Monday, 1 February 2010

Tar Barrel Rolling

In my attempt to uncover age old traditions as part of our culture I attended the annual tar barrel rolling in Ottery St Mary. This tradition dates back to the 17th Century and occurs every bonfire night to commemorate Guy Fawkes and burn the spirits of evil. It consists of setting alight wooden barrels containing tar, wood scrapings and paraffin. Once alight the barrels are carried through the streets of the town on the backs of the local men, who pass the barrel between them until it burns out. The event attracts thousands of people each year who fill the streets and square of the town creating a thick crowd that then have to avoid the burning barrels as they dart through the streets. This adrenaline filled event is reminiscent of Spanish bull running due to the collective fear and excitement of the crowd. When partaking in this event the herd like behaviour of the crowd seemed of another time, one that belonged far back in the zeitgeist of history resurrected each year


The final barrel upon being dropped and becoming mass of embers and smoke is surrounded by the local barrel men who lock arms and sing songs. The smog covered faces and clothing of each man lit only by the red glow of the embers and surrounded by the noise of the crowd connoted some old age ceremony. The men look almost satanic in this moment, separate from the outside world. The hoards of cameras and tourists surrounding them become indifferent to the event. It is in this space that the tradition really lives on.

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