Oct 08 2004

Widdicombe Fair

Auld Uncle Tom Cobly

It’s September, and Widdicombe Fair again on Tuesday, but which Tuesday? “Tuesday in September”, yes but which one? I rang Colin Pearse, moorland farmer and poet, to find out when his book was to be launched. “In the Sheep Heritage Marquee at 12.30.” Yes but which Tuesday? An amazed silence, then “Well, second, of course, always has been, has been since the Fair started back in 1850’s.” Colin has taken four years to write a history of the White Face Dartmoor sheep and, published at last, it is to be presented at the Fair. It’s the perfect setting, a celebration of this rare old moorland breed on it’s own territory.

On the “second Tuesday in September” we race round our farm yard feeding here, mucking out there, letting out, shutting in, cosseting, cosseting everyone so they’ll be safe till we’re back. Old dogs climb resignedly into their baskets, yawn and go to sleep. Young dogs, Meg and Welly, black and white border collie and her lurcher-cross daughter, bounce into the back of the dirty Disco.

the edge of the moor

It’s a fair way up onto the moors for us. We drive through the lanes leaving the sea behind us, till we reach what my old neighbour used to call “they big roads”. Out through Ashburton up more winding lanes, we eventually cross the cattle grid and leave the trees behind us. The moor spreads out all around as far as the eye can see. Ground covered in heather and gorse reflects the scudding clouds. The wind is strong and sharp rain and watery sun follow each other as we go higher onto the moor.


Each way we turn the landscape is identical, sweeping away to the horizon. Turn round three times and you will completely lose your bearings. No coincidence the old prison was built up here. One day last year I walked some fifteen miles across a corner of the moor with friends who know the landscape well, and even then we briefly lost one of our party. She bent to tie a shoe-lace only to look up and find us gone, but in which direction?

Sheep, mostly Scotties but some Whiteface, doze on the verges or wander unconcernedly along the road. Dartmoor ponies graze quietly with their foals, fat and shiny after the summer grass. Never before has their future seemed so precarious. Not because of the usual scarcity of winter food but once more they, like so many animals, are the subject of new edicts from Brussels; equine passports this time. Fortunately conservation groups are flexing their muscles, hard enough, I hope, to stop the Dartmoor ponies becoming a Rare Breed like their Exmoor cousins.

Traditional smock, and traditional mud

We follow the one way signs to the Fair, park in an already slippy, muddy field and are grateful for our four-wheel-drive. I wonder how many cars will have to be pulled out by tractors at the end of the day. The fair ground is already full. Sheep are being judged by the sheep tent. Rows of rams tied to the fence wait patiently for their turn.

horsemen of the future

Horse boxes disgorge ponies of all shapes and sizes. In the show ring some of the smallest new horse men and women sit on their mounts in enormous crash helmets, little legs so short they stick straight out from the saddle. It‘s a solemn business becoming the equestrian sports people of the future.


Dogs of every shape and size mingle in the crowd. Some have a very cushy ride, others wait at the bar eyeing the succulent beast turning on the spit. And some just hang out being dogs. They wait to enter the dog show; prettiest dog at the show, the dog the judge most wants to take home, most agile dog, even the dog with the kindest eyes. That must be my Welly, but she’s a bit too silly for the show ring this year.


There are multi-coloured tractor seats for sale, shepherd’s crooks, hand made children’s clothes, local cheese, weather vanes, ice cream, hot dogs, pasties, pies, beer, cider. Many references to the Beer Tent are made from the commentary box! Should I take part in the Cow Pat competition, or throw a horse shoe onto a stake. In the craft tent the sponge cakes are definitely the real thing, no Calendar Girl Marks and Spencer specimens here! The biggest beans, carrots, onions have been judged and sport their rosettes. Art displays line the walls and plants and flower arrangements await the critical eye of another judge.

Just then I catch site of Auld Uncle Tom Cobly on Tom Pearse’s Grey Mare. Yes, really, there he is, all along, down along, out along lee. Someone told me he had problems with his insurance this year… Then I see Bill Brewer or is it Jan Stewer or Peter Gurney, Peter Davey, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawk..? One of them is searching for Auld Uncle Tom Cobbly an all. I hadn’t realised until today that after the poor old mare died she “doth appear ghastly white” at night on the moor ‘midst ”skirlin’ an’ groans an’ ’er rattlin’ bones“. In the Churchyard at Spreyton is a grave stone which simply says “Thomas Cobley, Gent – 1844 Spreyton”. He is thought to be the great nephew of the original Tom Cobley, who died in 1794.

the maypole dance

Widecombe Primary children are all set for the Maypole Dance. It’s getting so crowded I have to sneak to the front to get a good view. Round and round they whirl, weaving their ribbons in and out in traditional, intricate patterns. How amazing to grow up and say ” I danced at Widecombe Fair“. Will it even still exist when they’ve all grown up, I wonder?

Mr. C. Wescott with his beautiful little cart.

An old restored pump engine, tap gushing water, is proudly displayed, as is the diesel engine and the flour mill. Mr C. Westcott was delighted to have his picture taken with his beautiful little cart, but said he was so sorry he forgot to put his teeth in today. I said it really didn’t matter and I’d send him a copy anyway.

Colin Pearse

It’s time for the book launch so I push my way back through the crowd to the Sheep Heritage Tent and catch sight of an elated and terrified Colin. Miss Needham has arrived, ninety-one this year, the President of the White Face Dartmoor Sheep Association and, without doubt, one of the most knowledgeable sheep people on the planet. Who better than she to introduce Colin’s book. The tent is so crowded I can’t hear a word and just thrust my camera rudely through the crowd. A professional photographers sees me and, thinking I’m one of his kind, helpfully makes a little space for me. I feel a fraud but take it! There are speeches and clapping and cheese and sweet wine and a moment when Colin brushes the back of his hand across his face. Hazel looks so proud of him. The big pile of beautiful books goes down and down. Colin glows.

We struggle out of the tent into pouring rain, gather up the anxious dogs, grab a pasty and a glass of cider and head home wondering if it will all happen once more on the Second Tuesday of September 2005.


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