With Phantom Pigs, Fire from Heaven, Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all
For such a picturesque little village, nestled quietly in the heart of Dartmoor, Widecombe-in-the-Moor is surprisingly full of drama. Natural disasters (or possibly the wrath of God), and supernatural hauntings add an extra frisson to the cream teas consumed by visitors and the annual fair enjoyed by many.
This is one of my occasional Dartmoor posts. I am not a Dartmoor expert, like photographer Chris Chapman and Tim Sandles of Legendary Dartmoor, but I hope to offer you something lively, original and based on my own experience of visiting the magical moor. My first post on Dartmoor Ponies has drawn readers in, and I hope future ones will do likewise. For today, we are in the area around that very famous village – you’ve probably sung about it, even if you haven’t visited it – none other than Widecombe-in-the-Moor.
To start with the fair – how I am longing for it to return, after the pandemic! Alas, that will not be until 2022. It’s held in mid-September, and is a glorious occasion with Hill Pony competitions, sheep shows, local crafts, folk bands and all kinds of delightful entertainment. Including, of course, Uncle Tom Cobleigh – the most famous ghost of Widecombe!
I expect many of you know the song about Widecombe Fair. Tom Pearce was rash enough to lend his grey mare to a group of merrymakers, heading for Widecombe Fair. Famously, they are Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all –the whole lot jumped up on the grey mare and rode her to the fair. And they didn’t return with her on Friday soon or Saturday noon, as promised. So Tom Pearce rode up a hill and (rather surprisingly) spied his mare ‘making her will’ along with the all of the reckless riders. No one, man or horse, returned alive. But they live on to this day, ‘when the wind whistles cold on the moor of the night’, and ‘Tom Pearce’s old mare doth appear ghastly white’. She comes with ‘rattling bones’ and the ‘skirling groans’ of Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
But I am pleased to report that this isn’t quite the end of the story, as Tom Cobleigh, his mates and the mare now appear again every year at the fair! We saw them with our very own eyes when we visited a couple of years ago.
Who was Tom Cobleigh? Keen local folklorists are on the case, and recent research shows that he may indeed have been a local character. At the village of Spreyton, some eighteen miles away just north of Dartmoor, there is indeed a grave to Tom Cobley, d. 1844. Those in the know say this is not the true Tom Cobleigh, but a nephew of the original Tom Cobleigh, who died in 1794 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Could this be a clue to his identity, buried with little trace, after his disgraceful doings? Well, maybe. But there again, it turns out that ‘old Uncle Tom Cobleigh and all’ was a popular saying meaning ‘along with everyone else’. Which came first, the man or the saying?
I will leave you to form your own opinion, but at any rate, it’s a great delight to see him and the mare enjoying a comeback at the Fair.
For an authentic and rumbustious rendering of the song ‘Widecombe Fair recorded at Widecombe Fair itself, try this one by well-known local musicians and storytellers Bill Murray & Jim Causeley. You’ll need to forgive some of the audience being out of tune. But the spirit is there!
And for a hilarious competition of Terrier Racing at the Fair (‘Hold your dug, Mother!) look no further than this video.
The Phantom Piglets
Ghostly pigs are surely unusual, but Dartmoor rarely disappoints; it offers a brooding tale of these and once again, the focus is on the Widecombe area. Here’s the tale as I first read it in one of my books on Dartmoor folklore:
‘From Merripit Hill, near Warren House Inn, a phantom sow may sometimes be seen setting out with her littler of hungry little phantom piglets on a journey to Cator Gate near Widecombe. Here, it is rumoured, there lies a succulent dead horse. The procession trots over the mist-enshrouded moor – the little pigs squeak ‘Starvin’, starvin’, starvin’.’ To which the old sow grunts encouragingly: ‘Dead ‘oss, Cator Gate; dead ‘oss, Cator Gate.’ They arrive too late – there’s nothing left. Sadly they trek homewards, the piglets wailing disconsolately: ‘Skin and bones, skin and bones.’ to which their mother philosophically replies, ‘Let ‘un lie, let ‘un lie.’ By this time they have become so thin after their long trek that they dissolve into mist-wraiths, never getting back to their home ground. Nevertheless, there they all are, ready to set out again from Merripit Hill on the next occasion.’
(As told to Ruth E. St Leger-Gordon by Miss Theo Brown. I apologise for not quoting the author of the book, as I’m still searching my books to find where I copied it from!)
This is truly spooky, and I can imagine looking up to the high moors and Tors from Widecombe, and seeing little whisps of mist curl around the hill tops. Are the piglets coming again? Are they starving? Will they, perhaps, see us as a tasty meal? Ferocious piglets may be lesser known among the terrors of Dartmoor than the Hound of the Baskervilles, but perhaps they are more deadly.
The Lightning Strike
And then we have the curious case of the church tower struck by lightning. This inscription is painted across four boards in Widecombe Church, recording a catastrophe from 1638, when lightning struck the church tower. It happened on a Sunday afternoon, when people were singing in the church; the strike split open the tower, showered the congregation with debris, and burnt some worshippers alive, while leaving others completely untouched. This, as you might imagine, became a focus for villagers to ponder upon the mysteries of God’s judgement and, indeed, his mercy. The account itself dates from 1786, and was made by the churchwardens Peter and Sylvester Mann, who created a kind of epic poem out of the event. Here are two of the panels and I’ll quote some extracts below.
In sixteen hundred thirty eight, October twenty first,
On the Lord’s day at afternoon, when people were addrest;
To their devotion in this church while singing here they were,
A Psalm distrusting nothing of the danger then so near;
A crack of lightning suddenly, with thunder hail and fire.
Fell on the church and tower here, and ran into the choir;
A sulferous smell came with it, and the tower strangely rent,
The stones abroad into the air, with violence were sent…
One man was struck dead, two wounded so they died few hours after -
No father could think on his son, or mother mind her daughter
One man was scorcht so that he lived but fourteen days and died
Whose clothes were very little burnt, but many were beside.
Were wounded, scorched and stupefied in that so strange a storm…
One man had money in his purse, which melted was in part,
A key likewise which hung thereto, and yet the purse no hurt…
One man there was sat on the bier, which stood fast by the wall,
The bier was torn with stones that fell, he had no harm at all…
Among the rest a little child which scarce knew good from ill,
Was seen to walk amongst the church, and yet preserved still:
The wit of man could not cast down so much from off the steeple,
Upon the church’s roof, and not destroy much of the people;
But he who rules both air and fire, and other forces all,
Hath us preserved bless be his name, in that most dreadful fall…
Remember who hath you preserved, ascribe unto his glory:
The preservation of your lives, who might have lost your breath,
When others did if mercy had not stept twixt you and death.
Below is the well-loved Rugglestone Inn, on the outskirts of the village, where I am sure many a tall Widecombe tale has been recounted over a pint or three.
All photos are copyright Cherry Gilchrist except Cator Rocks from Dartefacts, the ‘Commons’ picture of the village name sign, and historic artwork by Pamela Colman Smith (see forthcoming post The Pixie of Bude: Pamela Colman Smith, Tarot Artist).
I think we’ve just had our summer holiday this year – a day on the sea, sailing with Stuartline Cruises from Exmouth to Brixham. Like most other people, we’re not expecting to travel far afield this summer. But what could be better, on a warm sunny day, than to set sail along the beautiful Devon coast? We saw rocks and coves, beaches and waterfalls that we would never have known were there. We already knew many of the seaside towns individually, but had no idea how the coastline joins them together.
Stuartline is a delightful family firm that takes passengers up and down the River Exe, and along the Jurassic Coast all the way to Sidmouth in one direction, and the ‘English Riviera’ at Torbay in the other. In winter, there are highly-recommended birdwatching trips (booked out months in advance!) with a knowledgeable expert pointing out the extraordinary bird life that we have in the Exe Estuary, of migrants and waders, including the famous flocks of avocets.
Despite being veterans of these and other short cruises, this was the first time we’d been on a full day excursion. So I’ll be delighted to relive this journey, and to share both some snippets of history and some personal memories of this striking landscape too. Would you like to join us?
We cast off from the little dock at Exmouth, and soon gain a panoramic view of the seafront. The elegant 18th and 19th century terraces show how it once aspired to be a fashionable bathing station for the monied classes. Like several of the other Devon coastal resorts, its very early days were spent in a humbler manner though: ‘Prior to the 1700’s Exmouth was a small fishing town, with a small harbour, from which Sir Walter Raleigh, born just a few miles away in East Budleigh in 1544, sailed on many of his voyages.’ (Visit Exmouth) In earlier centuries, it also acted as the point of entry into the River Exe, from whence trading ships sailed up to the bustling port of Topsham, (our current home), servicing the wool trade and other enterprises.
Now it’s both a popular family holiday resort and a lively town, with a new Marina built in a handsome Norwegian style, to the lamentations of those who loved the ramshackle sheds and cabins that previously existed in the area at the start of the ‘back beach’ stretching up the mouth of the river.
Dawlish Warren is a weird juxtaposition. If you come here by road or train you’ll start by passing under the railway bridge and stroll (or hasten) through a panoply of fairground rides, candy floss stalls, gaudy souvenirs and hot dog stalls. But once through this area, fringed with brightly painted beach huts, you’re in a wonderful, windswept area of nature which stretches for over a mile to the end of the spit. It has a bird hide at the far end, and it was here, about 30 years ago, that I saw my first ever white egret in the UK. The beach which borders it is also wonderful, and if you don’t mind hopping through the groynes you can enjoy a long walk on an unspoilt and usually uncrowded stretch of sand.
After the Warren comes the town of Dawlish itself, with its famous stretch of railway line running along the edge of the sea. Famous because a) it’s officially listed as one of the great railway trips of the world – and at times the trains keep running while spray from the waves breaks over the carriages! But also b) because every now and then a bit of the track falls into the sea. See the tale of recent disaster and recovery here.
Dawlish is also famous for its black swans, Australian natives which grace the brook that flows through the town centre. Sadly, their numbers have been decimated by bird flu in the last year or so, but not before two escapees found their way up the River Exe to Topsham. Here they are feted and fed by admiring townsfolk and tourists; these birds know a good thing when they see it.
When I was at primary school, we were asked to paint a picture of our summer holidays, and I was very puzzled when one of my classmates painted a seaside with red cliffs. Surely that couldn’t be right? I had spent my early years near the white cliffs of Dover. But I had to adjust my expectations when we moved down to East Devon and the Jurassic coast. I still find them a touch unnatural, but they are certainly dramatic. The rock stacks rise up out of the water in gnarled, looming shapes, like giant heads. But they are also shape-shifters, as sandstone erodes over time.
Below: some of the dramatic sandstone rocks near Teignmouth, and a local fisherman hauling in a lobster pot nearby
Now we’re arriving at Teignmouth – one of our favourite seaside towns. It has plenty of character, a place of different faces. The seafront terraces, as in Exmouth, speak of past grandeur. The pier, the cafes, the play park are from a different narrative, of jolly seaside family holidays. Once when we turned up in the town they were filming ‘The Mercy’, the story of the disastrous sailing challenge taken on by Donald Crowhurst, and the company had reconstructed a perfect 1950s holiday setting along the front, which gave an entertaining sense of time-slip.
Behind the sea front, there’s a newly-labelled ‘artists’ quarter’ with quirky shops and a little theatre. And also just around the corner is the ‘back beach’, where the river Teign flows into the sea. It’s flanked by fishermen’s shacks, boats pulled up onto the sand, and the ferry which takes you over the water to the very cute village of Shaldon. In Victorian times, Teignmouth was eagerly sought after as a painter’s resort since the sunshine comes from two directions, off both beaches of sea and river, and bathes the town in glorious light. Oh, and by the way, it’s the River ‘Teen’ which flows through ‘Tinmouth’. (But if you’re on Dartmoor, then ‘Drewstaynton’ for Drewsteignton.) Got that?
We sail around the corner of the cliff, where just beyond is the hidden beach of The Ness. This is reached, surprisingly, by a foot tunnel on the Shaldon side. (Shaldon itself also has the surprise of a little zoo with a fine population of meerkats and lemurs, a conservation centre for endangered species. ) Descending the steep, dank set of stairs in near-darkness, you begin to hear the waves pounding below. Suddenly, you emerge into daylight and there is the little beach spread out before you. (Not possible, I warn you, at high tide.)
The cliffs ascend steeply here; I know this from experience, as we once walked up the coast path from Shaldon and nearly collapsed before we finally got to the top. It felt as if crampons and a rope might have been sensible equipment to take. Perched a little way further along the clifftop is a modern white house, said to be the plaything of a Russian oligarch.
And now it’s a changing scene – we are in Agatha Christie country! The hills are rounder and more wooded. There are hidden coves, rocks to swim towards, steep tree-filled valleys to clamber up, and every now and then, a splendid house fit for a murder mystery.
Agatha grew up in the area, and returned in later life to live at Greenway House, set high above the Dart River. You can discover her favourite haunts here and visit Greenway House (now National Trust). Strange to think that when I came to the area in my teens, my friends pointed out the house to me, and told me that Agatha was still in residence. Could I have tried to meet her? I’ll never know. She died in 1976.
We pass the beach below Maidencombe. Robert and I have been to this quaint village once, in the autumn months, which is a snatch of old Devon (especially out of season), but didn’t follow the signed walking route to the beach, out of sight below. Now, from the boat, we can see what a charming spot it is, with its very own waterfall. Did Agatha come here too? I expect so.
The skipper points out a pile of debris on the cliff top nearby, and tells us the story of the woman who bought a house up there, sight unseen, for a bargain sum of £154,000. However, it wasn’t long before the house started toppling down the cliff. I looked up the story, and the argey-bargey she had with the auctioneers. Read it here. Buyer beware!
Then we sail under the cliffs below Babbacombe village, an outlier of Torquay now. I have been here several times, to visit the extraordinary, Stone-Age inhabited Kent’s Cavern (see my earlier post, Following the Female Line). Walk through a wooden door in a modern visitor’s centre, and you plunge into another era, of ancient man, and cave-dwelling bears as well. Taking my granddaughters round here was a delight.
And look, do I spy the Famous Five and Timmy having a naughty camp-out where they shouldn’t? We are in story book country, after all.
As for stories, the cruise ships moored around Torbay and Teignmouth have provided us with a ghostly presence during the pandemic. Sometimes they look like spectres from a haunted tale, half lost in the mist. Our skipper tells us how they seek out sheltered bays and drop anchor there, leaving a skeleton (ha!) crew on board, so as to avoid paying berthing charges. We’ve had various royally-named ships within these waters in the last year and a half, from the Queen Mary to the Queen Victoria who is currently here.
When we pass one later, crew members wave to us in excitement – or is it despair? At Christmas, the inhabitants of Teignmouth knitted gifts and sent out seasonal food parcel to the seamen who had to spend the holidays on board.
And it’s time for Torquay. Pine trees herald our arrival, a symbol of its title as ‘Queen of the English Riviera’. When I first came to Torquay in the 1960s, the promenade was dominated by palm trees, and I always thought of these as the iconic image of the town. But apparently these were decimated by a severe frost, and have never been replaced. Hmm – on searching for more about their demise, I discovered that Torquay is home to a number of dreadful environmental errors.
But I am fond of this town, remembering how I worked here in the Grand Hotel for a summer after leaving school. It was primarily for friends and folk clubs that I came down here from Birmingham – there have always been close links between Brum and Devon. (see my blog ‘Singing at the Holy Ground’ ) I was hired as a ‘still room’ maid, toiling under the supervision of Hungarian John, a kindly, middle-aged man, who fought our cause fiercely when we were bullied by arrogant chefs. I think I was paid around £8 a week, and my job was primarily to make toast using an eyebrow-singeing machine, make up sandwiches, and prepare trays of tea and coffee. Oh, and put cakes on plates. (John didn’t mind if we helped ourselves to a few.) It was a hazardous workplace, apart from the singed eyebrows. Italian waiters tried to grope us girls in the service lifts, and the manager swept down in a temper, saying that we had to pour any undrunk coffee out of the pots back into the coffee machine, stewed or not. I got my revenge by making up his afternoon tea tray with sandwiches composed of other people’s chicken leftovers.
And the room I was given had been inhabited by an alcoholic woman, who had left piles of empty booze and meths bottles in every corner and cupboard. I was young and inexperienced, and I felt that because they had done me a favour by offering me a room, I shouldn’t complain, but simply grit my teeth and clear it out. I can still remember the stink, and sense of horror on confronting it. Having said that, it was nevertheless quite a happy time! I met up with my mates, sang in the folk clubs and learnt the joys of crab sandwiches.
Indeed, I retain a fondness for Torquay, and would like to get to know it better again.
Below: Modern Torquay contrasting with the 18th century, elegant Hesketh Crescent, now a hotel and apartments
Here we let the Torquay trippers off the boat to enjoy their three hours ashore. The rest of us travel on to the fishing ‘village’ of Brixham about eight miles further along the coast, past Paignton en route.
First, though, we pass a real storybook house, set in at least two acres of beautifully mown and diamond-patterned lawns. Oh, I wish that this were mine! I learnt later, through the ‘Devon Where Am I?’ Facebook group that it’s called Thatcher House. It’s the epitome of what we might think of as a 1930s English Riviera house, with unbroken views to the cliff tops and sea, all ready for a sunset gin and tonic on the terrace.
Paignton passes by without much comment – I worked here, too, as a chambermaid in a stuffy boarding house frequented by elderly spinsters, whose chamber pots I had to empty. That era has gone, and so has my interest in the town. Perhaps I am failing to see its charms.
And then it’s round into Brixham harbour. It’s a lovely entrance to the fishing port, with colourful houses stacked up in handfuls on the steep hillsides which surround it. The fishing fleet and industry here is apparently the third largest in the UK, and we often buy delicious fresh fish landed at Brixham. (You can read about the story of one Brixham trawler, now aground in Topsham, at Hidden Topsham Part One.) ) I used to come here too on my days off from being a still room or chamber maid. But there are two other Brixham associations for me.
First of all, it’s where my great grandfather, David Owen arrived in 1873 at the age of 30 to be the town’s Baptist Minister. He’d come from the hills of mid-Wales, first to a post in Hemyock, Devon, where he met his future wife Mary Masey Walker, and then to try a pastorate in Brixham. After only six months, though, he upped sticks hastily for reasons unknown, (not thought to be scandalous!), married his sweetheart, and set sail for America. Here he joined his brother John in Ohio, and spent 15 years as a minister before he and Mary returned, settling in Northamptonshire, where their brood increased to twelve children. How I’d like to know more about his Brixham story! Family folklore says that he found the Devon mindset too constrained – which might sound strange for one who came from mid-Wales, but he’d had an astonishingly good education at the Baptist College in Haverfordwest, specialising in Hebrew and Ancient Greek. Or maybe it was the lure of the open seas? His grandfather had also left the Radnorshire hills, to set sail from Plymouth and subsequently fight at the Battle of Corunna in Wellington’s army.
The second reason for coming to Brixham is that it’s where I bought Robert his favourite seaman’s cap seven years ago, and which he has been welded to ever since. Time has taken its toll on the cap though, and now’s the chance to try and buy him a new one.
First, though, it’s the moment to find a crab sandwich – our favourite seafront fare. We serendipitously find a spare waterfront table in a delightful shady café, to do just that.
And then, can we find the right shop? Or another one selling the same merchandise? The chances look slim; many shops have changed hands since we were here last. I walk straight past a small shop front crowded with sea shells and souvenirs. But Robert looks more closely and spots one of these caps, lying dusty and folded flat at the bottom of a display basket. He tries it on. Alas, it’s too big. The stooped elderly man behind the counter tells us that he has been running this business for 60 years, and he’s sold Breton sailor’s caps (ah, so this is what they are!) for all this time. But now he can’t get hold of any more. ‘So this is the last one?,’ we ask. ‘I might just have another one,’ he says. And he does, and it’s the right size. Mission accomplished.
‘Twas a good day out on the English Riviera! Whether you come by train, as this poster suggests, or as we did, by boat.
What’s Coming Up
I usually leave the next blog post as a surprise – a nice one, I hope! But I think it’s worthwhile giving a heads up as to what’s on the menu for the next month, given that summer is a scattered kind of time, when we often ditch our usual routines and reading habits.
We’ll be staying in the South West, next time. On August 22nd, I’ll be inviting you to climb on Old Uncle Tom Cobleigh’s horse, and take a ride to Widecombe Fair. The Fair is a great joy, and one of Dartmoor’s finest traditions, but alas has been cancelled for this year. So I thought we could enjoy it virtually.
Then on September 5th, we move just a little over the border into Cornwall, to meet the Pixie of Bude – no, not a post about fairies, but about Pamela Colman Smith, nicknamed Pixie. Pamela is the artist who painted the world’s most famous Tarot pack, usually known as the Rider-Waite pack. And yet her own life and art is little known. She spent the final part of her life in Bude, where at last the Museum has recognised her work. It was a little info board in the museum which sparked my interest to look into her further – those of you who are regular readers will know that the Tarot is one of my themes.
I could tell you what will happen after that – but plans may change, so I’ll keep it under wraps for the time being!