I went to the Ottery fire festival once, some years ago, and I vowed that - having survived it - I would never go again. In the days of 'Health & Safety', I am amazed that it still goes on in this sleepy little, Devon village, but it does. Below is an account of my experience.
When you arrive at Ottery in the early evening, there are children and elderly people mingling in the huge crowds which throng the streets, and the event starts with a parade for the children, followed by the lighting of an enormous bonfire at the bottom end of town. Fireworks are let off, and the atmosphere is one of jollity - fun for all the family. You wonder why, then, that all the pubs are stripped of furniture, and saw-dust is liberally sprinkled on the floors. I noticed a lot of young and middle-aged men drinking a lot of cider, and they all had coconut door mats tied to their backs. They looked like farmers, and probably were.
Then, on an unseen signal, all the women, children and old people disappear from the streets and go indoors to safety - at least, all the ones who know what is about to happen.
I wandered out into the crowd of drunken farmers with my girlfriend, and approached the centre of the activity, until some sixth sense told me not to get too close. All year, some of them had been soaking a full-sized, wooden barrel in tar and straw, and they were now crowding around it, waiting for someone to set it alight with a match. As soon as the barrel was blazing out of control, the first man grabbed it, held it aloft, placed it on the cocnut mat on his back, then charged into the crowd followed by the rest of his drunken mates.
I remember seeing an old man standing right at the front, who obviously did not know what was about to happen. He was immediately knocked to the ground and trampled over by about 100 of the crowd, who were instantly sent stampeding by the core of blokes chasing the flaming barrel. I never saw him again.
My first thought was to run in the opposite direction with my girlfriend (an American Jewish girl who as little idea about this event as I did), and we ran down a back-street. Unfortunately, since the whole object of the game is to grab the flaming barrel from your opponent and run to a different pub on the opposite side of the village, we were chased by the barrel (and about 200 people) down the street, which turned out to be a cul de sac.
It is amazing what you can do when you are in genuine fear for your life. I scaled a 10 foot, vertical wall in two seconds, then reached down for my friend, who was - by this time - in tears and in absolute terror. I reached for her hand and pulled her up in one lift, grazing her knees against the wall. The barrel crashed against the place where she had been standing 2 seconds earlier.
We watched the rest of the events from this relatively safe vantage point, and I saw the crowd fall through at least 2 glass, shop windows. A policeman looked in the other direction as this happened. The end of the game is marked by the staves of the barrel collapsing in on the person who is carrying it at the time, and this seemed to take about 20 minutes. 20 minutes of mayhem.
Later, we went into a pub for a medicinal drink, and many of the men who had taken part in the event were standing around, drinking more cider and smiling happily. The were literally smoking from the effects of the tar-barrel, and nobody bothered to extinguish the smouldering fires on the jackets and coconut matting. All of them had serious burns to their faces, necks and hands, complicated by heavy deposits of molten pitch. Most of them had blood streaming from their faces, and one had actually lost an ear. We then realised why the landlords had removed all the furniture. They had seen it all before.
So, if you fancy a fun night out for all the family in Merry Olde England, go to Ottery St. Mary one night this November.