This article originally appeared in "Dartmoor" magazine, autumn 2012, with photographs by Alison Thomas
An Uncle Tom Cobley Walk
It’s early one bright summer morning, as it so often is in folksongs. It’s an ideal day to have a good walk and discover on the way something of the reality of Dartmoor’s best known song. You know how a village pantomime often gets an easy laugh from its local audience by introducing the names of their neighbours. I like to think that with just that intention, at some time around 1800, a village wag sat down to embroider a recent incident. Someone had borrowed Tom Pearse’s old grey mare. This seems to have been a lads' outing, so we can assume the borrower was male: but it’s not surprising the song grants him anonymity. Quite a time was had on the way to the Fair!
Widecombe Fair was put on a formal annual footing around 1850, but it was already a well established venue for the sale of stock from across the Moor and beyond well before. Farmers and their families, their labourers and servants too in those days, would gather to trade, and there would be the chance to meet old friends and to refresh themselves as people do on these occasions. So the Fair becomes a special event, a significant break from the routine of hard work on the land.
Widecombe was the destination, but we’re not actually told where the journey began. The song was already popular when the Reverend Baring-Gould collected versions for his “Songs of the West” in the 1880’s. He identified Uncle Tom Cobley as a real person, who lived in the parish of Spreyton, near Yeoford Junction, and who died in 1794. He was then a thoroughly ripe ninety-six, venerable indeed for the times, and likely a figure well known throughout the area. Baring-Gould met one of his descendants.
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Spreyton was a few cottages along the road to the parish church connecting a handful of more substantial farms, but if it was big enough for a fine church it would support a pub too, and not surprisingly there’s the Tom Cobley Inn at the village centre, decorated with Real Ale awards on its old sash windows. Sadly it was too early for a stiffener to send us on our way, but it was from there we set out, lacking a horse but in our best boots, to follow a route to Widecombe and enjoy a long day out.
St Michael’s church is at the end of the street, veiled by its avenue of old lime trees. We emerged into the sunshine near the south door. The view beyond the churchyard wall from the little hill on which Spreyton stands is across the patchwork fields to the edge of Dartmoor and the Teign country – where we were shortly to be headed. But first, Tom Cobley’s grave.
A few yards from the church door is a gravestone recording the burial of Thomas Cobley in 1844. But this is the son of the old man’s nephew. Uncle Tom himself is rumoured buried nearby, but in a grave unmarked. Yet he must have been a substantial yeoman farmer. His home at Buttsford Barton still stands, a solid Devon farmhouse, and a copy of his will of 1787 is extant. He owned a number of small estates which with some good legacies he distributed around his family. Professor Hoskins observes, rather wickedly since he gives no authority, that the old man’s son was disinherited “for being too free with the girls”. But we might conclude that old Tom was actually rather aware of his own dignity.
It’s a pleasant but meandering hour, mostly by the fields, to cross the A30 at Lovaton, where Cosdon begins to dominate the view. History doesn’t tell us the route that was followed – or even if the party ever reached its destination. Maybe they would have followed the roads out by Whiddon Down to Chagford and North Bovey, by a variety of beer houses, inns and taverns, but it would have been a long haul on poor country roads even then, and modern traffic being what it is, we wanted a more pleasant and straighter route, as they may have done.
Just over the roaring dual carriageway, beside the deserted old road is an ancient cross. We studied the map there and set out for the Dartmoor Way by a combination of lane and footpath. Cosdon’s slopes were purple with heather, yellow with furze, with Sticklepath at their foot.
There’s a little graveyard behind the old foundry in Sticklepath – it’s full of memorials to the family of Pearse. They were in the woollen trade, and took over the old mills below Belstone Cleave at the end of the eighteenth century. In turn they leased part to the Finch Brothers who created the iron forges that still occupy the site. Baring-Gould tells us that Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Daniel Whiddon and Harry Hawk were all men of the Sticklepath area. Local churchyards record such surnames. Tom Pearse may well have been their employer, and his old grey mare stabled nearby. It’s logical that the outing started there, and it’s a shorter route too, but that would be a different walk for another day, and in the tradition, Spreyton has it.
Sticklepath would be quite a diversion for us, and so our walk continued via the old cross at Addiscott and through the woods below East Week. Alders and low shrubs grew from the boggy ground, drying now in a few weeks drought. Throwleigh’s old cottages were Sunday quiet, and beyond was the mile of Deave Lane. It has an ancient feel, running along the hillside just wide enough between its walls for a file of lads and a horse. Eastwards there are timeless views between the oak and hazel which give it shade.
We passed the Northmoor Arms at Wonson – well, no we didn’t really, we sat in the garden with a beer, like bona fide travellers. But not for long – we had miles yet to go, by the giant stepping stones at Leigh, by Teigncombe and Teignworthy. Chickens still scratch in the yards, and once a grey mare did peer suspiciously at us across a field. It trotted substantially away, without a rattle of bones. So onto the open moor at last at Chagford Common. A cold wind had sprung up as the afternoon waned, and we finished our flasks behind a wall facing across the Wallabrook to the fine double stone row on Hursdon Ridge. But the black edges of Fernworthy’s conifers now conceal where Fernworthy Farm once stood two hundred years ago, and the wild moorland northwards. At that time the ground hereabouts would have been less disturbed by tinners, though Vitifer Mine was already busy even then, the wind carrying the grumble and creak of its great wheel. And Grimspound was the home of fairies. A buzzard mewed above us at Headland Warren as she invariably does there.
Were I leading a weary horse, I might prefer to head from here to Natsworthy Gate and so down the lane to journey’s end, but it’s fitting to climb up onto Hameldown, from where you can look back at the day’s travel, and the country round about. Either way, after eighteen miles or so the tower of Widecombe church below would have been a welcome sight, as it was to us, and a pint at the old Rugglestone Inn no less called for.
We can study the poor stone horse and her burden of riders on the memorial at Widecombe Green, where by clever sleight of hand the parish has taken this out-country scandal for its own. In many illustrations the prime culprit in what the song calls “this shocking affair” is omitted : his anonymity makes him invisible. But here he is, I guess the one leading the laden horse, and I’m pleased to see he looks rather worried, as well he might. If that’s Uncle Tom at the rear, he looks precarious. But there’s the oddity of the story. I can’t help thinking how implausible it was that this time-honoured solid yeoman Tom Cobley would have needed to share the back of a borrowed horse with a bunch of labouring men. Not much dignity in that. No, he’s a catch-all . So many went to went to the fair that day that even old Tom Cobley was there - and this seemed so unlikely the songwriter extracted another good laugh round the alehouse bar.