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!)
A longer version of this can be found on ‘Legendary Dartmoor’ .
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).
You may also be interested in other Devon posts:
And more posts about Topsham can be found by consulting Cherry’s Cache: A Guide to the First Year or simply searching for ‘Topsham’.