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Hatherleigh Carnival Tar Barrels, Devon

Let’s be honest, many small town carnivals can be tame affairs: a few floats, the Mayor’s niece as carnival queen, and maybe some bunting. Not so at Hatherleigh in Devon. It packs plenty into its big November day – the second Saturday in that month, combining what is said to have begun as a fundraiser for local causes with Guy Fawkes celebrations: there is a town criers’ competition; a gathering of the hunt; the silver band playing their hearts out; and the obligatory procession of floats (even that made more interesting by its tradition of using delicate crepe paper to decorate them). But bookending all of those you find something decidedly racier – the dragging of flaming tar barrels through the normally quiet streets.
Ottery St Mary has a tradition not too far removed from Hatherleigh’s; so too Allendale in Northumberland. Whether they are linked in some way – one inspiring the others perhaps – is unclear. But it hardly matters; we should simply celebrate the daring and creative craziness.
The first drag takes place at about 5:00am, the signal that the carnival is beginning. Open-ended barrels, soaked in fuel, are put on a sled, set ablaze, and pulled with as much speed as the team can manage along a set route. Understandably the streets at that early hour are nearly deserted; not so when the second run takes place in the evening, the streets lined with crowds, and the more daring chasing after the mobile infernos.
For a town of about 1300 souls Hatherleigh knows how to have a good time; and it is not to draw visitors, welcome to watch but expected not to try to take part; rather this is a celebration of the community. Long may it last.

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