Caravan Holidays: All the fun of the fair
More than just a legend from a folk song, we head to deepest Devon and visit real-life Widecombe Fair.
Words and pictures by Simone Stanbrook-Byrne
It's an early September morning in the heart of Dartmoor. Mist silently shrouds lofty granite tors, the hush broken only by bleating sheep. But today there's a frisson of anticipation in the air. High above the tors the sun breaks through. The forecast is fine. All is set fair for Widecombe Fair.
Widecombe village is a well-known, isolated and picturesque part of Dartmoor, with its striking and lofty St Pancras church dubbed 'the Cathedral in the Moor'. Every year, on the second Tuesday in September, this deeply rural area is transformed by the arrival of thousands of visitors, exhibitors, competitors and traders, all flocking to the fair.
It is the culmination of months of planning and hard grind. Over decades, Widecombe Fair has become a well-oiled machine.
It all started way in the Devonian mists of time. For more than 160 years the annual fair at Widecombe has been a big date in the rural calendar. Dartmoor in winter is a harsh environment and traditional autumn fairs were a means of allowing farmers to sell surplus livestock; only animals for which they had sufficient fodder were overwintered on the moor.
Farmers from less remote areas, where winter feed was more readily available, flocked to Widecombe, keen to buy high-quality and hardy animals from the moor.
Then, in the late 19th century, the fame of the fair began to spread beyond Devon's agricultural community when Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, author of Onward, Christian Soldiers, published a well-known folk song featuring Tom Pearce, his old grey mare, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Suddenly Widecombe enjoyed publicity it hadn't anticipated.
A Village Transformed
On Fair Day the village is transformed. Outlying fields become car parks, and we are ushered through a streamlined park and ride system that ferries visitors between their vehicles and the village. Entry to the fair is free but the cost per car is £20, which includes the bus into the village. It is impressively smooth running and Widecombe embraces the hordes with a warm and well-organised welcome.
During its many decades the fair has developed from being primarily a livestock sale to a show. Sheep, cattle, horses and ponies are thoroughly inspected by knowledgeable judges; bystanders, with varying degrees of comprehension about what precisely is being judged, look on.
Local Skills and Produce
The fair brings together an eclectic mix of folk from wide-ranging backgrounds and diverse interests and has become a wonderful showcase for an abundance of crafts, skills and local produce. Participants in the flower and vegetable classes rub shoulders with competitive sheep shearers, vintage tractor fanciers with Morris dancers, classic car owners with hairy Vikings.
Vikings? Yes, indeed! The Fair Field is opposite Widecombe's primary school, and the event undoubtedly has an educational role. The Viking invasion we encountered one year, complete with tame raven and furious battles, certainly brought history to life for the pupils.
Fair Field disappears under various marquees, trade stands and five different show rings variously host the livestock judging, displays and contests ranging from a gymkhana and family dog show to bale tossing. The place is awash with noise and colour. Refreshment and beer tents do a roaring trade, live music from a wealth of bands permeates the site, pulsing late into the night.
Uncle Tom Cobley and all
The day is too big to be contained within Fair Field, and we wander into the village where shops 'extend' their interiors to the lane outside and town criers in colourful garb hold forth. Morris dancers tinkle their bells and shake their sticks at all and sundry. The village's inns and tea rooms heave with humanity.
And, stepping out of the song to weave a thread through all these elements is the old grey mare ridden by Uncle Tom Cobley, his band of followers tagging along behind – a Fair Day custom started in the late 1920s.
"Stepping out of the song to weave a thread through all these elements is the old grey mare ridden by Uncle Tom Cobley"
The characters of the original song were thought to have set out from Spreyton, to the north of Dartmoor, a round trip of about 30 miles that sadly proved too much for the poor old grey mare of the time. Thankfully, the present grey mare is less burdened and seems used to being a focal point.
The earliest written record of Widecombe Fair was around 1850, but the fair itself predates this. World War ll called a halt to it, but it resumed in 1945. It is part of a time-honoured cycle of remote rural life and, just for that day, the rest of the world can join in. Go!
"If you do one thing…"
Spend a bit of time listening to many live bands, either in the marquee on Fair Field or in the attractive beer garden of the Rugglestone Inn on the edge of the village, where ducks and chickens wander amongst the revellers. The variety is remarkable, and we picked up a few new sea shanties!
River Dart Country Park
Ashburton, TQ13 7NP
T 01364 652511
Price from £16.50
Open March to September
Set in 90 acres of parkland within Dartmoor National Park, the River Dart Country Park has been one of Devon's best-loved family tourist attractions and campsites for more than 20 years. Great facilities, masses to do and the chance for stargazing in this dark-sky area on the edge of the River Dart.
Rattery, South Brent, TQ10 9JZ
T 07562 532101
Price from £16 for grass pitch
Open Easter to September
A beautiful woodland site, which specialises in wild and semi-wild camping in 68 acres of woods. Good facilities. Firepits are available on all pitches so campers can enjoy a safe but atmospheric evening around an open fire.
Sedgewell Farm, Olchard, Sandygate, Newton Abbot, TQ12 3GU
T 07905 794986
Price from £10
Open all year
A small, quiet and secluded country campsite. Amenities include shower, 3 toilets, kitchen sink, washer-dryer and some vending machines with snacks and refreshments.
Food: Masses of options to eat at the Fair and in the inns and tea gardens of Widecombe
Cafe on the Green
T 01364 621720
T 01364 621327
Other traditional and country fairs in the UK
Devon County Show
17-19 May 2018
Westpoint, Exeter, EX5 1DJ
T 01392 353700
A vibrant and eclectic mix of agriculture, rural life and skills, a fabulous array of crafts and a showcase for local food and drink. From shopping to show jumping – everyone will be entertained.
Castle Brake Holiday Park
Woodbury, EX5 1HA
T 01395 232431
Price from £16 per night
Open March to November
Just under five miles from the showground. The site enjoys two mainly level fields and a well-equipped amenity block with under-floor heating and a launderette. It also offers a bar/restaurant, woodland walks and nature trail and a shop for essentials.
Aberystwyth and Ceredigion County Show
9 June 2018
On the A44 between Aberystwyth and Capel Bangor, SY23 3HP
T 01974 200814
A local show that attracts many visitors and unites the farming industry and local community. A variety of events takes place, from produce and poultry shows through to equestrian. It's a fun day out you can enjoy with all the family.
Woodlands Caravan Park
Devil's Bridge, Aberystwyth, SY23 3JW
T 01970 890233
Open March to October
Price from £15.50 per night
Twelve miles from Aberystwyth and close to the Devil's Bridge Falls, this site is an excellent pitch for walkers and wildlife watchers. Good facilities including tea room where you can head for breakfast
Royal Highland Show
21 – 24 June 2018
Ingliston, Edinburgh, EH28 8NB – but do not use sat nav, follow road signs
T 0131 335 6200
An immense amount to see and do: Scotland is showcased in this 178th annual show. Fabulous food, live music, shopping and over 900 competitions ranging from equestrian to cheese making
Linwater Caravan Park
West Clifton, East Calder, EH53 0HT
T 0131 333 3326
Open March to October
Price from £20 for two people
Set in farmland outside Edinburgh this site is ideally situated for the showground. Good facilities and a small shop. Well placed for exploring the area.
Heveningham Hall Country Fair
30 June – I July 2018
Heveningham, Suffolk, IP19 0PN
T 01986 798582
An eclectic mix to entertain and divert: dog show and agility, Punch & Judy, stunt horses, aerobatics, bungee jump, vintage tractors, Suffolk Punch horses – and the chance to chill out and escape the bustle in the walled garden
The Croft Campsite,
Ubbeston, IP19 0HB
T 01986 799158
Open March to October
Price from £18 per night for two people
If your preference is somewhere small, quiet and friendly then this is the site for you. Family-run and thoughtfully-presented, they opened in 2017 and are building a good reputation.
Kent County Show
6-8 July 2018
Detling, Maidstone, ME14 3JF
T 01622 630975
A showcase event for farming, countryside and rural life. The three-day event brings together the best of Kent with animals and food, fun and excitement and a sense of what 'The Garden of England' has to offer. The main ring attraction for 2018 will be the Household Cavalry Musical Ride.
Still Acres Touring Park
Marden, TN12 9SE
T 01892 732135
Open March to October
Price £22 per night for two people
A recently-built, family-run site for adults with good facilities, all set within beautiful countryside. Dogs welcome, with fenced play area.
The Great Yorkshire Show
10-12 July 2018
Harrogate, HG2 8NZ – but do not rely on sat nav, follow road signs
T 01423 541000
The 160th show, this year sees equestrian dynamo Lorenzo with his daredevil bare-back display as one of the show highlights. Also enjoy creations in the cookery theatre, show animals, live music, professional fashion show and masses more to cater for all interests.
Rudding Holiday Park
Follifoot, Harrogate, HG3 1JH
T 01423 870439
Open All year APART from February
Price from £21.50 per night
Set in 50 acres of parkland with a range of good facilities including a heated pool, shop, golf, games room, adventure playground, gardens and woodlands. Plenty to keep everyone occupied.
28 July 2018
Penrith, Cumbria, CA10 2DE – but please use park and ride from Penrith
T 01228 593595
Whilst retaining the tradition of agricultural emphasis, the show has gathered momentum in recent years, enabling rural and urban communities to come together. Witness many competitions and an array of trade stands. The food hall and rural crafts marquee display regional fare in a village context. Plus many main ring attractions.
Pooley Bridge, Ullswater, Cumbria CA11 0JF
T 017684 86302
Open March to October
Price from £17 for two people
In the glorious Ullswater Valley and situated in the grounds of a Georgian Mansion which houses various facilities and events. Lake District camping in a rather grand style.
The Appleby Show
9 August 2018
Appleby, Cumbria, CA16 6LN
T 07777 697814
A great day out for all the family and free entry for under 16s. The day offers various classes for horses, sheep, cattle, poultry, vintage machinery, dogs, children's pets, produce, handicrafts and horticultural exhibits. Masses of stands, craft and food hall, plus events in the main ring.
Park House Caravan Park
Appleby-in-Westmorland, CA16 6JB
T 01768 353249
Open Easter to October for touring caravans
Price £22 per night for two people
A tranquil site with fabulous countryside views and just a 10-minute walk from the Settle-Carlisle railway line. Ideally situated for those who love exploring the great outdoors as well as visiting the show.
12 August 2018
Worcester (parking on adjacent Pitchcroft Racecourse, WR1 3EJ)
T online contact only
The Worcester Show celebrates the creativity and green fingered skills of local people, alongside a whole raft of entertainment and activities for the whole family. A range of food and beverage outlets is available. Browse the displays of prized flowers, vegetables, culinary masterpieces, photographs and crafts; enjoy the music and dancing or simply wander through the market street stalls.
Red Brick Barn
Birtsmorten, Malvern, WR13 6AW
T 01684 833067
Open all year (limited number)
Price from £15 per night
Rather different. A beautifully maintained garden-like site in a farming village. Friendly and personal. No showers or toilets, so you need to be self-contained though there is power, a water point and chemical disposal point. Nearby pub for food.