The Allendale New Year Tar Barl Ritual of Flames and Guts

Villagers carry burning barrels and stakes as they take part in the Allendale Tar Barrel festival on December 31, 2010 in Allendale, England. An annual event since the dark ages, locals dress up in a variety of costumes, before carrying whisky barrels containing burning tar on their heads around the village then using them to light a giant bonfire in the village square. The festival is intended to be a farewell to the previous year and is based on pagan rituals
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Terrifying fire festivals are a New Year's Eve tradition in parts of Britain. In Allendale on the New Year, carrying the Tar Barl is considered a job for men only. They've been parading around Allendale with whiskey barrels full of flaming tar balanced on their heads for generations. No one knows exactly how it started or when, but what a holiday spectacle it makes.

The Tar Barl

The origins of The Allendale Tar Barrel festival - or Tar Barl as it is called thereabouts - might lie in ancient antiquity, lost to history. Or they might be as recent as the mid-nineteenth century. It depends on who you ask.

One theory holds that when a windy night prevented candles for a band concert staying lit, someone came up with the bright idea of using a barrel of tar to illuminate the proceedings instead. The most definitive accounts date the start of the festival to 1858. Whatever its beginnings, the roots of the fiery festival undoubtedly lie in the same Northern European/Viking impulse to set huge midwinter fires and drink a lot that is behind similar flaming celebrations all over the UK. The English Poet Laureate Philip Larkin was a fan of the Allendale Festival.

Test of Strength and Fearlessness

This is a manly event. Only men from Allendale, a Northumbrian village on the edge of the North Pennines, can take part. According to a BBC report, a pair of spinster sisters who had created some of the costumes worn for the event were allowed to participate in the 1950s - after much village debate. But nowadays, mothers, wives, and girlfriends may wring their hands and worry from the sidelines, but only men carry the barrels.

A total of 45 hereditary barrel carriers, called guisers, take part. The name may sound like some foreign word of Viking origin (the first Viking raids on England were along the Northumbrian coast). Actually, it's just a shortened version of "disguisers" because the participants wear colorful costumes and disguises.

Flaming Climax

The guisers parade through the town balancing the burning whiskey barrels on their heads, throwing off sparks and wind-blown flames. The barrels can weigh as much as 35 pounds. Men who can no longer manage the weight of the barrels - as well as others who just want to take part - can carry flaming torches. At around midnight, people pour out of the pubs to join the procession.

They all gather in the center of the village where they ignite a huge bonfire, known as the Baal fire or the Barl fire, with the tar barrels. Spectators and participants shout and chant, "Be damned to he who throws last!"

The atmosphere, no doubt lubricated with plenty of the amber nectar, is wild, noisy, good humored and a little bit terrifying. Despite the fact that it looks incredibly dangerous, the local fire department reports that no one has ever been hurt during the celebrations.

Essentials Information and Fast Facts

  • What: A New Year's Eve fire celebration and test of courage in the North of England.
  • When: New Year's Eve, from pub closing time to a climax in the town center around Midnight.
  • Where: Allendale, a Northumbrian Village in the North Pennines, South of the Tyne.
  • Admission: Free
  • How to get there: Allendale is about 34 miles west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne off the A69.
  • Where to stay: Allendale is difficult to reach by public transportation but you may not want to drive on unfamiliar country roads on New Year's Eve. If you decide to stay over, The Kings Head in the center of Allendale has a few pleasant looking and reasonably priced rooms. Or check the Allendale Town Tourist Information section of the Northumberland website. The site has a good accommodation search feature and we found a modest variety of places to stay, ranging from a castle hotel to hostels and campsites.

Things to Do the Day After

If you stay in Allendale to celebrate the New Year after the Baal Fire, you probably won't want to do much besides have a good long lie-in on New Year's Day. If you do want to take in the surrounding countryside, this part of Northumberland is rich in ancient and Viking history worth exploring. But do dress up warm. Here are a few things you can do on New Year's Day:

  • Visit Hadrian's Wall: The Hadrian's Wall and Housesteads Roman Fort Visitor Center is about 12 miles away from the pretty town of Haydon Bridge. The fascinating Roman fort excavations of Vindolanda are about this same distance, near Bardon Mill. And while you are shivering on the open moorland in January, think of the Roman legionnaires from the Mediterranean and Africa writing home to their families for warm socks. You can see some of their letters at Vindolanda - some of the earliest Roman handwriting ever found.
  • See the Big Story Exhibition at Hexham Abbey: The 7th-century abbey, which continues to be an active church, is described as one of the best free attractions in Northumbria. It somehow survived the Viking invasions of Northumbria and the Big Story exhibition promises "1,300 years of monks, gore and a whole lot more."
  • Discover High Force Waterfall: England's largest waterfall produces the full force of the River Tees, gathering strength for miles from its source as a trickle in the High Pennines. It twists and flows over several sets of rapids before falling, thunderously, 70 feet into a deep pool. It's reached over a gentle, downhill, graveled path of about a third of a mile from the pay car park. It's open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in winter and there is a small admission charge. It's one of those rare waterfalls that can be reached without a strenuous hike or climb - so it could be just right for your New Year's Day, post Tar Barl hangover. It's about 21 miles from Allendale near the town of Forest-in-Teesdale.
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