Movers & Makers - Ottery St Mary

Trudy Turrell meets some of the people living and working in this vibrant Devon community.

Ottery St Mary lies tucked between West Hill and East Hill in the Otter Valley, East Devon. Twinned with Pont l’Eveque in France and Ilsfeld in Germany, it has also forged links with Otari – a mountain village in Japan. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born here, and J.K. Rowling featured it as Ottery St Catchpole in her Harry Potter books.

It’s a busy, friendly community with lots of independent businesses. On 5 November, thousands of spectators flock to the town to watch flaming tar barrels being carried through the streets. This year, the future of the centuries-old tradition is in doubt due to the soaring cost of insurance.

Jacqueline Parker & Ruud Jansen Venneboer

After a three-year hunt for the right place, Jacqueline Parker and Ruud Jansen Venneboer moved to Ottery St Mary from Guildford to set up an eco-tourism business. When they saw Mazzard Farm, they were struck by the potential of the place – a perfect location for business and a great family home. “The surrounding landscape offers beaches and fantastic walking in the hills, while the town is full of small, independent businesses,” says Ruud.

Mazzard Farm offers a two-pronged approach to sustainable tourism: wood pellet-burners provide hot water and heating for the eco-holiday cottages, and all the insulation is made from sheep’s wool. Jacqueline and Ruud also encourage their guests to recycle, compost, shop locally and use the bicycles provided during their stay.

At the recent Devon Tourism Awards, Mazzard Farm won Gold in the Sustainable Tourism category, Silver in the Self-Catering and Serviced Apartment of the Year category, and was crowned the overall Winner of Winners.

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Our Favourites...

We love the Millstone Bakery and the Curious Otter bookshop, where the staff go that extra mile to get what you’re looking for. The walk from Ottery St Mary all the way along the river to Tipton St John is gorgeous, and there is a lovely pub – The Golden Lion – where you can stop for a well-deserved pint!

Andy Wade

As President of the Ottery St Mary Carnival Committee, Andy Wade is a man with a lot on his shoulders. Every bonfire night, he and his committee have to organise the carrying of flaming barrels of tar through Ottery’s winding streets – a spectacle that draws more than 25,000 townsfolk and visitors. With its origins rumoured to date from the gunpowder plot, the fiery event is the culmination of a fabulous winter carnival.

Despite its daring nature, barrel-running is not just for men of the town: teenagers and women participate, too, and children from the age of eight can carry a flaming barrel. “The barrel carriers are all born and bred in Ottery,” explains Andy. “Although it looks dangerous, the barrel-carriers are well practised and wrapped up against the flames.”

Andy has carried a flaming tar barrel himself. “The smell of tar and the heat of the flames as you run through the crowds gives you an amazing adrenaline rush. It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”

My Favourites...

Enjoying a pint in any of Ottery’s pubs – they’re all great! And the view from East Hill Steps over the valley is stunning.

Miriam Nicholls and Michelle Scriven

Falconers Miriam Nicholls and Michelle Scriven train and fly birds of prey at Escot Park and Gardens. With nearly 20 years’ experience between them, they still both love their jobs. “It is an awesome feeling to train a bird and have it respond to you,” says Miriam. “And to let others enjoy that experience is brilliant, too.”

Birds of prey have been trained to hunt since early times, and the displays given by Miriam and Michelle feature up to 18 birds, including Harris hawks, lanner falcons, kestrels and buzzards. Although the birds are flying to lures of meat as opposed to live prey, the displays make compelling watching.

In addition to daily displays, Miriam and Michelle take the birds to schools and residential homes, and provide experience days for those who wish to try falconry hands-on.

Miriam’s Favourites...

I love shopping in Ottery. It has so many individual and unique stores. Highlights of the year are the tar barrels, and Pixie Day in summer, when the children capture the vicar and bellringers and drag them to the square – it’s great fun.

Michelle’s Favourites...

We both have dogs and love walking them by the River Otter. East Hill Steps is a particular favourite as it’s a passage for birds of prey. You can see them at any time of year from there.

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