On New Year’s Eve we embarked on an extraordinary journey into our pagan past. We went to watch an ancient festival called the Tar Bar’l (many spellings but it’s basically barrel in dialect) which takes place in Allendale, a small village hidden in wildest Northumberland.
We had no hesitation in joining the merry crowd spilling onto the streets from various village pubs lining the streets around the broad, village square. Being New Year’s Eve every adult had a (plastic) beer glass in hand and by eleven thirty most were well-whetted with fine local ale. The loud, persistent beat of a single drum added to our sense of expectation and suddenly plumes of golden smoke spewed above our heads as the bar’ls were lit. A brass band began to play, then yellow-coated stewards parted the crowd just moments before the procession marched through – not that you would choose to get in their way – and the acrid smell of burning tar and paraffin filled our every breath.
We watched transfixed as forty men paraded past with barrels of raging fire spewing from their heads. And some darkly primitive sentiment seems ignited by this pagan rite of fire. People fell silent as their mood changed and the whole scene became supercharged with danger. Yet there was a sense that something immutable was taking place – like the sacred moment when a child is christened or a marriage sanctified, or a king anointed with oil!
Only Allendale men are allowed to bear the burden of carrying barrels full of burning tar on their heads! Some of the ‘guisers’ wear costumes which have been passed down father to son for generations. Others wear fancy-dress based on characters from films, such as Beetlejuice, or Smurfs (of which there were many). And the band parading behind them serenaded with well-known tunes such as T’ Blaydon Races.
When the procession has completed its tour the barrels are ceremoniously thrown onto a huge bonfire, and the shout goes up, ‘be damned to he who throws last’. Then everyone involved hurries back inside the pubs while we in the streets stand watching the blaze. Astonished, dumbfounded, uplifted, engrossed…..it’s impossible to describe how I felt, but I know I found it compelling.