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.

A Look Inside Combe Martin: A Bustling Street

It doesn’t take much to persuade me to go on a road trip.

Credit: IlfracombeCarlton.co.uk

Throw in a spurious World record, a Wildlife park and a themed-pub – and I’ll be practically firing up the motor in preparation for the off.

Combe Martin is the kind of place where the term ‘village’ is applied very loosely. Over 4,000 people live in the centre and surrounding areas of this civil parish – hardly what you’d call a humble community. This is a storied settlement whose history can be traced as far back as the Iron Age, as such it’s streets are rife with local history, stories that have been passed down through  generations of families who have been more than happy to lay their roots down in this charming North Devon seaside ‘village’.

Jack Pullman meets me at the outer reaches of the village, at the top of it’s village street which, he tells me, is often erroneously thought to be ‘the longest village street in the world’:

“I think it’s actually one of the reasons people come here – they think that this place holds some kind of World Record, that it’s a legendary English village. I just call it home.”

Credit: VisitCombeMartin.com

Jack’s lived here all his life (he turns 22 in February) and is therefore forgiven to take the joys of this unique village for granted. He has ancestry based in Combe Martin going back nearly 300 years. In any other part of England this would be heralded as something special and the family would be considered close to royalty, however in Combe Martin things are a little different.

“We don’t really get that many new people come here that often. Of course, we get loads of tourists and that during the Summer, but as far as people actually moving in – not so much really!”

When Jack talks I have to concentrate very hard on the words that he’s saying. His accent is a rare one in the UK, a true Devonshire dialect. The closest cultural reference that I could give would be Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He’s not quite full-bore pirate yet, but he might just get there if he stays in Combe Martin long enough.

As we start strolling down the very long village street we pass ambling shoppers, old women and working men with their dogs, all of them smile and wave to Jack as if he’s an old friend. Some of them even shake my hand enthusiastically with rough-worn hands, wafting unfamiliar scents of tweed and waxed cloth into my nostrils.

I ask Jack if he’s a particularly popular person and he laughs, shaking his head as if this kind of question is typical of an ‘out-of-towner‘. 

“It’s just the way people are round here. I’ve met those people before, but I don’t really know them. I bet you if you see them again, when you’re walking by yourself, you’ll get greeted exactly the same. It’s certainly not like London down here!”

Our first destination is Ye Olde George & Dragon, a pub whose 400-year old heritage should surely negate the need for any such descriptive prefix…

This Look Inside is continued in the next post…

A Look Inside Corby Glen: The Sheep Fair

It’s not every day you get to visit an annual event that has been running for 780 years.

Aside from the (relatively) modern clothes that the visitors to Corby Glen’s 779th Sheep Fair are sporting, it’s easy to imagine that this event hasn’t changed for centuries.

My guide, Marjorie, is 75 years old.

She’s lived in Corby Glen for her entire life, she remembers seeing Beverley Allitt walk home from school as a child and she’s never missed a Sheep Fair.

“Even when I was poorly with the flu when I was 10, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

To a weekend visitor like me, the whole thing is a little mind boggling. Whilst the people might have changed in appearance, so much of what the Sheep Fair represents feels like it should belong to another century. It might sound silly, but the mere sight of a retro carousel gently spinning in a field is reminiscent of the 20th Century. Throw that in with the hundreds of sheep that are constantly bleating and milling around and you start to really get an idea of life must’ve been like back in the Victorian era.

“My Ma, used to take me when I was a bonny lass”, Marjorie tells me, whilst we share a stick of cotton candy and a pint of dark ale, that seems to affect me more than it does her.

“You won’t believe me, but back then it was actually more popular than it is today!”

I tell her that I believe her.

Although the Sheep Fair gets consistent news coverage on a year-on-year basis due to it’s historical nature, it’s easy to imagine how it could have been much more popular perhaps a hundred or two hundred years ago. Whilst Corby Glen remains a very rural village, agriculture in the area has been decreasing over the decades, so each year there are less and less sheep to show at the Sheep Fair.

“I’m just glad that our little Fair still gets the attention that it deserves from the rest of the country, it’s such a nice feeling to know that people are thinking of us whilst we’re having our little shindig.”

There are many red faces by the end of the afternoon, it’s not that cold out, but it would appear that the local ale stand has made something of a killing. With Marjorie taking me by the arm, we make our way back up to The Woodhouse Arms, where I’ve promised to treat my guide to a dinner. It’s a good thing I reserved the table well ahead of time; we push through the merry throng of drinkers crowding the bar to find that our table in the restaurant is the only one left.

The Woodhouse Arms is one of two drinking establishments in Corby Glen (the oddly named Fighting Cocks does good business as well, I’m told) and whilst both are popular, it’s clear the former has cornered the market on decent pub grub. I wash down a perfectly slow roasted lamb shank with an excellent bottle of red, whilst my compatriot struggles through a huge helping of Barbary Duck. By the end of the meal we’ve both joined another table and the reveries, that started with ales down at the Sheep Fair, continue well into the night.

I don’t struggle sleeping that night – snoozing peacefully, no doubt with a satisfied smile on my face; an expression that has probably re-occurred for centuries on thousands of similarly satisfied visitors.

A Look Inside Corby Glen: The Woodhouse Arms

A Centuries-old Sheep Fair lures me to Corby Glen…

Credit: VisitLincolnshire.com

When I hear about Corby Glen from a hiking friend it’s not spun in the most positive light.

“You know The Angel of Death was born there, right?”

This sparks an interesting discussion which begins with a recap of the crimes of Beverley Allitt. I’m informed that she spent her formative years in this small village, before moving off to begin her murderous career as a nurse; somehow this conversation ends with my friend fervently recommending a visit to Corby Glen and stopping by at the local pub for a meal, which I’m told is excellent.

Now – serial killers don’t really interest me that much, so I had to weigh up whether it was really worth making the trip over just for the sake of a (potentially) tasty pub meal and satisfy my dwindling morbid curiosity. A quick Google search revealed a much more interesting (and less grim) reason to visit: an annual Sheep Fair, held in October and rumoured to be the longest-running of it’s kind in the UK. Within moments I was looking up directions and reserving a room at the pub. I met a local guide through Trip Advisor and was soon on my way to Corby Glen the home of iconic serial killers and centuries-old agricultural markets…

Credit: TripAdvisor.com

Despite the fact that there only around 1000 people living in Corby Glen, it’s surprising how many amenities the village supports. I mention this to the landlord who greets me at the door upon my arrival at The Woodhouse Arms. He tells me that with the nearest major settlement being around 10 miles away, there’s plenty of demand within the village for the few services that are on offer – his own pub being one of them.

It’s bright and airy inside the pub, which initially comes as a surprise. The windows are rather small at the front you see, with only one large bay window offering much opportunity for light to creep it’s way in.

The restaurant, situated at the back of the building, is another story altogether. Some tasteful modern renovations have been made to the traditional building, letting huge swathes of sunlight sweep in and bathing the packed dining room with a golden glow.

When I arrive, work is going on in the pub and the landlord shakes me by the hand, insisting on taking by bags to the room.

“We’re having an industrial extractor fan installed – probably the only industrial thing for miles around – unless you count Jim’s chicken farm up the way!”

For £85 per night my room looks spacious and comfortable. I’m reminded that breakfast is included in the cost and the deal looks even better.

As I walk back down to the main pub, the smells and sounds of a popular lunch service drift through the nicely decorated interiors. The tables are packed out and the food smells (and looks) great. My belly growled but I knew that I needed to explore the rest of the village before sitting down for a mammoth meal. I’ve got a date with a local who wants to give me a look into what it’s like to live in a place like Corby Glen…

This Look Inside is continued in the next post…