Last week, on the 5th November 2013 I went to Ottery St Mary, in Devon, England to witness something extraordinary. I have known about the event for years but with one thing and another, never got around to going along. It is an event which knocks on its head any sense of Health & Safety as we know it today. For that reason alone it is glorious. We say ‘don’t play with fire’ as a metaphor for something potentially dangerous but in Ottery St Mary they don’t just play with fire, they dance with it, they spin it through the air, they roll it and defy it and face it down. They do this….
Every year, on November 5th and for the last 400 odd years, men, women and children born in Ottery take part in this preposterous, fantastic, thrilling event. They basically coat barrels in tar, set them alight, hoist them onto their shoulders and run through the town. Over recent years, the evening started to draw more and more spectators, resulting in about 20,000 people descending on Ottery this year.
I arrived early because I wanted to watch the children, who start at 4pm. They start them young! I wasn’t sure what to expect and I was wrong about the format. I imagined each person would run with their own barrel over a distance, a bit like a race. No.
OK, the format is the same from the children’s event right up to the 30kg barrel at midnight, but basically once the barrel is lit the runners randomly relay the barrel up and down a stretch of road until it literally falls apart. Sometimes the barrel is dropped, sometimes it goes out and needs re-lighting but the running carries on until the barrel is cinder.
17 barrels are burnt on the night. Each is donated by a local family and the points around town where the barrels are carried, are outside the pubs or where pubs used to be years back. Special homemade mittens are made using sacking material and these become charred and are often seen on fire! Watching the children was an eye opener, especially when you can imagine them being told the next day at school to not run in the playground. They moved fast too. Different approaches from different kids, some hesitant and some getting stuck in with almost a combat attitude.
As the evening came on the crowds built, the catering vans set up, a big funfair got into full swing and eventually the 30′ bonfire was lit. A burning barrel is carried in a procession to the stack and up it goes. All the while, burning barrels are being charged through the crowds.
By the time the men and women are running with fire, the streets are packed and the crowds move like massive shoals of fish from one location to another. Before each barrel is lit the street fills with people. Packed so tight and close that you could fall unconscious and remain upright. Nobody can move. There is no space. Somewhere in the crowd though is the barrel, freshly coated with tar and surrounded with a tight ring of barrel runners. Then it is lit. It is rolled. Only when it is roaring is it picked up. Just when you are convinced the crowd is too tightly packed, you see what real motivation can do. The runner runs, with a flaming barrel and the crowd parts like the Red Sea, with cheers, whooping and screaming!
In the Town Square it’s a different style. Basically the same but now the runner can charge in a wide circle and with the adrenaline flowing some spin and turn and dance. Tar and flames fly in all directions, the crowds, close enough to touch the runners, the barrels, experience a real, in your face, actually dangerous event. There is no barrier, no ‘get behind the line’, no ‘for your safety’. I can well imagine that for most people it is the most risky, dangerous experience they have ever had.
Personally I thought the whole thing fantastic and I truly hope that Ottery St Mary has another 400 years of running with fire. Every year the organisers have to fight the H&S brigade and the insurance issues. It costs a lot of money and a lot of effort to keep something alive that is a rare event and experience.
Have a look in my Galleries, there are more photos and whilst I am not sure how many more people could physically get into Ottery on Nov 5th it is something not to be missed.