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You are in: Devon > History > Local history > Widecombe Fair: a history

Uncle Tom Cobley at Widecombe Fair

Uncle Tom Cobley at Widecombe Fair

Widecombe Fair: a history

Widecombe Fair is famous not just in Devon, but across the world. It all started more than 150 years ago, with a cattle show, a sheep sale and an old folk song - telling the story of Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

Widecombe Fair has grown from its humble beginnings as a simple market into a local institution which attracts visitors from across the globe.

It began as a place for farmers to buy stock, and after a particularly successful market in 1850 some of the local gentry held a dinner to celebrate.

It's been held every year since then - with a break only for World War II and the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001.

During the break forced on Widecombe by the war, farmers found other places to buy and sell their animals, so the fair became more of a show than a market.

Sheep are still a feature of the fair

Sheep are still a feature of the fair

It's always on the second Tuesday in September, and is a major local event with gymkhana, pony shows, sheep and cattle shows.

The fair gave us the well-known folk song, 'Widecombe Fair', which tells the story of Uncle Tom Cobbley and All, and the sad fate of the old grey mare they borrowed from Tom Pearce.

The song can be traced back to well before 1850. The words and tune varied according to the part of the country it was found. But it always had the same theme of Tom Pearce and Tom Cobley.

By 1890 when the Reverend Baring Gould published the lyrics in his 'Songs of the West' it had become known in its present form.

The original Tom Cobley is thought to have died in Spreyton, just north of Dartmoor, in 1794. And you can visit his grave there.

One of the many performers who've interpreted the song is Tony Beard, the Wag from Widecombe. Tony is one of Devon's most colourful characters, and has been involved in the fair all his life.

A steam traction engine at Widecombe Fair

A steam traction engine at Widecombe Fair

"The village school children always have a day off school," said Tony, "and I remember when I was a kid, we were all given sixpence to buy an ice cream.

"Nowadays they all get a quid instead, and that's hardly enough for an ice cream!"

Tony says his main interest in the fair is the heritage and history of it.

He finds it so fascinating that he's getting together with the local history group to compile a history of the Widecombe Fair.

"I mentioned it on BBC Radio Devon and I've already had a good response from listeners," said Tony.

"I've been sent a copy of the Daily Express from 1935 which includes a write-up of that year's fair.

"I've also been sent some old programmes from the 1930s and 40s, and even one from the 1920s."

Rainbow over Widecombe Fair

Rainbow over Widecombe Fair

These days if you go along to the fair, you can still see 'Uncle Tom Cobbley' and his faithful nag riding to Widecombe.

The annual event is organised by a team of village residents who work for months to prepare everything.

It's described as a real Devon country fayre, with something for everyone. There's vintage machinery, fancy dress, bale tossing and a traditional tug of war.

All the money raised is given to local charities, and local children play a full part in the event. They show the vegetables they've grown throughout the year, and they perform a Maypole dance.

Then, as day turns to night, villagers' thoughts turn to music, and they dance until the early hours.

last updated: 21/05/2008 at 14:47
created: 21/05/2008

You are in: Devon > History > Local history > Widecombe Fair: a history

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