Allendale Tar Barrel Carrying, NorthumberlandDoes a tradition gain in power somehow according to its antiquity? The Allendale tar barrel ceremony almost certainly dates from 1858, making this magical procession a callow youth compared to many others in the country. But the sight is extraordinary, and the pride that comes with involvement is enormous.
As so often elsewhere claims of pagan roots or strange Viking ceremonies have attached to the Allendale event, but the reality is that it started when the town’s silver band parade on New Year’s Eve, normally lit by candles, took place on a night of gusty winds that made candles impractical. Some bright spark (sorry) seemingly solved the problem with barrels of lighted tar carried on the heads of the town’s strongest men. The flames were protected from the wind, the hefty barrels were stable once aloft, and a tradition was born.
The end point of the procession is the ‘Baal’ fire, lit at midnight, though Baal in this context is more likely to be a contraction of barrel than to designate some pagan deity.
These days the barrels carried on the head of ‘guisers’ (meaning those in disguise, or costume) are cut down in size, and the flames generally issue from paraffin soaked wood chip and cloth. But the sight is no less impressive. The right to carry a barrel is hereditary, and the source of great pride and pleasure. The guisers wear strange uniforms of bright colours like something from The Three Musketeers, with incongruously but necessarily stout gloves to protect fingers from the fire and flat hats to insulate the head and give some cushion too – the barrels are said to weight 30lb or more, but carriers will strain every sinew not to drop their burden before time.
Allendale claims to be the geographical centre of Britain, something disputed by several other settlements. But on New Year’s Eve it can be argued the place is the spiritual centre of the country. The lead mining that once gave the town its reason for being may be long gone, but pride in the community remains, and burns brightest on December 31.
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