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The small Devon village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor nestles in a natural valley on the eastern
edge of Dartmoor, on the East Webburn river and close to the Stannary town of Ashburton.
population is just 200, but on the second Tuesday in September - for almost
every year since the middle of the 19th century - people flock to this quiet
moorland community in droves. For this is the day of the Widecombe Fair, immortalised by the enduring Devon folk song,
featuring ‘Uncle Tom Cobley and all’.
hardy Dartmoor folk would bring their sheep and horses to the Fair, and buy and
sell livestock based on their own supply of feed for the following winter.
mystical song - sometimes also called ‘Tom Pearce’ - tells of a man whose horse
dies after someone borrows it to travel to the Fair with friends. The chorus ends
with a list of those friends - Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter
Davy, Daniel Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
the day at this year's Widecombe Fair, in the middle of walking a magical new
route A Tale of Two Rivers with On Foot Holidays. Starting
from Exeter, you will cross the eastern edge of Dartmoor, walk south through
the chocolate-box villages of South Hams, before arriving at the sea in
Dartmouth. Read my separate article on Silver Travel Advisor about this
beautiful, varied walk which lets you embrace history at the same time as
enjoying contemporary comforts.
delighted to report, however, that the Widecombe Fair has remained relatively
unscathed by the passage of time, clinging to its rural roots while the outside
world has succumbed to a technological tornado. Silver Travellers will love the
village and the Fair. So leave your smartphones behind - you'll struggle to
find a signal anyway! - and step back in time to spend a day with Uncle Tom
Cobley and all his Dartmoor friends.
the Fair has evolved since Tom's time, but at its heart it remains essentially
an opportunity to show and trade livestock. Take a look at the white-faced and
black-faced Dartmoor sheep, the native ponies and some doe-eyed cows, all
brushed and buffed for their Big Day Out by farmers with a distinctive Devonian
weren't on show at the 19th century Fair, but they are a fun more recent
addition. As are the ferret racing, fox hound parade, hawk display,
dog-and-duck demonstration (agility and control, rather than a pub) and
But if you
don't like animals, toss a few competitive horseshoes in the local smithy's
tent, enjoy the parades of vintage cars and tractors, see if you agree with the
judges' decisions in the tent with local arts and crafts exhibitions, or just
adjourn to the beer tent. Sup a pint of Dartmoor Jail Ale here,
or local scrumpy, and listen to some traditional live folk music being sung
from 10:00 until midnight!
this expanded activity now takes place in what has become known as Fair Field,
a short stroll from where it all started. But back in the village, drop into
The Old Inn for fine views over Hameldown, friendly banter, local ales, cider
and food, and a plain white wall inscribed with the wise words: "Twas
on this spot back in the year 1777 nothing happened."
centre of the village we also witnessed an entertaining Fun Cry between
Devon town criers, bedecked in all their finery, competing to entertain the
crowds and judged on diction, costume and humour. This year's winner was the
Dartmouth Crier, an outsider from the moors but richly deserving for his
cautionary tale about putting ice in your drinks. Prizes were awarded by no
less a luminary than Uncle Tom Cobley himself, dressed in a loose white smock
and red neckerchief, and riding around the Fair all day on Tom Pearce's
magnificent grey mare.
you visit the beautiful Church of St Pancras in the village too. Known as the
Cathedral of the Moor, thanks to its magnificent 120-foot tower and significant
size for such a small village, it dates back to the 14th century. Our own
pilgrimage on the day of the Fair was very special, as it coincided with a
hearty rendition of all the verses of Uncle Tom Cobley, sung
from the pulpit by a local man with a beautiful voice, accompanied by the
organist and an enthusiastic congregation.
the day, the Tom Cobley novelty race captivated everyone.
Contestants - 37 in total this year, 20 male and 17 female - were taken by
truck to a secret point high on the top of verdant Widecombe Hill. From here
they ran back to the finishing line - in Fair Field, near the beer tent - by
whatever route they liked. The winner - a young whippet of a lad - took a
scarcely believable 13 minutes or so to sprint down from the distant horizon,
through a patchwork quilt of fields and startled sheep, before the final brief
but brutal uphill spurt to the line.
Silver Travellers there is something inherently satisfying about walking in the
footsteps of Tom Pearce, Uncle Tom Cobley and all to this historic village and
Fair, staying the day and heading back up onto the high moor the following
But whatever your age and mobility Widecombe-in-the-Moor is a timeless haven from the outside world, to be enjoyed at any time of year, but especially on the second Tuesday in September.
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