Folkmoor: Is Widecombe really the Otherworld?

Mark Norman
Mark Norman

Along with many other long-standing traditional events which take place on an annual basis (Ottery St Mary tar barrels being the latest to fall) Widecombe Fair is having to take an enforced hiatus this year.

Twelve months ago in this column I wrote about the traditional song associated with the fair. At the end of that piece, I stated that there was a theory that placed the song about Tom Pearce and his old grey mare not at Widecombe at all, but in another land entirely. That, I said, was a column for another day. So let’s revisit Widecombe Fair and take a look at this idea.

The theory says that the Widecombe Fair song is not local at all, but probably travelled here via German tinners who came to work the mines of Dartmoor.

These same people are sometimes erroneously said to have brought the symbol of the three hares joined at the ears with them as well.

Many people refer to this motif as the ‘Tinner’s Rabbits’ although in actuality they are neither rabbits, nor anything to do with the tinners.

Germanic folklore includes the symbol of the ‘schimmelreiter’. This ghost, according to the notable folklorist Katharine Briggs, is the one most often mentioned in the lore of that country.

The literal meaning of the name is ‘rider on the white horse’ although the adjective schimmel more properly suggests a grey colour, which could make a link with the Widecombe horse.

In both England and Germany it is said to be a bad omen to meet a white horse. The Germanic schimmelreiter, which is one of a number of cursed horses and in German Saxony regions is connected with marine disasters especially, is described as being an ‘emissary from the underworld’.

This implies that the grey horse was a spirit guide – a psychopomp who would lead the souls of the dead to their resting place in the Otherworld. One of the later verses of the song describes the death of Pearce’s horse:

“So Tom Pearce’s old mare, her took sick and died.
All along, down along, out along lee,
And Tom he sat down on a stone, and he cried”

If this origin tale for the Widecombe song is correct, then the suggestion is that Tom is weeping for all the souls who will now end up in limbo, or purgatory, because they cannot be transported to the Otherworld.

There is another tantalising clue in the song which might support this idea. One verse contains the lines:

And how did you know it was Tommy’s Grey Mare? …

‘Cos one foot was shod, and the t’others was bare.

The lines don’t seem to make much sense. But there are a number of German deities who rode on three-legged horses, such as the death-goddess Hel, and such creatures are also connected with the Wild Hunt (which in turn is connected with Wistman’s Wood).

A Handbook for Travellers to Devon and Cornwall, published in 1865 by John Murray, records this nursery rhyme:
Widdicote, woddicote, over-cote hang,
Nothing so broad and nothing so lang,
As widdicote, woddicote, over-cote hang.

This rhyme is talking about the sky. Widecote, sometimes connected with Widecombe, is a Devonshire word meaning ‘sky’, which is of course the usual direction of the Otherworld. Unless you have been particularly notorious in life!

So, is there any mileage in this theory? The names associated with the Fair in the traditional song are not Widecombe residents – they come from Spreyton and North Tawton areas in the main.

But the song exists in many variants and one of its popular features was that names could be substituted to give it local flavour, so this may have no bearing on the conundrum at all.

I will leave it to you to make up your own mind.

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