Take a step back in time in your imagination – 370 million years back, to be precise – and just think what it must have been like on Dartmoor at the time of its origins.The creation and moulding of Dartmoor’s famous granite rocks began at this point, during the Devonian era of time. A lot has happened on Dartmoor since then: dinosaurs once roamed its vast expanses, and giant redwoods grew majestically where Dartmoor Prison in Princetown now stands.
Then, there were the years of turbulence – of volcanoes, earthquakes and ice-ages, and we know that Dartmoor has been beneath the sea – not once but twice, and possibly on even more occasions. For much of its history, Dartmoor has been pretty much uninhabited. After the chaos of earthquakes and volcanoes, Dartmoor became almost entirely covered by trees following the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago.
Wistmans Wood on Dartmoor is Devon’s oldest woodland. This prehistoric wood is now only a tiny fraction of what it used to be, but a visit really does take you back in time. It was following the Ice Age that people really started to inhabit Dartmoor, to use the natural resources and to hunt for wild animals.
They would make clearings in the trees to attract the animals to graze.This practice began the spread of peat blanket bog which nowadays covers much of the higher moorland.
The deterioration of the agricultural land, and the onset of a wetter climate, forced Dartmoor’s settlers to move away from the higher moor. They left behind a legacy of prehistoric field boundaries and homes.
Settlers started to return during the 9th and 10th centuries AD, when the climate improved again. There is further evidence of re-colonisation following the Norman Conquest of 1066.
For much of its history, the people of Dartmoor have depended on indigenous materials – such as granite and tin – for their livelihoods and sustenance, as well as livestock such as sheep. Quarrying played a major role for centuries.
Thankfully, much evidence of early habitation on Dartmoor remains and is looked after by the Dartmoor National Park Authority. There are over 1,200 scheduled sites on Dartmoor, with evidence of life on the moor in past times.
These include cairns (burial sites), ceremonial sites and over 75 stone rows – in fact, 60 per cent of all the stone rows in England can be found on Dartmoor. One of the most dramatic is the stone row at Grey Wethers.
You can find out more about Dartmoor by visiting the park authority’s website, which is linked from this page.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.