a stack of brush, wood, furniture, pallettes, and by the look of it any burnable matter for miles around, stacked about 50 feet high, crowned with a chair featuring a bonfire guy. Standing where we were it wasn't long before you had to put your hands up to shield your face from the heatwave, and maybe it's cos I wasn't really brought up with Guy Fawkes' Night, but I found the whole burning of an effigy thing a little macabre.

Another feature unique to Ottery for this time of year is the “cannons” – not anything like you'd find on a pirate ship, but rather a series of hand-held bits of bent pipe, which are packed with gunpowder and fired off by the designated people at times which only they seem privy to. Again, it's supposedly a tradition, but I get the distinct impression that these people just like messing around with gunpowder and making lots of noise, and the tar barrels night is the only time of year they can get away with it, on the grounds it'd be hypocritical for anybody to complain about that and yet still condone running around carrying flaming barrels.

Anyway that was that – it was a nice trip & we did heaps of cool stuff. Photos can be found in my gallery.