A Travellerspoint blog

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all...

Europe » United Kingdom » England » Devon » Widecombe-in-the-Moor - 15 June 2014

sunny 17 °C

Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, Lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want to go down to Widecombe Fair
wi' Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all...
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

To be sung in a fake Devon yokel's accent, preferably after a few pints of strong local ale.

So goes the first verse of a folk tune called 'Widecombe Fair'. It does go on quite a bit longer - possibly a bit too much longer, unless someone else is buying the next round of drinks.

It tells a tale of Tom Pearce's old grey mare being borrowed, getting lost, falling ill, dying, and haunting the moor ever after. I won't bore you with it all here but, if you're so inclined, skip to the end of this blog for the other eight verses and a video rendition!

Because of the song's boringly long list of people, we strange British folk have come to use the term 'Uncle Tom Cobley and all' as a humorous and exasperated way of saying 'et al' or 'all that lot'.

Tom Pearce's grey mare on the way to Widecombe Fair ...with Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer,
Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawk, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all...

Widecombe is a real place, here on Dartmoor. It was just a few miles to the west of where we were spending our week's holiday, up and down hill along twisting roads across the moor with broad new vistas at almost every turn. There was probably a real Old Uncle Tom Cobley once upon a time too. He's reputed to have been a randy bachelor in his younger days - but when paternity orders came in thick and fast, he refused to maintain any little ones which didn't have red hair like his!

There's an annual Widecombe Fair as well. You still have time to be there this year - it's on 9th September 2014 (in 2019, when this blog is being republished, it's on 10th September!). There'll be loads of events and competitions, and you can be sure that there'll also be a local fellow dressed just like old Tom, complete with a grey mare!

Widecombe-in-the-Moor, to give it its correct name, is a pretty place - providing you avert your eyes from the coachloads of tourists who descend upon it for an hour or two every morning for a glimpse of what was once a typical and quintessentially Dartmoor village. For all its popularity, it's still worth a visit though, with its fine old buildings, some of them thatched, and ponies grazing on the village green beside the church.

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The church, dedicated to St Pancras, is one of the most visited in England. It's known as the 'Cathedral of the Moor', probably because it's far too large for the population of the village and once served other small communities throughout the moor without their own churches. It was originally built, mainly with funds raised by tin miners, in the 14th century. Inside, a panel records disastrous events on a day in October 1638, when lightning struck the tower, dislodging blocks of masonry onto worshippers, killing four and seriously injuring 60 more. Local legend has it that the Devil himself had been seen earlier in the day spitting fire and riding a black horse across the moor!

The Church of St Pancras is architecturally noteworthy and its graveyard is well-kept with some interesting old headstones - a more recent one, for a former vicar, Eric Archibald Newbery, has pride of place in a raised position with tremendous views over God's country beyond.

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But it was an ancient symbol that we'd come in search of here. What we sought is found in many parts of the world (the earliest known, in Buddhist caves in China, dates back to 581AD) but, here in Britain, the symbol's seen mainly in medieval churches as carved bosses where the roof beams cross. On and around Dartmoor, 17 churches have a total of 29 of them. Although no-one can agree on its true meaning, the symbol's made up of three rabbits (or some say hares) running in a circle with their ears joined in the centre, forming a triangle which gives the illusion that they each have two ears when, in fact, they only have one.

To the accompaniment of a rousing Bach prelude played by the organist practising for a concert, we found the elusive symbol, carved and painted brown, green, white and red, high up above our heads in the chancel. (We found another one of these rare things at the Church of St Michael the Archangel in Chagford - read on...! )


Chagford, an easy 20-minute drive north of Widecombe, proved to be a characterful small town with attractive buildings dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries. One in the heart of the town, an old octagonal market house with a strange tower, now holds some little shops and the public toilets!

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Across the road, we enjoyed a break at The Birdcage, a very pleasant coffee shop and restaurant - with gourmet pizzas that are bellissimo.

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Suitably refreshed, we sauntered around a craft market, held more for locals than visitors and clearly a major event hereabouts, then wandered on to the Church of St Michael the Archangel in search of that other elusive rabbit roof boss. We found it, of course. Although it was noticeably smaller than the one we'd seen at Widecombe, the women of the parish had been sure to proclaim its noteriety by embroidering its likeness on pew cushions and fabulous wall hangings.

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Apart from running rabbits in the church, another of Chagford's claims to touristic fame are two hardware shops - yes, hardware shops. They're next door to one another and, from the outside, look like small but well-stocked village shops. Go inside and Dr Who has landed in his Tardis!

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They're far too large to survive just from local trade, of course, so must rely very much on impulse purchases from visitors. You can buy almost anything there for your kitchen, your bathroom, your bedroom, your dining room, your living room, your wardrobe, your garden...

The shelves in these shops just keep going on, and on, and on, and on, and on... a bit like the Old Uncle Tom Cobley song!


If you've downed a few pints, you can now continue the tale of the grey mare who went to Widecombe Fair.

Many sung versions appear on YouTube, with slight differences to the words. Some are ridiculously badly performed, but I think one of the best is sung barber-shop fashion by The Kings Singers - and even that's a derivation of the original!

All together now...

...And when shall I see again my grey mare?
All along, down along, out along lea.
By Friday soon, or Saturday noon,
Wi' Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawk,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

So they harnessed and bridled the old grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
And off they drove to Widecombe fair,
Wi' Bill Brewer...

Then Friday came, and Saturday noon.
All along, down along, out along lea.
But Tom Pearce's old mare hath not trotted home,
Wi' Bill Brewer...

So Tom Pearce he got up to the top o' the hill.
All along, down along, out along lea.
And he see'd his old mare down a-making her will,
Wi' Bill Brewer...

So Tom Pearce's old mare, her took sick and died.
All along, down along, out along lea.
And Tom he sat down on a stone, and he cried
Wi' Bill Brewer...

But this isn't the end o' this shocking affair.
All along, down along, out along lea.
Nor, though they be dead, of the horrid career
Of Bill Brewer...

When the wind whistles cold on the moor of the night.
All along, down along, out along lea.
Tom Pearce's old mare doth appear ghastly white,
Wi' Bill Brewer...

And all the long night be heard skirling and groans.
All along, down along, out along lea.
From Tom Pearce's old mare in her rattling bones,
Wi' Bill Brewer...

If you managed to sing along right to the end, give yourself a round of applause!


This blog was previously on another blog site and appears to have been the last in the series of 'Postcards from delightful Devon' published there. However, it's clear that I never got around to finishing the series because we visited many other places, like:

  • the monthly market at Marston, and drives to the ancient stone bridge at Postbridge and infamous Dartmoor Prison;
  • fabulous art deco Coleton Fishacre, former residence of the D’Oyly Carte family - the impresarios behind Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, whose business empire included Claridge’s and the Savoy Hotel and Theatre in London;
  • charming towns like Dartmouth and Totnes;
  • Shilstone, the wonderfully-restored home of the Fenwick family (owners of the chain of department stores by the same name) - we bumped into Mrs Fenwick, who was doing some weeding in the garden - and the Devon Rural Archive;
  • the House of Marbles at Bovey Tracey, the colourful gardens of Dartington Hall, the ancient National Trust property of Bradley Manor and the extensive parkland of aptly-named Parke.

Perhaps I'll try to complete the blogs sometime!


Posted by Keep Smiling 02:20 Archived in England Tagged england devon widecome chagford Comments (6)

Laid by the girls living on Dartmoor!

Europe » United Kingdom » England » Devon » Dartmoor - 14 June 2014

sunny 20 °C


'I've got some rheas out back. Raised 'em from eggs I did. They be awful friendly.'

In his heavy Devon accent, the elderly bewhiskered man at the gate of his lonely Dartmoor cottage attempted to detain me a little longer with irrelevant chat. It seemed that not many tourists from Hertfordshire, or indeed from anywhere, stop at this remote spot in response to his 'Fresh Eggs' sign propped up by a rock beneath the tall hedge.

'It's eggs you're wantin', ain't it?, he said with a quizzical smile.

I've only got hens' eggs today. They'm alright?'

He disappeared, leaving his two scruffy dogs seeking attention and barking madly.

A few minutes later, he returned holding a grey cardboard carton containing six brown eggs with bits of straw and feathers attached.

A label on the carton proclaimed: 'Laid by the girls living on Dartmoor'.

These newly-laid eggs, still warm from the girls' loving embrace, were just one of many pleasurable experiences on our recent visit to this green and peaceful part of the country.


We’ve been to Devon before, of course – many times, as children, as adults. Pat, my wife, was born in the county, as was her father, and we have good friends who live not far from Exeter, Devon’s capital city. We can always find an excuse to revisit familiar places and it’s a big county, so there are always plenty of new things to discover, new foods to try, fresh eggs to buy, new experiences to, well... experience.


So it was that a Saturday morning in June saw us braving the motorways and driving four hours south-west to the pretty town of Topsham. We were here two years ago – see 'Topsham is tops!' for pictures and stuff. Not a lot’s changed in this sleepy little town since then. Despite flooding during last winter’s storms, our old friends Maureen and Peter are still living their lives to the full on the banks of the River Exe and still raising funds for the end-of-life charity Hospiscare (all donations welcome). After off-loading a couple of hundred plants I’d grown for them to sell from their doorstep and at open-garden events, we enjoyed a drink in their sunny riverside garden and a delicious summertime lunch before wending our way an hour farther west to the wilds of Dartmoor.

Dartmoor's a truly rural area with big skies, fast-flowing streams, chocolate-box villages and narrow winding roads with high hedges and dry-stone walls. Much of it's shown on maps as Dartmoor Forest. But forests have loads of trees, don't they? Dartmoor does have some here and there, but really they’re only enough to qualify it as a Wood!

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As its familiar name suggests, Dartmoor's mostly moorland, rolling hills covered in grass, bracken and thorny scrub. Apparently, like many similar areas of heath around Britain, it became a ‘forest’ by royal decree sometime around the 11th century, primarily to protect the wild deer and boar hunted by kings. Villages and fields within it were subjected to ‘forest law’, restricting its inhabitants to what they could do with their land. Fortunately, in the mid-17th century, this law died out – by which time ownership of most of the land had been handed over to royalty and rented out!

Today, around two-thirds of the whole moor is private land. The ‘Forest’ makes up most of this and is owned by the Duke of Cornwall - HRH Charles, our future King - but I don't think there are many wild deer and boar for him to hunt here anymore. The Ministry of Defence, water authorities, the National Trust and Dartmoor’s national park authority own a lot of the rest. An Act of Parliament though has ensured that walkers have the right to roam, even on private land.

Some of this private countryside is also classified as ‘common land’, which gives local people traditional rights to graze their livestock and to collect firewood. Ponies, cattle and sheep wandering at will over many parts of the moor, in its towns and on its roads are familiar sights and testament to the area's common use.

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Our home for the next week was to be a very comfortable cottage close to Haytor, on the eastern side of the moor. We rented it through a local company, Helpful Holidays, based in the small town of Chagford nearby. Apart from being in a quiet and attractive location ideal for visiting the whole region, with a farm close by and views over green countryside towards the coast, our 'holiday cottage', one of two converted from a barn, was eminently well-equipped with everything a family of four would need if they were to live here permanently - two double bedrooms, bathroom, a huge lounge with TV, WiFi, iPod player, board games and books, a large kitchen/dining room with masses of worktops and fitted cupboards, fridge, freezer, dishwasher, microwave and a huge range-style cooker - five induction rings, three ovens... you know the sort of thing. It was an 'upside-down' place - living areas upstairs to make best use of the views, bedrooms and bathroom downstairs. The water hereabouts is very 'soft', which I mention only because it resulted in a slippery shower and, one morning, my rapid exit backwards to a naked Judo fall onto a very hard, tiled floor. Fortunately, only my dignity was dented! However, as usual, I digress...

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Haytor (sometimes written as Hay Tor), at a height of 457 metres (1,499 ft), is a well-known landmark for visitors to Dartmoor. This 'tor', a large outcrop of rock rising abruptly from a rounded hill summit, is one of several here on Dartmoor. Haytor's outcrop is made up of an unusually fine granite that's weathered to a very distinctive shape. It's a magnet for walkers and climbers, who can be seen from miles away around it and on it. There used to be a quarry on the surrounding hillsides too. The stone from there was used to build the columns in front of the British Museum in London. Friends across the pond might be interested to know that there's also a bit of Haytor in Arizona; granite from the quarry was used to rebuild London Bridge, which opened in 1831 (and which was bought in 1968 by the American millionaire Robert McCulloch, then moved to Lake Havasu City, Arizona).


We chose to stay on this eastern side of the moor because it would be so easy to visit and revisit towns and National Trust properties that had been on our long list for some time. At the top of the list was the wonderful Castle Drogo, a stately pile like no other. It's a fanciful 'castle', designed by renowned architect Sir Edward Lutyens to provide the highly successful founder of the Home and Colonial Stores, Julius Drewe, with the ancestral home he'd always dreamt of, while including all the modern comforts of the early-20th century. We'd been here before (see Wild Dartmoor) but the Castle Drogo we saw then bears no resemblance to what it is today - and what it will continue to be for the next four to five years.

From a distance, this 'last castle to be built in England', usually seen as a great granite stronghold rising up from craggy rocks above the Teign Gorge, is now merely a vast white tent. Drogo, which had major structural problems from the day it was built, had suffered serious water penetration throughout the building and was now undergoing much-needed conservation.


The problems here stem from its flat roof sections and to repair and seal them involves removing almost 2,500 granite blocks weighing around 700 tonnes as well as 900 great windows. To make sure they put them all back in the correct places, the National Trust's contractors are carefully numbering every bit and storing them in a huge compound nearby.

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Visitors are still welcomed while the work is in progress, although the inside is a shadow of its former self, with its many treasures removed, under wraps or theatrically displayed in the few rooms that remain untouched.

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Estate workers went off to war, never to return.

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Externally, there's little to be seen of the castle's walls but, like me, you can don a hard hat and climb a scaffolding tower for a remarkable birds-eye view inside the covers. It's quite breathtaking - as will be the £1 Million bill for the scaffolding work alone!


Outside, the grounds are lovingly maintained and, while Pat drank tea and wrote some postcards, I joined a small group for a walk around the colourful, tranquil gardens. Our guide, a former volunteer and now one of four knowledgeable full-time gardeners, took us first to a little house in the woods made especially for the Drewe family 's children and then to a summer house built for them all to enjoy afternoon tea - complete with pictures of them at the windows.


Close by a theatre group from Okehampton had erected a World War I Memorial made up of red poppy-like windmills, each bearing the name of a Drogo estate worker who put down his tools, went to fight for his country, and never returned. One of those was Adrian Drewe, the eldest son of Julius, who died with a hundred of his platoon after inhaling mustard gas at the Ypres front line in 1917.

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The sombre mood lifted to joy when we reached the gorgeous mixed herbaceous borders with their colourful displays, the rose garden, the well-kept lawns and the patios shaded by pleached Ironwood trees. My photos really don't do justice to these garden jewels.

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Our week's stay saw us visiting picturesque towns and villages, more lovely gardens, rural markets, characterful churches and historic homes - more blogs follow!


P.S. In case you're wondering: 'rheas', mentioned in the first line of this blog, are three-toed, flightless birds with grey-brown plumage, long legs and long necks, similar to a small ostrich. The elderly gent had two of them. 'They'm both boys', he told me. Which, of course, is why he could only offer us hens' eggs!

Posted by Keep Smiling 02:10 Archived in England Tagged england devon dartmoor Comments (2)

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