Tar barrel burning festival of Ottery, England

MWN1107-Tar-barrel-burning-festival

Organizers defy health and safety issues to stage unique event.

In the small English countryside town of Ottery, they are proud to host a unique sport. Coinciding with Guy Fawkes Night – which commemorates the Gunpowder Plot to blow up parliament on November 5, 1605 – participants carry burning tar-soaked barrels along a route into the central square, with varying sizes for men, women and children.

Staff work all year to ensure the hazardous event can take place and raise the insurance premiums. Chairman Graham Rowland said that tradition matters more than singed eyebrows.

This looks fun – but why is it such a big deal?

It’s world famous now. This has always been a big local tradition but in the age of social media it’s on a different level. We’re expecting 15,000 people and we have been having weekly planning meetings since September to make it work.

What is the connection between your town and setting barrels on fire?

It’s unique to Ottery. I’m 56 and when you’re born here it’s part of the landscape. The event is over 200 years old and although we don’t know the origins – whether it was a pagan thing or to fumigate buildings – I’m very proud to be chairman.

There were several hospitalizations back in 2009, so how do you avoid disaster? Especially in the ‘kids’ event?

It’s not really a competition so people are careful and we can control the risk. It’s like football: if you wear shin pads you have less accidents. But it’s not easy to pay the insurance because solicitors are encouraging people to fake injuries and make a fast buck. Last year we had no problems.

Are you worried about the event’s future?

Yes, everyone is. A cheese-rolling tournament has been stopped for health and safety reasons and there are people are trying to cause problems. But in Ottery, there will always be tar barrels rolling.

Do you have competition?

A town nearby puts barrels on a sled, but we’re the only ones to carry them on our backs.


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