Tar Barrels & Rock Cannons of Ottery, DevonOn November 5th every year Ottery St Mary changes from a quiet country town to the focal point of British eccentricity. And this is not eccentricity of the keeping ten cats variety.
Guy Fawkes Night is of course marked all over the country, and a big communal fire forms part of the celebrations. But elsewhere the fire generally stays in one place. Ottery has a massive bonfire, rising maybe 30 feet or more above St Saviour's Meadow. It traditionally has a funfair too, as people are drawn from miles around for the big day and bigger evening. But Ottery also has its tar barrels.
These barrels are prepared well in advance, the insides soaked with coal tar, a dash or two of paraffin, and flammable material like cloth or paper added to help get them going when they are needed. Over the course of the afternoon and evening a total of 17 barrels, all sponsored by the various pubs and hotels in the town, are lit one by one and hoisted on the backs of members of local families who have it in their blood to do this most dangerous of displays. Starting with smaller versions carried by children and women, and ending up near midnight with a massive 30kg barrel, the blazing barrels are carried around the town centre streets, passing by and through the crowds that like the barrels get bigger as the night progresses.
Think about it. Carrying a burning barrel through crowds whose members may have had a drink or two in one of the sponsoring pubs. The barrel carriers tiring and struggling as the blazing tun disintegrates. Health and Safety experts must wake up screaming in their cotton wool beds. Plenty of the observers scream too, and some are very real.
Various suggestions are made as to the origin of the thing: pagan rites (naturally) to banish evil spirits; signalling the sighting of the Spanish Armada; fumigating cottages of all things - effective if terminal. But the most likely seems to be that burning barrels that used to be rolled (still are in some places) on Bonfire Night were picked up in a moment of testosterone or scrumpy fuelled madness by an ancestor of those still doing it today, and carried through the town in the same show of strength and daring as occurs to this day. The only protection afforded the carriers is sackcloth covering for their hands, which may seem a trifle inadequate when the flames bursting from the open end of the vessel are seen.
Not content with just tar barrel carrying, Ottery has another custom on the same day, also not without its dangers perhaps. Three times during the day 'rock cannons' are set off, devices that could be described as casual firearms, improvised from steel bars drilled with a short hole and filled with gunpowder which is ignited by means of a percussion cap and a hammer. The bar is bent to provide a handle at about 90 degrees from the muzzle, and a flat topped 'hammer' held in the free hand brought down on the firing hole in the top, setting off the cap and the carefully rammed gunpowder. These days the firers, a group of ten or so, wear high visibility vests, which as concessions to our safety culture go maybe ranks with wearing a waterproof hat when going over Niagara Falls in a barrel
More British Folk Customs?