Touching family tradition continues at Ottery Tar Barrels

Ref sho Tar barrel story. Picture : Nigel Fowler.

Ref sho Tar barrel story. Picture : Nigel Fowler. - Credit: Archant

A poignant moment amid the frenzy of Ottery’s flaming Tar Barrels event honoured one family’s long-standing rolling tradition.

Hilary Stone, 80, has been involved with the town’s ancient custom since she met her late husband, Ron, a former barrel roller who refused to miss out on the fun - even when he became wheelchair-bound.

Their son, Robert, was himself a roller for 32 years and to honour his dad’s love of the event, would bring the first men’s barrel up to Ron for him to touch before it proceeded through the town. After Ron’s death in 2010, Mrs Stone was asked to take his place in touching the first barrel - and it has become an annual tradition kept alive by the close-knit community.

Mrs Stone said: “The first year, they asked me to light the barrel, which I did with great trepidation because I have always been scared of them all my life.

“Ron would not miss the Tar Barrels. I came to Ottery to live and I met him - then found out he did this barbaric thing of rolling the tar barrels. He showed many of the young ones how to roll. It was so wild in those days - there were no health and safety restrictions. It is tame now compared to what it was.


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“One day, Ron came back from doing the rolling and he had no eyebrows and burns all over and we had [our son] Dave’s christening in the church on the Sunday.”

Shutes Mead resident Mrs Stone met her late husband when she used to walk back from Ottery train station each day. Ron would stand outside his house smoking when he knew she would be passing. The couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary just weeks before Ron’s death.

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Of their four children, it was only youngest son Robert who followed in his father’s footsteps as a tar barrel roller, while his older brother Dave is one of the volunteers who fire the cannons at 5am every November 5.

Robert, 46, said: “I was four when I started - the barrel just happened to fall at my feet, so Dad just picked it up bare-handed and gave it to me.”

He admitted that he would be happy for his own children to carry on the family tradition, but it is not something he would ever force on them.

Mrs Stone issued a heartfelt thank-you to the Tar Barrels committee, which work so hard to keep the tradition going and, in particular, to a former roller known as ‘Cabbage’ and Dave Strawbridge - who brought the barrel to her this year.

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