The Tar Barrels of Allendale: A Spectacular Way to See In the New Year
Having spent many a boozy New Year’s Eve crossing arms and shaking the hands of strangers in a chorus of Auld Lang Syne, I felt that this year, it was time for a change.
I live in the county of Northumberland, and for many years I have been aware of a New Year’s Eve tradition that takes place annually in Allendale, a busy village in the south-west of the county at the north end of the Pennines. It is known as the Allendale Tar Bar’l Festival, the highlight of which is a procession through the streets by 45 men of the village, or guisers, as they are known, each carrying a blazing barrel on his head. Having always held a yearning to witness this spectacle, I decided that this would be the year, and so a trip to the local pub was cancelled in favour of a journey south to Allendale.
This was to be an alcohol-free night (I keep the car and the beer on opposite sides of a huge wall, and never the twain shall meet), so my girlfriend and I packed a thermos of hot coffee and some sandwiches that would sustain us as we waited for the big event.
Origin of the Custom
Although the Tar Bar’l procession is somewhat pagan in appearance, indeed it would not look out of place in The Wicker Man, its origin can be traced back to the mid-Victorian era.
One stormy night in 1858, during a carol service by the local silver band, the wind continually blew out the candles by whose light the musicians read their sheet music. Someone made the suggestion that a half-barrel filled with blazing tar would not be extinguished quite so easily, and the tradition was born. At 158 years old, with the parade being as popular as ever, the Tar Bar’l festival has a history to be proud of.
Visitors Flock to the Village
Northumberland is a sparsely populated county, and so the 45 mile drive was trouble-free. When we arrived in Allendale at around 10.00 pm, however, we noticed immediately that the roads leading into the village were awash with parked cars; a sign of the tradition’s popularity. We parked up and made the short walk into the village centre.
The local pubs were full to overflowing, with revelers gathered on the streets outside. Couples and small groups of visitors explored the nooks and crannies of the village, and we stopped for coffee and food on a park bench. We quizzed passers-by about the route the parade would take, and we investigated the pile of fir branches onto which the blazing barrels would be hurled at the end of the procession.
Having chosen what we considered a good vantage point from which to view the parade, we watched the activity increase as the clock passed eleven thirty. We heard an occasional distant drum beat, and several guisers passed in fancy dress, heading to the area where they would take up their barrels. The objective is that the procession, which only lasts about fifteen minutes, is completed, and the bonfire lit just before midnight.
What's in the Barrel?
The sawn down barrels, each of which weighs approximately 15 kilos, are filled with a combustive mixture of tar, paraffin and wood shavings to keep the flames roaring. The organisers of the parade procure a supply of discarded barrels each year from a distillery.
There have been no reports of any accidents having occurred during the procession, but modern health and safety regulations demand that stewards are on hand, and fire extinguishers are available.
The Procession begins
Finally, after a few false alarms, we heard a sustained drum beat, and the faintest melody played by brass instruments. The increase in crowd activity told us that the band had set off on its tour of the village, and it wasn’t long before the parade of pyromania came into view.
It was a fascinating sight, eerily evocative in its adherence to all those processions that have gone before it. The band, led by torch bearers, approached, followed by forty-five men in an array of strange make-up, masks and costumes, each with a blazing barrel-end on his head. As the procession passed, the band struck up with The Blaydon Races, and the barrel carriers marched behind, silently concentrating on keeping safe the dangerous contents above their heads.
We watched the river of flames turn into the main street of the village, and then double back on itself. When the marchers disappeared around a corner, the crowd moved en masse towards the waiting bonfire to witness the end of the show.
So, What is a Guiser?
The word guiser, which is pronounced to rhyme with ‘wiser’, stems from the archaic 15th century word ‘guise’, which means to dress fantastically. It is, of course, the latter sylable of the word ‘disguise’.
Readers of early Oor Wullie and The Broons books will be familiar with the custom of guising at Halloween. Long before the Americanized Trick or Treat custom arrived on these shores, characters in the aforementioned comic strips would dress up in bizarre fancy dress for Halloween. They were known as guisers, and they went out guising.
The End of the Procession
We got there in time to watch the fiery procession snake uphill towards its final destination, the pile of fir branches onto which the blazing barrels would be heaved. As this closing act took place, those around the bonfire yelled out “Be damned to he who throws last”. The remaining fuel in the barrels spilled out onto the branches, and the bonfire, known locally as the baal fire, was soon ablaze. At midnight, the band played Auld Lang Syne, and, following a mighty cheer, the crowd joined in the chorus.
Our first Allendale Tar Bar’l experience was an extremely pleasant one. The relatively mild weather attracted a good crowd, and the free event was enjoyed by people of all ages, including many families. In fact, one recurring feature of the photos we took was that of children perched on the shoulders of adults, silhouetted against the flames. This was an exciting change to the usual New Year’s Eve routine of bars and booze, and, of course, I had no hint of a hangover the next day.
A Solitary Break With Tradition
Carrying a tar barrel in Allendale is an exclusively male privilege. Participants in the parade are all local men, mainly from the farming community. In the 1950s, however, there was a solitary exception to the rule. For one occasion only, special dispensation to take part in the parade was given to one of a pair of sisters who had made costumes for the guisers to wear.
If you are looking for a different way to see in the New Year, I can highly recommend a visit to Allendale for the Tar Bar’l festival.
The photos that accompany this article, some of which are lacking in quality due to being captured from video footage, were taken by Lucy and me.