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The Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary 2021

One of the most colourful Bonfire Night traditions in England


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Every year, the small East Devon town called Ottery St Mary witnesses a spectacular tradition—hundreds of people crowd the narrow streets as the flaming tar barrels are carried through the downtown. Several runners grab blazing barrels, hoist them on shoulders, and race them through the town to the great delight of thousands of spectators.

This Ottery tradition has originated in the 17th century and is held each year on November 5th, known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. On this day, the British celebrate the explosion of the famous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 to blow up the Parliament and when King James I had barely survived the attempt on his life. Many cities in England have fireworks and bonfires on that night, and flaming tar barrels is a pretty common tradition too. However, in other towns, people just roll the barrels through the streets, not run with them. That's why Ottery's customs seem so unique.

Each barrel is sponsored by one of the town's central pubs. The barrels soaked with tar are set on fire in front of the pubs, and once the fire starts to pour out, they are put on locals' backs and shoulders to be carried through the streets.

Running with the flaming tar barrels is considered to be a great honour despite health and safety regulations and concerns. Ottery’s Bonfire Night also featured the parade and usual Guy Fawkes bonfire. A cosy town in East Devon in southwest England celebrates Bonfire Night on November 5th unless it falls on a Sunday. In that case, the festivities are held on a Saturday before.

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