I heard mention of Widecombe Fair the other day and for some reason began to wonder if there actually was or is a fair held in the little village of Widecombe in Devon, and apparently, yes, Widecombe Fair is held every year on the second Tuesday in September; as you can imagine thousands of people come to the little village on Dartmoor village which is actually called Widecombe-in-the-Moor. It apparently dates from the middle of the nineteenth century and then it was probably like many other autumn fairs held in villages across the country – a time to sell livestock and produce, to meet friends, to chat, no doubt drink, and have a good time. No wonder that people even a hundred and sixty odd years ago wanted to travel there, even from some distance.
The song itself with different words, but with the same story might be much older than the Fair and no one really knows if the people named in the song for which the fair is most famous, actually existed; some people think they really did, but maybe it was just a list of whoever was in the pub one night when they were singing it, and after a while certain names stuck and others fell away. Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Daniel Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Tom Cobley – they really do sound like real people! As for the old grey mare, well maybe there is a bit more history to her than to either the people or the fair.
It’s possible, that the ghostly old horse might be the remnants of something much older, which can be seen still as the hobby horse which gallops round on Mayday and with Morris groups, and also a special Welsh version, the Mari Lwyd… or even maybe, the Irish púca… a terrifying thing!
Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
there certainly is and the church there is superb
and the names are all reasonably common locally. Sticklepath claims Tom Cobley I think
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and then there are the spectral horses of the moor
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Sometimes they are headless or skeletal aren’t they?