THE FIFTH of November means something different for everyone.

The thrill of an organised fireworks display, sparklers in the back garden or maybe even the celebration of the last man with, some say, honest intent to enter parliament. Or the fall-guy who was caught with the fuse. History’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

But in the East Devon town of Ottery St Mary it’s all about barrels.

Burning tar barrels, to be precise.

Carried at shoulder-height through the streets of the town, trailing flames, sparks and glowing embers while spectators from all over Devon and beyond flood in to watch the pyrotechnic proceedings.

Now, in these health and safety conscious times the event does seems an anachronism.

That, however, doesn’t deter the good burghers of the town, who spend 12 months both organising and raising funds for the event, or for that matter the thousands who descended on the town last night (November 5) to witness the spectacle.

The actual tradition is probably hundreds of years old.

As always with such things the origins are lost in the mists of time but probably started after the gunpowder plot of 1605. Alternative reasons suggest for the burning barrels have included fumigation of cottages against the plague and even as a warning of the approach of the Spanish armada.

The southwest has a history of torchlight processions and burning barrels and Ottery was only one of the many towns and villages following an annual tradition containing barrels which were rolled in the streets on November 5 each year.

However, at some point someone, obviously not a member of the Health and Safety Executive, decided rolling was, how shall we say, a little tame, and carrying barrels on shoulders was a far more appealing option.

And so the current tradition was born, meaning Ottery is the only town in the country carrying full sized lighted tar barrels through the streets, although the term ‘rollers’ for those who carry them still remains.

For residents of the town the realisation that the event is close at hand begins at the end of September when they start to build a bonfire.

The fact it takes close on six weeks to construct gives an indication that this combustable conflagration is more akin to Mount Vesuvius than a backyard burn-up.

The day itself started early in Ottery. Very early.

At around 5am the town was awakened from its slumbers by the firing of rock cannons. These small handheld, gun-like devices fire a charge of gunpowder (back to Fawkes again) very loudly. And they are fired throughout the day - just in case a reminded was needed.

The barrel rolling itself commenced just after 4pm with the junior rollers. Yes, that’s right, they start them young in Ottery. Whereas most towns in the UK warn youngsters of the dangers of holding a sparkler incorrectly, here the carrying of a blazing wooden barrel by a nine-year old on their shoulders is…encouraged.

As the night progressed the rollers increased in age, and the barrels increased in size. As did the crowds.

It’s not an event for the faint-hearted. It’s a big, brash, ebullient, exhilarating event that comes with it’s own warning for those attending. Organisers point out that ‘you’re there at your own risk, because you want to and you want to see it, but if you don’t like crowds it’s not the place to come.’

There are even road signs proclaiming ‘Warning, Flaming Tar Barrels’. You don’t see that in the Highway Code.

The spectacle culminated with the Midnight Barrel. The gurt big ‘un, as some locals call it.

It takes two rollers to lift and hoist it on to their fellow rollers shoulders. Think of it as precession weigh-lifting with a chance of second degree burns.

By 12.30am the barrel had been reduced to charred embers and . The exhilarated rollers retired to home or hostelries and the crowds dispersed. Normality returned.

But, rest assured in twelve months time, they’ll do it all over again.