It’s Not Just Tar Barrels

Our November talk, by Nigel Sadler, covered the history of Ottery St Mary. Known simply as Ottery until 1207, the town developed on excellent farmland with the good soil being refreshed by frequent river floods. Based on this farming background, a Market Charter was granted in 1226 with the market being based at various points around the town as it outgrew its previous sites. The town’s significance made a giant step forward with the founding of the Collegiate Church by Bishop Grandisson of Exeter in 1337. The church building itself remains a first rate parish church with a plan similar to that of Exeter Cathedral; an astronomical clock dating from 1340; and the oldest weathercock in the country. Originally, the college would have had many other buildings (including the home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) but these have now disappeared.
The road layout of Ottery St Mary was established in medieval times and has made few concessions to modern needs! There are some very old buildings but most of the town was affected by two fires, one in 1767 near the church and one in 1866 along Yonder Street and Mill Street. The thatched roofs of houses meant that both fires spread rapidly destroying about 50 and 100 buildings respectively. The age of the buildings that now exist reflects those events.
Coming more up-to-date, Nigel discussed the development of the mill leat leading to the Tumbling Weir. This was in use well into the 20th century and was at one time the primary source of electric power for the town. From the 21st century, he also showed us a cob built house that has featured on Grand Designs.
As with many folk traditions, nobody knows the origin of the flaming tar barrels carried through the town each November 5th. We can, though, report that the town has survived the 2019 event without another major fire!