Ottery St Mary, South Devon: history and best places to visit

Ottery St Mary in Devon is world renowned for its Guy Fawkes celebrations which sees flaming tar barrels are carried at speed through the streets.

Village in countryside

Our guide to Ottery St Mary in Devon looks at the history of the parish town, including the infamous’ tar barrels’ and best places to visit in the area.

Ottery St Mary lies in the beautiful Otter Valley on the eastern fringes of Devon, 11 miles from Exeter and just six miles from the coast. The parish town is one of the oldest in Devon with the boundaries set by Edward the Confessor in 1061.

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There’s plenty to see and do most weekends, but in November the town comes alive as it celebrates Bonfire Night with its annual display of flaming tar barrels being carried through the streets on Thursday, culminating in a huge bonfire.

Bellever Tor, Dartmoor, Devon

Why is it called Ottery St Mary?

Ottery St Mary gets its name from its two electoral wards – rural and parish town. The River Otter runs nearby the town which gives it the name ‘Otter’, while ‘St Mary’ comes from the name of the church in the heart of the town parish.

The town itself will appeal to historians – it has a rich heritage going back to Edward the Confessor’s time, and the church of St Mary has to be seen to be believed – it’s basically Exeter Cathedral in miniature. The best way to see the town’s other attractions is to take in one of the many circular walks that are found near the town centre.

Local secret

St Mary’s church houses one of Britain’s oldest surviving mechanical clocks: the Astronomical clock is thought to date to the mid 14th Century, and adheres to the ancient Ptolemaic cosmological theory that placed the earth at the centre of the universe.

The town is also blessed by its location, with a number of reserves and stunning walks within striking distance – and that’s before you venture to the coast, now a World Heritage Site. Devon Wildlife Trust has a couple of reserves close by, including Venn Ottery, while the RSPB’s Aylesbeare Common reserve  is also a short drive away. If you’re looking for a family day out, then check out Escot Park too.

Best places to stay and eat

Tumbling Weir Hotel & Restaurant

The Tumbling Weir’s tranquil setting in 10 acres of garden between the River Otter and its mill stream belies the fact you’re just five minute’s walk from the centre of town. www.tumblingweirhotel.co.uk

The Rusty Pig

The Rusty Pig sources all its seasonal food locally and the owner and local Robin Rea returned to Ottery St Mary to open the pub in 2011 after learning about seasonal ingredients at River Cottage and overseas. The menu frequently changes and even serves brunch. www.rustypig.co.uk


The Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary

Annual Tar Barrels festival held every Bonfire Night in Ottery St Mary, Devon/Credit: Getty Images
Annual Tar Barrels festival held every Bonfire Night in Ottery St Mary, Devon/Credit: Getty Images
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In a daring and peculiar pyrotechnic spectacle, villagers haul flaming barrels of tar on their backs through the streets of Ottery St Mary. Each one gets bigger until the last, huge barrel is paraded around at midnight. Although it is unclear why this intriguing tradition started, it is enthusiastically embraced by the whole community.