I’ll never forget an occasion while I was at university when I attended a fayre at a nearby village named Ottery St Mary. They still use that spelling, “fayre”, because the locals want us to think they’re still back in the days of Thomas Hardy: using pitchforks, horse-drawn carts and saying “Daisy’s o’er the hillock, sire” every other sentence. This in spite of the fact that the local farmers own spanking new tractors paid for by government subsidies, wear business suits and barely know what a cowpat is. Nevertheless, the old world attraction was important for the village’s annual fayre because the highlight was a “centuries old” tradition involving burning barrels. You did not misread that. Ottery St Mary is an idyllic picture postcard village, set in the rolling hills of the county of Devon in Southern England. It’s uncertain how much inbreeding has taken place there but the insanity of this “tradition” added to the suspicions raised by the observation that most of the men appear slow, talk with a lisp, boast prominent foreheads, and have wives that all look strikingly similar.
The tradition itself involved the following: Firstly, the main village street was filled with as many people as would fit in a very narrow space. This was achieved by advertising far and wide that a “centuries old tradition”, enjoyed by the village of Ottery St Mary, was to be shared with the public. The primary attraction was the selling of positively undrinkable but very strong local cider at extremely low prices to people with no understanding of what the celebration entailed. Myself included.
As twilight approached, it became difficult to see much beyond the edge of one’s pint, which was undoubtedly a good thing, given that the particles floating in it probably had a lot more to do with the brewer’s bad habits than with following fermenting procedures. In the half-light, as the crowd reached the point just before complete intoxication, the tradition commenced and it involved the carrying of burning barrels. The barrels were lined inside with tar or some other very flammable dark sticky substance and set on fire. Once they had reached a high enough temperature to melt iron, they were hoisted onto the tender shoulders of one of the local farmers or farmhands (or any other rather dense individual who didn’t understand the dangers of naked flame to human skin). Up to this point, it was all fun and games and laughter. But then the atmosphere shifted. The crowd became aware of potential danger.
There was now in the midst of the swelling throng a drunken fire hazard teetering from side to side who really should have been directed straight towards the emergency ward. Alas, this was not the night for sensible decisions. The purpose of the whole exercise was to career through the crowd from one end of the street to the other.
That was it. “Giles, see the other end of the street through your blurred vision and the licking flames? See if you can get that far without dying first.” The inebriated attendees were packed into the street with such density that it was hard to push your way through to the pub for another pint, let alone step nimbly out of the way of a five hundred pound fire bomb. However, astounding as it may seem, the crowd did somehow manage to part, indeed with the miraculous nature of the Red Sea. People would turn away, panic etched in their red eyes and they would suddenly awake from their drunken unsteadiness and find new strength. Faced with certain death by fiery barrel or verbal abuse from those they trampled, they always opted for the latter. Funny, that.
The organizers were persnickety about observing the tradition to the smallest detail, including the maximum allowance for third degree burns and the location of the ambulances. (I say “centuries old tradition” but in fact, the only reason we were there that night was because old farmer Pete on his deathbed in the 1950s, while in a delirious state, talked about burning barrels and running and screaming. He also talked about wenches and cowpats and haystacks but no tradition ever emerged from those dying words. No, it was the burning barrels that caught the attention of the local tavern owners who ever since had adopted this tradition for the purpose of augmenting their cider sales by several hundred percent every February.) It was clearly made easier by the proximity of Ottery St Mary to the university town of Exeter which was filled with several thousand students possessed of alcohol-dependent brain cells that displayed middling intelligence, especially with regard to burning objects.
After a few lengths of the main street or when the carrier was too tired or injured to carry the barrel any further, some other poor soul was roped in to take over. To protect themselves, they wore sacking on their shoulders that was supposed to be flame-retardant. The efficacy of the sacking was immediately adversely affected by the pints of alcohol-rich beverages that were poured over the poor man, so that the sacking-covered man bore more of a resemblance to a large candlewick than anything else.
Often there were two or three men carrying the barrel, particularly towards the end when the barrel began to fall apart. After all, it was being consumed by fire. The rules stipulated that it wasn’t over until all the barrels had totally fallen apart. What a comforting thought for us all. How long would that take? At least half an hour if my memory serves me right, which is enough time for those barrels to come perilously close many times over.
Given my aversion for hospital Burns Units, it is still a mystery to me what I was doing in the middle of the crowd. I had only taken a few sips from my pint and it all happened so fast. I turned to see a barrel heading my way and the crowd was not acting at all like the Red Sea. In fact, it was more like a brick wall. I began an intimate relationship with the man behind me, burying my head in his armpit, pulling at his shirt and then pushing him frantically but he was going nowhere. He was packed in from behind. I thought I was about to meet a fiery death but at the last moment, the barrel-carriers turned and veered instead into another part of the crowd that offered less resistance. I never apologized to the man. I was too embarrassed. It was so humiliating. I had clearly not imbibed a sufficient amount to dull my reactions and face my fate with dignity. In any case, revelers were supposed to be tough and knowledgeable of the dangers (or too drunk to understand the dangers), not panic-stricken and fear-driven as I was.
The burning barrel tradition in Ottery St Mary has resulted in a number of serious injuries over the years. Maybe in some deaths, I’m not sure. It is reckless, fearfully dangerous and every year, there are more and more people who pack themselves into that small street. It is an English village equivalent of the bull running in Pamplona, Spain. If I ever go there again, it will be to observe from a safe distance, say, from a hillside overlooking the village or from a light aircraft overhead. I wish to live for many years to come. I see no purpose in putting that prospect in jeopardy by standing in the way of a five hundred pound load of burning wood carried by a villager with blackened hair who clearly pays no regard to his own safety, never mind others’. Maybe in a moment of quiet reflection, the several other thousand fools who go there each year will also work this out for themselves and stay away.
If not, this practice may one day really become a “centuries old tradition”.
© Richard Collins