After having to cancel last year’s event due to the pandemic, it is with great excitement that we look forward to the 2021 Tar Barrel Rolling and Festival in Ottery St Mary. This ancient tradition has been taking place for hundreds of years and this year’s event is a welcome return to some semblance of normality.

If you’re not familiar with Tar Barrel Rolling, then you are in for a treat! Ottery St Mary is one of the only villages left in the UK that still holds the tradition and it is really a sight to behold.

Basically, on, or as near as possible, to the 5th November, the people of Ottery St Mary commemorate Bon Fire Night by setting large barrels alight and then carrying and rolling them through the streets as part of their Bon Fire Night celebrations. The burning of barrels and torchlit processions have been long associated with the West Country, though no one is really sure where the tradition originally came from. 

Historians believe it is likely that Tar Barrel Rolling began when the country started marking the foiled gunpowder plot in 1605. For our non British readers, every year, the UK celebrate Bon Fire Night on 5th November, in which we remember the Gun Powder Plot. An assassination attempt on the King and parliament. We’re not sure whether we’re celebrating the fact that the plot failed or that some one attempted it in the first place. But every year since the 1600s, the people of the UK hold bon fires, burn barrels, light fireworks and burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes, one of the most well known of the plotters. Fawkes and his comrades had aimed to take a stand against the king and politicians by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during a meeting. Each of the plotters were eventually caught and executed, with Guy Fawkes being imprisoned and tortured in the Tower of London.

Other theories into the basis of Tar Barrel Rolling include a way of warning those living near the coast of approaching Spanish ships or ways to fumigate cottages. Wherever it came from, it is a firm favourite on the village’s yearly calendar.

Each year, the villagers in Ottery St Mary use the event to raise hundreds of pounds for local charities and welcome visitors from all over the country to witness the spectacle. The procession with the lit barrels culminates in a giant bonfire which spans almost 50ft in width!

Find out more about the event and plan your visit here.