Blazing barrels: The UK's spectacular festivals of fire

Patrick Kinsella, for CNNPublished 31st October 2014
(CNN) — The thronging mass of people in front of me, which seconds before had been surging forward to see a tar-lined barrel being set aflame, suddenly parts.
I soon see why.
Charging towards me, like a blazing bull, is a young man with a raging inferno on his shoulders.
I duck and weave, looking for an opening in the crowd to escape through, but none exists.
Abruptly, though, the flaming figure performs a pirouette and changes direction.
I join the chase as the reassembled masses forget their fear and race after the barrel runner, with fire-lust burning in their eyes.
I'm in Ottery St. Mary, a normally sleepy in the Devon region of southwestern England.
Across the country in November, most communities celebrate bonfire night -- a fiery commemoration of a foiled attempt to blow up London's Houses of Parliament in 1605.
Here they do it by charging up and down the streets with flaming tar barrels held aloft.
It's the maddest thing I've ever witnessed.

Gunpowder plot

The health-and-safety defying tradition is at least several centuries old.
Although its exact origins have gone up in smoke, it's thought they're linked to the "gunpowder plot" of 1605.
Andy Wade, who's been involved in the event for 30 years, has been on the 80-strong organizing committee for the past 22 years and is now life president, explains that many places in southwestern England once had burning-barrel rolling festivals.
"But one year a long, long time ago, some bright spark in Ottery obviously decided that things would be a lot more exciting if you picked the barrel up," says Wade. "And then our unique tradition was born."
Interpreted through the eyes of an expert, the festival is a lot more controlled than it appears at first glance.
For starters, people can't just rock up, grab a burning barrel and go for a jog through the crowd.
"The runners are extremely experienced," Wade explains.
"They come up through the ranks, starting with the kids' barrels when they're eight years old, and then progressing to the intermediate barrels. And then -- if they're big enough and ugly enough -- they move up to the men's barrels."
For Wade, it's about the perpetuation of a proud tradition.
"Many of these guys come from families that have a connection with the event going back generations," he says. "The fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers of these lads carried barrels."
Earlier in the evening I'd witnessed the initiation of a new generation of barrel boys and girls.
The barrel is slightly smaller for the kids' event, but the principle is exactly the same: get the flaming thing up on your shoulders and run like mad, without dropping it, until someone else demands it.

Dancing with fire

There's no competitive element -- the challenge is to keep hold of the barrel for as long as possible, and to keep the flames bellowing.
This explains the pirouettes, which get extra oxygen into the barrel.
In total, 17 barrels are daubed with tar throughout the year, then set ablaze during the evening of November 5, starting with the kids, then women and intermediates -- and finally the men.
Traditionally, each barrel is sponsored by a pub.
Although only four of the town's original pubs remain, the memory of those that have shut is kept alive in the name of the barrels.
By the time the men get going, Ottery's streets are heaving with spectators who flock to the town.
It's estimated about 15,000 people come to see the event when it's on a school night, and up to 20,000 gather when November 5 falls on a weekend.

Safety concerns? Eh.

Inevitably, every year there are complaints from people who feel the event is unsafe.
Wade's message to them is simple: "The atmosphere is lighthearted, but the barrels do get run through the streets. If you don't like it, please stand back.
"And don't touch or interfere with the barrels -- the boys really don't like that.
"Visitors have to remember that they're getting a free show. We don't make anything out of this -- the collections that take place on the night just about cover costs.
"Every year getting insurance is a problem. Of course there are injuries, but more of these are caused by factors other than the barrels -- like people boozing too much and falling over."
These days the runners aren't allowed to drink until they've finished.
But that doesn't stop the crowd taking up the slack on the cider-swilling front, and the later the night gets, the more boisterous the atmosphere becomes.
If the detractors think the event is crazy now, it's good they weren't here a few years ago, before health and safety became such a big issue.
"It was proper mayhem when I was young," reminisces Wade, fondly. "People used to get cidered-up and there was plenty of fighting over the barrels. Things used to get sorted out on November 5th."

Lewes Bonfire Night

Ottery St. Mary isn't the only UK town to turn fiery celebrations into unusual spectacles.
The largest November 5 event in the world takes place in the Lewes, in the southern English region of East Sussex.
The whole town burns brightly every year as up to 80,000 people come to watch six "bonfire societies" parade through the streets, dressed as smugglers, with burning crosses and (sometimes controversial) effigies, before lighting various infernos and letting off fireworks.
Burning tar barrels are also featured here, but they're rolled, not carried.
The event commemorates both the discovery of the 1605 gunpowder plot and the burning at the stake of 17 local Protestant "martyrs."

Up Helly Aa

Before the 1880s, there was a great winter tradition of tar barreling in Scotland's Shetland Islands, which saw local men dragging burning barrels through the town of Lerwick on sledges, getting up to high jinx en route.
When this was banned, they started celebrating Up Helly Aa, a fire festival that takes place on the last Tuesday in January.
This event features a torch-lit parade by people dressed as Vikings and culminates with the dramatic burning of a Viking-style galley ship.