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Driving through the main square of Ottery St Mary on the afternoon of November 6th, the only townspeople I see are two elderly gentlemen with sturdy little dogs and a young girl on a bicycle. The quiet Devonshire town in the beautiful Otter Valley shows no signs of the previous night's revelry. Nearly a week before, on October 31st, the annual festival had started with the traditional procession through the village, complete with Carnival Queen and Princesses and brightly-coloured floats sponsored by local groups.
The final day, November 5th (Guy Fawkes' Night), culminates in rituals far more hair-raising than the traditional bonfire and fireworks enjoyed by the rest of the country. Before dawn, the local people come out into the streets and fire 'cannon' - hand-held pieces of piping which are filled with gunpowder and fired in the traditional way, to create an almighty flash and a loud bang. This is repeated at 1pm and again at 4pm. However, the real treat is kept for the evening, when thousands of people from across the county and beyond congregate to watch barrels full of burning tar being rolled up and down the streets and through the main square. This is an extremely ancient tradition, possibly older than that of the unhappy Guy Fawkes himself. Fire festivals around the time of Halloween are deeply rooted in British folklore and have been connected with the ritual burning of witches. It is a great honour to be allowed to take part in the barrel rolling and this has continued in some local families for generation after generation.
The weather was against us, both windy and raining hard and we arrived late, around 8pm. It was only a short walk into town from the car park, along the main street past the softly floodlit church. All the roads had been closed since 5pm and the reason was clear: all the public areas were filled with people from elderly pensioners to tiny children, watching the burning barrels and frantically trying to dodge as they came closer and then moved off again. The barrel rollers carry the barrels on their shoulders and protect their hands with dampened sacking. They run back and forth with the barrel until they can no longer stand the heat and then they pass it to the next person in line. The more experienced bearers achieve this by whirling the barrel around their heads until their successor is ready to accept it.
Some of the rollers are quite sedate, clearly experienced, travelling up and down amongst the crowd. Others are keen to prove their strength and race along, taking the crowd by surprise and scattering people in their wake. All end up sooty from head to foot. As I watched, one teenager's hair caught fire but was rapidly extinguished by his neighbour. The emergency services stand by for more serious situations. Barrels are rolled at designated times at various sites across town, mostly associated with and sponsored by the nearest pub. They start with the smaller barrels for women and boys in the afternoon and progress to ever-larger barrels carried by the men late into the night. As the evening progresses, so the drinking takes effect, the atmosphere becomes wilder and the experience more hazardous. It is not unknown for people to break the glass shop fronts of the main square as the throng heaves to and fro. For those who lose their nerve or simply want to take a break from the main spectacle, there is a vast bonfire with a traditional Guy on it down by the water. Across the river from the bonfire are the bright lights of the travelling funfair, with all kinds of stalls and rides.