Devon

Ottery St Mary and the Flaming Tar Barrels

Dubbed ‘Ottery’ by locals, Ottery St Mary sits on the outer fringes of the East Devon AONB. Enjoying a tranquil riverside setting encompassed by countryside, it sits either side of the River Otter, a winding flow of water that finishes its course 10 miles away on the coast at Budleigh Salterton. That said, picturesque as it may be, it’s the town’s unusual traditions that have seen it garner particular attention – namely, townsfolk hauling flaming tar barrels around its streets as part of annual festivities… As you do.

Halfway between Exeter and the sea, Ottery St Mary is an attractive countryside town set within a luscious green valley and surrounded by checkerboard fields. One of the oldest towns in the county, its history dates back to Saxon times and its heritage can still be seen in the form of its historic buildings lining its streets. Particularly striking is its Medieval church which sits on a hilltop overlooking the town and affords sweeping views across the region.

St Mary’s Church

Often referred to as Exeter Cathedral in miniature, St Mary’s Church in Ottery St Mary was consecrated in 1260 and further developed in the 1300s. Outside, the church makes for a very photo-worthy subject with its 70ft towers and 500-year-old weathercock, while inside it boasts many intriguing features including its ornate ceilings, beautiful stained-glass windows and 14th Century astronomical clock – one of the oldest surviving mechanical clocks in the country. 

Around the Town

Around the town, the number of local eateries, butchers, bakers, shops, galleries and more mean there is always something to capture your attention. You can also take a stroll along the River Otter to see the town’s circular Tumbling Weir, built in 1790, and take in the landscapes that has inspired many authors over the years. A fun fact for Harry Potter, JK Rowling used Ottery St Mary as the inspiration for the village of Ottery St. Catchpole in her wizarding series – the fictional home of the Weasley family. 

Things to Do Nearby 

Ottery St Mary is a stone’s throw from two great attractions that both provide a great day out for all the family. Only 1 mile from the town, Cadhay is a historic Tudor manor with gardens and tearooms open to the public. Occasionally, guided tours of the house itself are available too, including viewings of its long gallery and roof chamber. Meanwhile, 2 miles away is Escot, home to Capability Brown-designed gardens, woodland walks, children’s play areas, an outdoor maze, zipline, Saxon village and more.

Flaming Tar Barrels

There are lots of greats events that take place in Ottery St Mary, including the unusual Pixie Day in June which sees local children dress up as pixies and enact local legends. By far the most famous though is the town’s Tar Barrels event. Internationally renowned, the town’s fascinating tar barrelling traditions see men, women and even children carrying flaming tar barrels on their shoulders and hurtling through the town, thrilling crowds of well-accustomed townsfolk and somewhat startled onlookers.

Believed to have originally been a part of Pagan rituals to cleanse the town’s streets of evil spirits, the tar barrelling custom has been upheld annually since the 17th Century. During the festivities, the town’s pubs each sponsor a barrel, with up to 17 barrels in total. Once doused in tar, the barrels are then set alight one by one and hoisted onto the backs of brave barrel bearers. As these ‘barrel rollers’ careen down the streets, flames pour out from the sides and lick the night sky, creating one of the most unique, gripping and slightly terrifying spectacles in the country.

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