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.
Its 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’.
Historically, 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.
The 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.
We spent 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.
I am 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.
Of course 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 dialect.
Llamas probably 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 sheep-shearing competition.
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!
All of 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.”
In the 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.
Make sure 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.
Later in 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.
For active 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 morning.
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.