Retracing Uncle Tom Cobley's footsteps from Widecombe to Postbridge
Martin Hesp retraces Uncle Tom Cobley’s footsteps from Widecombe to Postbridge via the Warren Inn.
When I was a lad everyone knew the old folk song about Uncle Tom Cobley and All – a few could even remember the long list of names which feature in every chorus. But when I mentioned the world-famous ballad to some youngsters the other day after attending Widecombe Fair, every one of them gave me a blank and withering look.
It seems the youth of today no longer know about the Spreyton farmer who really did exist or Tom Pearce's unfortunate grey mare which was expected to carry Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawk – along with Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all – to the celebrated annual event.
All along, down along, out along, lee...
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That is where they travelled on their journey – at least, it was before the Mr Pearce's hapless mare "took sick and died". And, ever since singing the old Westcountry song at primary school 50 years ago, I have wanted to visit that mythical place – which is why this week our Classic Walk retraces the much-put upon mare's hoof-prints all along, down along, out along, lee.
I attended Widecombe Fair last week to work on a story about Dartmoor farmers and tourism operators who are forming a partnership with counterparts from an area in Switzerland – and must say that it is undoubtedly one of the most pleasant events I've attended on journalistic duties this summer.
But it was while working on another newspaper story that I ended up walking all along, up along, out along lee. I say "up" rather than "down", because this walk takes us away from Widecombe, rather than towards it...
Which is what I was doing recently in the company of Dr Kevin Bishop, chief executive of Dartmoor National Park Authority. Kevin had invited me on a big "U"-shaped hike to learn all about the modern challenges facing a national park, and our walk took us from the hills above Widecombe village, north all the way to Grimspound, around Headland Warren to the Warren Inn, then south around Soussons Down to eventually terminate at Postbridge.
So in our case it wasn't, alas, a circular route – but you could easily make it so if you were to swing left near Soussons Farm and head east to eventually cross Blackaton Down.
If you start at Widecombe – like so many lowland farmers who would have been heading away from the ancient fair all those years ago herding cattle or sheep in front of them – you will take the route we followed up over a ridge called Kingshead which looms north west of the village.
Take the Wooder-Natsworthy lane out of the heart of the picturesque community, then turn left up the track that ascends to the farmstead at Kingshead, and you will be on the right road. Because this takes you up to the vast, wide and almost empty acres of Hamel Down which is crossed north-to-south by the Two Moors Way. It is this track that we follow due north – climbing gently all the while until we reach the great curving summit crowned by the beacon. This wild and empty place might seem like an odd place in which to find relics of the biggest war ever fought, but the traces of the Second World War are there in the form of a few rotting wooden posts and a commemoration stone.
The few gaunt and weathered poles are what remain of a huge number that were planted here by local defence forces in the early 1940s when it was feared the great breadth of the down would make it an ideal landing place for enemy gliders full of troops. Fortunately for several dozen local sheep and the entire population of South West England, that never happened – but a plane did visit the place, albeit with tragic results...
On March 22, 1941, a bomber from 49 squadron was returning to RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire when it hit the big hill in conditions of poor visibility. A memorial to the downed bomber was later erected to commemorate four crewmen who died.
Past this lonesome stone, we stroll to eventually descend north-west past Hameldown Tor to the ancient village of Grimspound, where we met the national park's senior archaeologist, Jane Marchand. She told me that the area is recognised as having the most important Bronze Age remains anywhere in Europe. "Altogether we have 22,000 sites on our historic environment record – from the Second World War anti-aircraft poles you saw to the kist on Whitehorse Hill," she said.
"That's a huge resource which has to be managed – it's about making sure the archaeology gets looked after," said Jane as we looked at the remains of the mysterious village which draws many thousands of visitors each year. "Nowadays we live in the valleys and vales and so have obscured the ancient history in those places – but these areas have not been exploited in later periods and up here on Dartmoor we're lucky because it's granite and tough.
"People find it difficult to get their heads around that – there were probably lots of places like Grimspound across lowland Devon, but we've lost those. Which makes what we have up here so incredibly important."
From Grimspound we skirted Hookney Tor to pass by the fabulous old Headland Warren Farm and cross west over the hillside which gave the place its name. Up here the world looks an empty place – but looks can be deceptive. As you walk west over the hill and into the shallow valley under Birch Tor, more and more ruins and workings become evident.
Indeed, back in the 19th century there were any number of tin mines up here 1,400 feet above sea level – the two main workings being at Birch Tor and Vitifer Mines, but with the Golden Dagger, East Vitifer, Headland, Bushdown, King's Oven, Water Hill and West Vitifer all burrowing away somewhere in the vicinity.
There's not much of this extraordinary industry left now, except for a few low walls where once the miner's humble cottages stood, and other lowly ruins advertising the whereabouts of various long-gone structures linked to this damp and backbreaking industry.
On our walk we were heading for lunch at the Warren House Inn – which sits on the Moretonhampstead road directly above the card-shaped enclosures – and as we proceeded towards it I tried to picture the days when it was the hub of the remote mining community, home to a thousand brawls and celebrations, witness to laughter and tears and to the sad reality born upon hard-working, hard-playing men for whom tomorrow was just another awful, muscle-wrenching day.
Not only was extracting tin from these hills dark, damp and dangerous, it was also horribly unhealthy because the men were wet-through from morning, noon 'til night. But there's no actual record of violent deaths occurring in the mines – although there was one lucky escape. It happened when men working one of the deepest tunnels were concerned about water backing up somewhere in the rock.
They took the trouble to come up for their "crib" or morning snack, and no sooner had they done so the wall burst under the weight of the flood. Had they still been down below they would have drowned.
After lunch at the excellent Warren Inn we returned to the Vitifer Mine valley, but this time headed south downstream to pass what's left of the Golden Dagger Mine before entering the pine forests that cover Soussons Down.
Walking south all the time, our track took us through the trees and around the contours, past Soussons Farm, to eventually deposit us on the lane at a place called Ephraim's Pinch. Who Ephraim was, and why he got pinched, I have not idea – but I do know we walked a few hundred metres west along the lane, only to leave it again by taking the track that heads directly onwards toward the setting sun or, more locally, to the ancient farm at Pizwell.
After this, the farm track took us west again – so that new we were in the low valley created by a young East Dart River. After a mile or so, close to the grounds of the Lydgate House Hotel, we found a tiny footpath in the left-hand bank of the lane and followed it down to the riverside where it turns upstream to soon reach the popular hamlet of Postbridge.
This was the end of our ten-mile hike but, as I say, you might prefer to follow a route that takes you back east to Widecombe In The Moor. Whichever option you take, you will have enjoyed a fabulous walk in the very heartland of Dartmoor.
Basic Walk – from Widecombe In The Moor north over Hamel Down to Grimspound, then west over Headland Warren to Warren Inn, proceding south past Soussons Down to Postbridge.
Distance and going: 10 miles, easy going, not too steep but could be muddy in places.