Guy Fawkes Night: Tar Barrel Rolling

Festival Essentials


Where: Ottery St Mary, Otter Valley near Exeter, East Devon, Southwest England
When: 5th November
What’s It About: Tar barrel rolling tradition to celebrate a 17th century defeated attempt to blow up parliament
Remember To Bring: Plenty of soap to clean up afterwards!

Ottery St Mary might look like a peaceful Devonshire town, but this picturesque place set in the Otter Valley, just 20 minutes drive from Exeter, has an intriguing history and some unique traditions that have been passed down through the generations for centuries.

Ottery St Mary is a town steeped in history. Founded by the Saxons in the 11th century, almost wiped out by the plague in the 16th century, headquarters of Oliver Cromwell during the 1645 Civil War, birthplace of famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge – Ottery St Mary’s extraordinary history is a reflection of English history through the ages.

What Happened Here?

In 1605 a group of Catholics conspired to blow up the Protestant King James I and his government. One of the conspirators, a man called Guy Fawkes, was caught red handed with a stash of gunpowder in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament in London. His subsequent execution is celebrated throughout England on 5th November, with firework displays and bonfires crowned by an effigy of Guy Fawkes himself.

Festival Traditions

Ottery St Mary has a unique Guy Fawkes tradition, which has been practised by the townsfolk for as long as anyone can remember – tar barrel rolling. Men, women and children take part in the event, and it takes no small skill to roll the flaming barrels safely through the streets, cheered on by a huge crowd of thrill seekers. No one really knows when the tradition of tar barrel rolling started. Many believe it originated from pagan rituals to ward off evil spirits. Whatever the reason, it’s a spectacular occasion, and one for which Ottery St Mary has become renowned far and wide.

What’s There to See and Do?

  • Visit the Medieval church, built as a replica of Exeter cathedral, and the 18th century Tumbling Weir which used to supply the energy for the Georgian textile factory.
  • Soak up the traditions and heritage of Ottery St Mary with a town walk taking you to all the major sites of interest. There’s a number of other accessible circular walks in close proximity of the town centre.

More Information

East Devon
Site listing the most interesting attractions in East Devon, including information on the history and traditions of Ottery St Mary.

Ottery St Mary Tourist Information
Broad Street
Ottery St Mary
EX11 1BZ
Tel: +44 (0)1404 813964