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Go Tar Barrelling in Devon

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There are plenty of local events that pander to specific communities during bonfire night, though many of them may not be as distinct as the Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary in Devon.

Essentially, visitors looking for a day trip to strange UK attractions will find nothing quite like the procession in the southern village. On November 5th of every year, the townsfolk - men, women and children - carry burning barrels filled with tar in an event that lasts all day, culminating in a huge blaze at midnight.

The Tar Barrel tradition dates back all the way to the 1600s, though the exact origins and are unknown. It's believed that the tradition was started soon after the gunpowder plot of 1605, when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament and instead gave the UK an excuse to set off fireworks on November 5th.

However, there alternative reasons suggested for the whole burning barrel business, including the fumigation of cottages or as a warning that the Spanish Armada was approaching. If the latter was the case, it would have likely helped Sir Francis Drake in making his decision to finish his game of bowls before going out and taking the invaders out.

The town is not the only one to have a tar barrel tradition, though it's certainly the only one that carries its barrels. The official Tar Barrels site of Ottery St Mary says: "Somewhere along the line someone decided rolling was tame and carrying barrels on your shoulders was far more appealing, and so the present tradition was born and now Ottery is the only town in the country carrying full-sized lighted tar barrels through the streets."

This event is not without its dangers, however. After all, the heat from the barrels, plus the safety of those carrying them, is down to the individual performances of each participant, usually made up of the townsfolk. It has led to a number of complaints from visitors who have not researched the event before departing; something Andy Wade, the president of the town's carnival committee, is quick to stress.

"Believe it or not, barrels and flames is what the evening is about," he said. "If you are not willing to confront the occasional flaming tar barrel stand, well away from the area or better still, stay at home."

Those keen to see the spectacle, however, should head down to Devon. At 18:00, the town closes down for the arrival of cars, who will have to pay £10 parking at one of the two designated areas after the hour strikes. Safety is the primary concern, alongside having fun. It's certainly one of the strangest experiences for anyone during bonfire night, and the town would love to have you visit.


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