All / Originally Posted on Skirt

Fire and Water

The time has come once again to blog about burning barrels of tar. 

In Britain, November the 5th is Guy Fawkes Day, where we commemorate the fact that Guy Fawkes failed to burn down the Parliament Buildings in the infamous Gunpowder Plot.  All over Britain people celebrate this with fireworks displays and bonfires upon which a straw representation of Guy Fawkes is burned in effigy, thus the nocturnal portion of Guy Fawkes Day is also known as Bonfire Night. 

Here in Devon, not far from Exeter, lies is the small town of Ottery St Mary.  (Yes, yes, that may sound familiar to many of you out there–J. K. Rowling did her undergraduate degree at Exeter University.)  Nobody knows precisely when or where the tradition started, but the people of Ottery St Mary have a noble and long-standing ritual every Bonfire Night. 

When I first arrived in England four years ago, the beginning of November was a time when I had just begun to feel settled in: I had found my routine, I’d made friends, and I was finally getting past some of the minor linguistic issues that Americans tend to have upon first arriving in the British Isles (Fairy liquid? Pulling? Why did that person behind the till call me “lover” when handing me my change?)  Then one day, somebody asked me if I would be going to Ottery St Mary for Bonfire Night.  “What is it?”  I asked.  Every time I repeated this question over the next few days, my informants’ faces would light up before they replied with phrases like “completely mad,” “indescribable,” and “dodgy.”  However, it was very difficult to get an accurate description of what actually physically occurred on the evening in question. 

Thus I was forced to take the opportunity to see for myself: the town inhabitants light barrels cured in tar on fire and carry them on their shoulders in a series of relay races through the streets.

The thing is, any attempt to convey that concept to others who have not personally experienced it is doomed to failure, because it is simply impossible for the brain to fully comprehend the idea of masses of people running up and down narrow streets, flaming barrels balanced precariously on their heads, their only protection some burlap sacking on their hands. 

Actually, that isn’t the difficult part.  The difficult part is describing that these barrel races don’t occur on the other side of high safety barriers, but instead are run straight through a dense, crushing mob of drunk people of many nationalities.  People really do come from all over the world to see the barrel racing. 

You’ll be standing in a street that you don’t think could possibly get more crowded.   It’s cold.  It’s dark.  You can’t feel your nose, and all you can see is a panorama of woolly hats.  Just when you’ve decided you’ve chosen the worst possible spot and you’ll never see anything and you might as well shove your way ungraciously through the mob in search of some mulled wine and a pasty, the crowd will begin to shout and press.  You look round wildly, trying not to stumble in the tangle of legs and arms.  Suddenly a great rush of heat swooshes past your face and as you press back, shrinking into the ranks of people behind, a small detached part of your brain thinks that fire actually does make that whooshing sound just like in the movies, and it really does look like liquid inside the barrel.  The sweetly acrid smell of tar smoke settles over you as you turn away, night-blinded by the flames, unable to see the crowd as the barrel moves off into the distance. 

And then it happens again, and again, and again, all through the night, culminating in the men’s races at midnight (women and children also race earlier in the evening and afternoon).  Each time the barrel flames start to die out, the barrel is put on the ground and a guy with a kerosene tin refreshes the fuel, with a great “WHOOOMPH” of new flame.  It is considered lucky to try and touch the barrel as it sweeps past you, but in recent years the safety authorities (yes, there are some) have discouraged this practice.  I’ve never tried to touch one, but I usually manage to find a small chunk of charred barrel to keep as a souvineer. 

The tar barrel racing is one of my favorite events of the year.  The very first time I went, just at the moment after I survived staring a flaming barrel in the face I thought to myself, “I want to live in England forever!” That really was what tipped the balance from “I like it here” to “How could I want to live anywhere else?”

Though generally the injury count is very low (surprised? Chalk it up to the devoted efforts of the many St John’s Ambulance volunteers which are a constant presence throughout the night–also the savvy crowd who have been doing this crazy dance for many, many years and know which way to dodge), this year there was an extremely unfortunate incident where an unknown person threw an aeresol can into a barrel, which caused burns to several nearby spectators and racers.  The community has rallied in support of the police investigation and there is every hope that the perpetrator will be caught, but the future of the event is now in jeapordy.  I sincerely hope that the barrels will be burning bright next November, but if that’s the end of the custom, then I can only be glad that I was able to see it while I could.  You can see my photos from this year’s barrel burning here.  If you want more information about the event, check out 

In other news, I forgot to mention in my last post that when I got home from Durham, where the infamous Pumpkin Dance took place, my landlady told me that part of the roof leaked and one of the rooms in the house flooded while I was gone.  If you’re not already laughing, let me remind you that EVERY SINGLE HOUSE I have lived in for the past year and a half has at one point or another flooded.  That’s a grand total of five places: houseboat (bathroom drain), flat in Cairo (washing machine door popped open), parent’s house (drain #2), first house in Exeter (water seeping behind the bathroom tiles), second house in Exeter (leaky roof).  Is anybody having a drought they’d like me to come solve?