In the midst of the melee known as Ottery’s tar barrels there is an elite gladiator-like group of men and women.
These are the chosen few bestowed with the annual honour of running burning tar barrels through the crowded streets of Ottery.
It is their ‘calling’ – a tradition passed down through the generations, from great-grandfathers, to sons, daughters, grandchildren. Their passion for the annual spectacle is palpable, buried deep in their DNA.
No threat of injury or burn – they run with flaming barrels the weight of a person – will stop these hardy men and women who year after year hoist burning barrels onto their backs.
They are revered, celebrities for a day, approached for photographs and their scorched items of clothing, which they sometimes sell to help fund the following year’s event and insurance.
Connor Willis, 22, has been running the tar barrels for more than 15 years.
His status as a tar barreler has seen him appear on Japanese television and Australian news.
He comes from a long line of Ottery tar barrel elite – his granddad, brothers Tyler, Travis and Robbie, uncles Andrew and Darrell, and cousins, have all carried and run the flaming barrels.
Each barrel carried must be earned – the runners are allocated a barrel and only move up to a larger, heavier, barrel when the organising committee decides the time is right.
It is more than a once-a-year jolly – for the rest of the year they help the committee fundraise the annually-escalating public liability insurance premium.
For the uninitiated, the barrels are run throughout the day – always November 5 – starting with the children’s barrels in the afternoon and working up to the 20-stone spectacle – the midnight barrel.
Don’t be fooled – the children’s barrels, while smaller in size and weight, are still packed with tar and burn as readily as the adults’ barrels.
Joining the tar barrel elite starts at an early age – over 10 years old and you have likely missed the boat.
All ages have one ambition in mind – to one day carry the midnight barrel.
Connor, who grew up in Longdogs Lane, was still at Ottery primary school when he first ran with the barrels. Now he is entrusted to carry three of the men’s barrels at 7.30pm, 9pm and 11pm.
He said: “When I was young my brothers did it. Being young, six years old, I wanted to do what my brothers were doing so I followed in their footsteps.
“It’s like a calling. You have a duty to do it – because there are so few people that have the privilege of doing it.
“You have a duty to uphold the tradition. It’s reliant on the people that do it because there are a select few that can.
“It’s quite prestigious. It’s tradition in my family. It’s a good adrenalin rush – very exciting. I am going to do it for as long as I can.
“The end goal for anyone that does it is the midnight barrel.
“I am happy with whatever I am assigned to do each year.
“I think it’s the atmosphere. There’s no event that comes close to it. It’s such a spectacle and you are part of the reason the atmosphere is like that. It’s an empowering feeling.
“You are nervous, you are excited. You know you are going into something really special that not many people have access to.
“The adrenalin takes you through and the nerves disappear. You have a lot to think about – your safety and the crowd’s safety.
“You are aware of the immediate crowd, but you don’t really get an idea of how vast the crowds are, only when you walk through to start.
“Once you are doing it, they become a lot less significant. You get tunnel vision.”
The honour of running with the barrels is bestowed to families with strong links to Ottery and those who pass the tradition down through the generations.
Children of tar barrelers are encouraged to practise from a young age, running around the garden with a small barrel on their back.
“You have to try it. If you like it you have to carry on,” said Connor. “You decide from a pretty early age.
“You decide ‘I am not going to do this again or I am doing it forever’ and my family usually does it forever.
“If you are from the area, or immediate area, you start from a young age, about ten.
“If you get past that age, or if you live far out and you don’t have links to tar barrels, or the route into it, you are just going to have to be in the crowd.
“If I couldn’t do it, I would be gutted. It’s the one event you are aware of all the time.
“You are aware it’s coming. You don’t want to miss out and you don’t want to miss out being one of the people that puts that on.”
Connor’s uncle, Darrell Willis, of Paxford House Square, Ottery, first experienced the tar barrels when he was four years old.
A fifth-generation tar barreler, now aged 37, Darrell has earned the privilege of running with the prestigious midnight barrel – a five-foot long, 20-stone beast, said to be ‘impossible to pick up on your own’.
And his children are keenly following in dad’s footsteps – his daughter Morgan, 16, sons, Byron, 17, Bryce, 14, Blake, nine, and stepson Bobby, 11, are already willing participants, running the smaller barrels.
Darrell, a plasterer, said: “I was four years old. I was a bit scared. My dad put a hat on my head and some gloves on me and stuck the tar barrel on my back.
“By the time I was seven or eight, I was properly hooked on it.
“My kids have a small barrel they run around with and practise. It’s just tradition.
“I will keep doing it as long as I possibly can. I have been doing it 33 years this year.
“You get burns on your neck and face and back – it doesn’t put me off.
“I think ‘what did I do that for? I am in bloody agony.’ Then you look forward to doing it again next year.
“If I had an accident and broke my arm, I would still do it. My dad broke his leg one November and he took the plaster cast off his leg.
“I would have to go out of town if I couldn’t do it, because you could still smell it in the air and that would probably depress me.
“I expect I would feel like a kid at Christmas, not getting what they want.
“It seems a bit sad, but a few of us always dream about the tar barrels. It’s the same thing every year. I have had it for the last four nights.
“You wake up and it’s November 6 and you have missed the tar barrels.
“I have been having that dream for as long as I can remember. And I know quite a few other people have the exact same dream. I don’t know if it’s nerves.”
Before carrying the barrels, Connor and Darrell pad up, layering on clothing to keep out the extreme heat.
Their hands are protected from the flames by traditionally-crafted gloves made of hessian sacking and chicken wire, a slow-burning metal.
As a precaution against burns, they wear towels around their neck and cover their faces and hair with Vaseline.
“Nothing hurts at the time but the next day you have got a big lump on the back of your neck, like an egg. Some of the old boys have got that forever,” said Darrell.
“We do want we can but at the end of the day we are running with fire. It’s an unpredictable element,” said Connor.
“You wear a rugby top and three or four layers over the top just to protect yourself from everything. You have got to make sure you are protected in the right way.
“When you put the barrel on your back you can feel the heat coming through. When it gets too hot you pass it to someone else. You can feel when it gets too hot, so you pass it on.”
From the outside looking in, there appears to be no rhyme or reason to the direction the barrels are run.
But, with crowd safety in mind, each location has a start and end point and barrels cannot stray beyond set boundaries.
Those carrying the flaming barrels rely on the others in their group to guide them if they go off course.
Barrels are passed between the group and run in the planned direction
“It’s almost like a relay,” said Connor. “If I can’t see where I am going, I can hear the person call in front of me or behind. There are designated places you can go.
“You roll it onto the other person’s back and they run the other way.
“It’s very coordinated. There’s method in the madness.
“You have got to keep the crowd safe. It’s your responsibility to keep them safe, which sounds a bit mad when you’re the one with the fire.”
He added: “The safest place to be if you are in the crowd is right next to the barrel. If you are right under it, you can see where it’s going. You are not going to be pushed into a wall.
“Not many people get to watch, even less get to do it. You have to be there on the night and watch the various ages and genders, adults and kids. There really is something for everyone.
“If you are a bit anxious or nervous, watch the kids’ barrels.
“You can watch videos of it but it doesn’t capture the atmosphere and the feeling, like when you are there.”
- Watch Connor Willis in action