The Volunteer Inn, Ottery St Mary
As a family-run brewery keen to support all things local, there are a number of events around Devon that we instinctively want to help succeed. One of the most iconic happens just a stone’s throw from the River Otter – the source of all the nectar we produce.
Every year as Bonfire Night rolls around, the town of Ottery St Mary puts on an amazing visual spectacle. To the delight of thousands, nearly two dozen flaming tar barrels are carried through its streets in a centuries old custom.
‘Whilst the fabric of the building might change, one constant is their commitment to Devon food and drink’
Having already been coated with old-fashioned coal tar, the barrels (ranging in size from small for the “boys” up to “gert big unz” for the men) are then set alight. Once the flames begin to pour out, they are hoisted up onto the barrel rollers’ strong backs and shoulders.
All of this glorious mayhem happens in no small part due to the efforts of two of the towns ‘rolling’ veterans – local couple Mike and Jacqui Down. Both sit on the organising committee and fundraise extensively as well as assisting with the endless health and safety and running bars on the night. They also happen to own the pub that co-ordinates much of the action.
The Volunteer Inn has been part of Ottery St Mary’s history since 1810 when it opened as a dwelling, hostelry and recruitment centre for the Napoleonic War. After retiring from careers in the Royal Navy and Community Nursing respectively, Mike and Jacqui took it on (then in a derelict state and barely open) in early 2012 with a view to reviving it as a local with a heart.
Over the last six-and-ahalf years they’ve worked tirelessly to return it to the heart of community life. Both see themselves very much as ‘caretakers’ of this historic building and have sympathetically repaired and adjusted the Tardis-like interior to fulfil their dream.
Each year ushers in a new project and plans are already in place to extend the bar and restaurant, install an upstairs games room and create an elevated beer garden. And that’s just January…this is a small pub with big ideas!
Whilst the fabric of the building might change, one constant is their commitment to Devon food and drink. Otter Bitter has been here from the beginning and all the real ale is served on gravity straight from the barrel (apt!). This year a new double act (Tarka Four and Sandford Orchard’s excellent Devon Red) has been installed on the bar. Ottery is a vibrant town full of independents and so the menu continues the ultra-local theme. Country Farm Butchers (two doors down) supply the meat, Ottery’s Fish Monger takes care of the wet stuff, Otter Produce (next door) the vegetables and The Rusty Pig takes care of their charcuterie needs. Mike and Jacqui strike me as a couple who are extremely proud and comfortable with the business they have shaped for themselves. It caters to many. The local darts teams are as looked after as any visitor to the town. A warm welcome is extended to all and the real ale crowd love it here.
And talking of warmth… production at the brewery will soon switch to ‘Flaming Ale’ - our special beer for the Tar Barrels. We think events like this should be preserved and so are proud to be a main sponsor. I just hope the flames don’t singe this otter’s whiskers! email@example.com
In his regular series of columns for Devon Life, of The Otter Brewery takes us on a trawl of some of his favourite pubsPatrick Mccaig