Paul Arnott: Autumn in East Devon is very different in 2020

In his latest column, East Devon leader discusses how his usual autumn tradition has had to change, as has the district council’s constitution

Paul Arnott 

Autumn in Devon is my favourite time of year. Soon, the trees will have shed their golden leaves and make stark silhouettes on a Halloween morning. It’s a time of change – in many ways.

But this year, my Autumn will be missing its finest celebration, the Tar Barrels of Ottery St Mary. I first attended in 1980 and although not a big drinker if ever there is a time and a place to have a pint rooted to the spot as a man with a barrel on fire runs within a few feet of your head, this is it.

Over the last twenty years it has became important to my children too. Years ago, we’d drive them over and hold the hands of two children each as they were thrilled and terrified by the blaze appearing to come out of the back of some plucky Otteryman’s neck.

Cut forward ten years, when they or their friends could drive, and they’d disappear off into the seemingly infinite number of pubs with their mates, leaving my wife and I to get home exhausted in time for the ten ‘o clock news. They’d do whatever it was that teenagers do before returning at midnight. No Polos were strong enough to conceal their cider breath as they plonked themselves on the sofa and I’d look at them, a sentimental old fool, thinking: well, this is the life.

Ottery Tar Barrels 2019. Picture: Alex Walton Photography

Ottery Tar Barrels 2019. Picture: Alex Walton Photography

This autumn, three of our four children, plus a girlfriend, have been back with us again, like a Groundhog Day of what happened in March. They decided to escape the city before it went into a higher tier and are now all working from home here in East Devon.

We would have all loved to have gone together to the Tar Barrels again but it is not to be this year. And this time they might not have scarpered with their pals into the mischievous night, but would have probably actually have bought us a drink.

Yes, all middle age parents mark that day well, when a child buys you a pint, or even a meal, instead of the other way round. Of course, if you live to be about a hundred and fifty you might recoup the cost of all the drinks and meals you have bought for them.

Instead this year our kitchen surfaces are covered with local blackberries and apples cooked and then frozen to keep us until next year. We’ve had amazing homemade quince jelly with roast pork (my department), and astonishing blackberry jam on freshly baked scones. It might be a horrible year but a generation seems to have learned to cook.

My other reason for wanting to go with them to Ottery this year would have been to introduce a remarkable local person, Vicky Johns. Vicky is a district councillor who is part of the administration with me at East Devon – but she has also recently become the first ever female mayor of Ottery St Mary.

We had a great debate at East Devon last week to make sure our constitution was changed to be respectful of both men and women. This addresses issues of maternity rights for councillors too. And in future we won’t address women running our meetings with such archaic terms as ‘Madam Chairman’ or ‘Councillor Mrs Smith’. It’s the kind of thing you might have thought was done and dusted in about 1970.

There was much talk from some of the more cobwebbed members about how they would now find it difficult to address someone as ‘Chair’. I made the point that if MPs had tried saying Madam Mrs Prime Minister to either Margaret Thatcher of Theresa May they’d have got short shrift. But it’s in the constitution now and in the end if you want to secure change and not allow things to slip back, that’s what you have to do.