Tar barrel Festival; Ottery St. Mary’s

The Fifth of November, or Guy Fawkes Night, often remembered for the attempted plot to blow up the House of Lords, is commemorated in England to celebrate King James I survival on the attempt of his life. Celebrations include bonfires, fireworks or even tar barrel festivals. The tar barrel festival in Ottery St. Mary’s is famous in Devon and the population of about 7,000 can increase to 30,000 on this one night to see the famed festival.

Tar Barrel Festival Ottery St Mary


The festival consists of people running through this town throughout the massive crowds with barrels filled with tar, SET ON FIRE, on their backs. Talk about an adrenaline rush. To top it off, the runners aren’t running in a roped off area – no that would be to easy. They run through the crowd. If you see a runner coming your way I suggest you move – fast.

As the event itself was free the only cost incurred was transportation. Many societies on campus sold tickets for private coaches at £12 each, but being the penny pinchers we are, James, Jocelyn, Eli and I decided public transport at £5.50 was the way to go. A quick five-minute walk to the bus station in Exeter and a 30-minute ride later we were in Ottery St. Mary’s at about 3 pm. The weather was extremely cold. The kind of cold that makes me question why I left the Caribbean. However, the weather was perfect for someone to be running around with a blazing tar barrel on their back.

When we got to the Tar Barrel Festival in Ottery St. Mary we were able to stroll through the town for a bit prior to the festivities, and saw many vendors setting up their food carts in anticipation for the influx of people. There was everything from fish and chips, to burgers, to Jamaican food, or even Candy Floss (Cotton Candy). The budget travelers we are, James and I were armed with our peanut butter-nutella sandwiches.

Programs were being sold (for £2) to tell visitors where and when certain barrels would be lit and run throughout certain roads in the town.

PRO TIP: Just eavesdrop on your neighbor and follow them to the next barrel. It worked great for us all night long.

The first event was the youth event which kicked off at around 4 p.m. where kids ages seven and up start off the festivities. These kids are far braver than I.

After watching some of the kids run through the crowds, protected with hoodies, towels around their necks, and some heavy duty gloves I gained a new found respect for their bravery or dare I say recklessness? All I know is you won’t catch me ever doing that…

tar barrel festival tar barrel festival tar barrel festival

As the night progresses, the barrels get larger, terminating with the men who run with massive barrels. Since we had opted for public transportation the last bus was to leave at 10 p.m. so we wouldn’t have been able to see the finale. Downfall #1 of our plan to save money.


At around 6:00 pm we decided since the city center roads were closed off we should find our re-routed bus stop early in the night so we wouldn’t be scrambling to figure it out at 10 pm. Thank goodness we had the forethought to do this early on. As it turned out every single event staff/fire-marshal/police officer present wasn’t even from the town and had been hired on for the event and not a single one had any idea where regular bus stops, or re-routed stops were.

Most said they just thought the buses weren’t running to and from Ottery St. Mary at all. Upon hearing this we were all frustrated because we had no idea how to get home, and our bus driver asked us where we going when we bought our return tickets, and failed to mention that there wouldn’t be any buses running from Ottery St. Mary?! Downfall  #2 of our plan to save money by using the public transportation.

It seemed our only option would be to walk to the next closest town and get a bus from there, the next closest town – an hours walk away. Since we were missing the finale anyway we were all fine with leaving early. After much confusion, and walking in the wrong direction a few times, we were at the barrier where the roads were no longer closed off and met a gentleman named Alan who was also waiting for the bus to Exeter. Relieved doesn’t even describe how we felt knowing we weren’t the only dopes trying to figure out how to get home.

Upon instruction from a fire-marshal at the barrier, we were told to wait there and that the next bus would stop there to pick us up. 30 minutes later, around the time our bus was expected…we hear a lady coming down the road, grumbling to the fire-marshal that the bus dropped them off at the top of the hill near the roundabout and she had to walk all the way down because the roads were closed farther up. AK.A. we missed the bus we needed.

Clearly this was news to the fire-marshal and now we needed to walk to the roundabout which Alan said was only 1 mile away and we’d be able to get there to catch the next bus at 7:05 pm. TWO MILES LATER (sure Alan 1 mile), IN FOUR DEGREES CELSIUS we finally made it to the top of the bloody hill at 7:08 pm. Our group of 5, turned into an irate group of 10 waiting to get back to Exeter as the night progressed. The 7:05 pm bus decided to run so late that it never showed up…and we ended up catching the 8:03 pm bus. Oh my god downfall #3 of trying to be cheap, I should’ve just paid the £12 for the guaranteed private coach and seen all the events rather than freezing my butt off at a random roundabout.

When we all saw this bus we literally jumped up and down and waved like crazy people to make sure it stopped and collected us since we weren’t at an official bus stop, but a random roundabout. What did it do? Drove right past us. Luckily it stopped only a street away. Everyone did a literal mad dash across the street to ensure the bus wouldn’t leave without us, and thankfully we all managed to make it on.

PRO TIP: Just pay the £12 next time and avoid the headache.

All in all I don’t regret coming out to see the tar barrels because it is like nothing else I’ve seen before. The sheer madness of running around with barrels ablaze on your back is just mind boggling but fascinating and I highly recommend attending the festival if you’re able to, but if you do, hire a private coach or drive yourself there. Don’t take the local bus, but definitely check out the Tar Barrel Festival in Ottery St. Mary.

Total Cost for James and I = £11


  • Return bus ticket: £5.50 ea and a lot of shivering, walking, and irritation.





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