A Look Inside Combe Martin: Mining the Past

Walking into a pub in rural Devon is very different to walking into a pub in my village of Barton St. David.

Stroll into my local haunt, The Barton Inn, and it’s likely that no one will pay you the blind bit of notice.

In fact, you might be as well be invisible in the place, to the point where you could struggle ordering a drink for half an hour – so engaged are the locals in their conversations.

Although I was accompanied by born and bred local, Jack, my entrance into Ye Olde George and Dragon is still heralded by an almighty silence – it’s almost as if the 40 or so locals occupying well-worn seats have been diligently practising, waiting for my arrival. As soon as they spy Jack, behind me, the silence is broken by a roar of ‘JACK!’, quickly followed by the hurried questions of ‘Who’s the stranger?’ which is then followed by a return to usual conversation. I wouldn’t go as far to say that the locals at The George and Dragon were¬†welcoming, but they were certainly friendly after I’d bought half the place a pint of the excellent ale, which landlord Tanya serves with a smile and a quip.

We’d planned on stopping in for one but somehow had got waylaid for a few more. My guide had initially wanted to take me along down the village’s High Street and down onto the beach, but as we left, leaning on each other for support, he had a kind of mischievous glint in his eye.

“Let’s take a little detour, it won’t take too long.”

I was a little too inebriated to bear any suspicions, so I let him lead the way. Soon we began to drop down, away from the main hubbub of the High Street until we’d risen up out of the valley and the village was long behind us. I’d enjoyed the walk up out of the hills and it wasn’t until we’d arrived at our destination that I was able to appreciate how far we’d come. Combe Martin sat pretty down in the valley, a long strip of low-buildings, running a straight course to the coast which glittered blue and aquamarine in the distance.

“Well what do you think?”

I said it was lovely, but was it really necessary to come so far?

“And miss one of Combe Martin’s greatest historical landmarks”

I turned around to take a look at what demanded this lofty accomplishment. Old disused buildings were huddled together, all centred around a deep pit. Various pieces of construction equipment lay about, making me wonder if we’d wandered onto a building site. I followed Jack cautiously past the rough-hewn stone shacks until we were at the edge of the pit, which sunk deep into the ground to a dark, incomprehensible depth.

“We had no idea this was here until a ten years or so ago. It’s a silver mine. My Dad says our forefathers would’ve worked down there for 12 hours at a time, just to scratch together a bit of silver for their bosses so they could get paid. I had no idea until these archaeologists came to town and started digging around. I was just a kid at the time, all excited because I thought there’d be some buried treasure to find somewhere.”

He looked wistful – a new look on my host and an expression that I didn’t think could come from a 21-year old.

“They used vacuum excavation to dig up most of it. We used to play on these fields but now they’re kind of off-limits, not that anyone really comes up here anymore. Once you dig so far, the only thing you can really do is close off the area and leave it alone. It’s not like there’s any silver left down there anyway.”

Jack looked a lot older than his years up by that silver mine, his jaw set and eyebrows furrowed in a deep expression of consternation. As we turned back from the abandoned mine, a spring began to return to his step as he told me about the next pub on our walk. Soon we were back in the midst of Combe Martin and a motley crew of locals were waving and smiling.

We waved and smiled in return, but I wondered for how long Jack would be contained by the comfort of his hometown and the familiar taste of the local ale.