Devon is a sizeable rural county – the 4th largest in the UK – but it’s also one of the most sparsely populated. Largely left to its own devices, far from influential cities, it has retained an enviable quality of life. Despite a growing trend from city to country living, Devon remains firmly rooted in its past, especially when it comes to festivals and traditions.
This rolling countryside includes two national parks, Dartmoor and Exmoor, along with miles of sandy beaches and dozens of bird and wildlife preserves. Irrigated by scenic rivers including the Exe, Teign, Otter and Dart, it is deservedly protected with many designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Whether you are a history buff, a nature lover or have an interest in social history and ancient myths, Devon has plenty for you to feast upon. Start by delving into the background to some of its festivals and events. Not only do they provide a wealth of free entertainment, they also allow you to immerse yourself in Devon’s wonderful lifestyle, culture, food, music and history.
Read on to discover the real Devon, that is likely to seduce you to visit. It will be the start of an amazing encounter with one of the UK’s most underestimated counties.
- Devon’s festivals celebrate centuries of history
- Keep Warm with the New Year Steam Up at Coldharbour Mill
- Sea shanties and clog dancing at the Brixham Pirate Festival
- A Royal Summons to Ilfracombe Victorian Steampunk Celebration
- Francis Drake and the Totnes Orange Races offer a zesty challenge!
- Join Uncle Tom Cobley and All at historic Widecombe Fair!
- Tavistock Goose Fair heralds the start of Christmas
- Celebrating Devon culture and way of life
- South Brent Winter Floodlit Carnival: a grand finale before winter
- Hatherleigh Carnival: A flaming good time
- Colourful characters at Bovey Tracey Scarecrow Spectacular
- Avast me Hearties! It’s the Clovelly Maritime Festival
- Blacksmiths celebrate St Clement’s Day at Okehampton’s Finch Foundry
- Devonshire myths and superstition live on!
Devon’s festivals celebrate centuries of history
Take a look back at Devon’s past with some of these historic events and annual festivals that have been taking place for over 800 years. From the advent of industrial steam power to an insight into Dartmoor rural life, these festivals allow a colourful glimpse into Devon’s rich history and heritage.
Keep warm with the New Year Steam Up at Coldharbour Mill
The Grade II listed Coldharbour Mill can be found in the Devon village of Uffculme near Cullompton. It’s an extremely rare example of a working woolen mill and was conveniently close to the sheep farms that still cover much of Devon’s countryside. It gives visitors a real taste of exactly what working life was like back in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially at the New Year Steam Up Day.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Coldharbour Mill is learning about the working conditions that the employees worked under. It brings to life the interesting Quaker movement and the fact that a large proportion of the workers at Coldharbour Mill were children.
Coldharbour Mill’s New Year Steam Up
One particular highlight of the Coldharbour Mill calendar is the New Year Steam Up which attracts visitors from far and wide. Just in case you are wondering what it is all about, it is a day when all of the mill’s power sources are running. Visitors get the chance to watch as the engines and boilers are fired up. They power the impressive looking machinery which was used to run the mill when it was working at full capacity.
Don’t forget the ear muffs!
Bearing in mind that some visitors may be feeling a little on the fragile side after the New Year celebrations, it is worth noting that once these machines are fired up it can get very noisy indeed. Be prepared; perhaps stand back a little, because the loudness of the machinery can be quite a shock to the system, especially for the unprepared.
A visit to the licensed café at Coldharbour Mill should most definitely be included in your visit because it really is very good indeed. Don’t expect an à la carte menu, just good wholesome cooking. It will set you up ready to explore everything else that the Mill has to offer such as the museum, the shop and the various exhibitions that are usually taking place.
The New Year’s Day Steam Up at Coldharbour Mill takes place between 11am and 4pm and once the event is over there isn’t a great deal to do, especially at this time of the year. It is best to just enjoy Coldharbour Mill and perhaps include a walk in the local countryside nearby.
Coldharbour Mill still produces worsted knitting yarn on the original machinery. The end products are for sale in the mill shop and are actually surprisingly good value for money.
It may be a common assumption that Coldharbour Mill Steam Day is only for those fascinated by all things steam and industrial, but that certainly is not the case. Families with children, couples, and anyone with an interest in industrial history and how things work will certainly enjoy the experience.
This mill is a stark reminder of what life really was like back in Victorian times. The surroundings and smell of the machinery will transport visitors of all ages back in time, as if they were about to embark on a very hard day’s work. All in all, the New Year’s Day Steam Up at Coldharbour Mill in Uffculme is a very enjoyable day out for the whole family.
☀️ Why not book a holiday cottage around Cullompton and experience Coldharbour Mill’s New Year Steam Up for yourself!
Sea shanties and clog dancing at the Brixham Pirate Festival
The first of two great festivals celebrated in Brixham in May, The Brixham Pirate Festival is a three-day event of pirate-themed fun on the harbour.
It offers some swashbuckling fun on the early May Day Bank Holiday. It’s a great excuse to dress-up as a pirate and enjoy historic re-enactments, sword fights and sea shanties as part of this cultural festival.
Celebrate Brixham’s local history and heritage
Started in 2010, the Brixham Pirate and Sea Shanty Festival quickly became an annual event. From rock music to sea shanties and Punch and Judy shows to clog dancing, there is plenty to keep all ages well entertained as Brixham celebrates its maritime history!
The historic town is known for its quaint inner and outer harbour and its narrow winding streets. It’s practically impossible to drive through, so make use of the park-and-ride amenities at the top of the town to avoid getting completely lost in the maze of narrow one-way streets.
Brixham Pirate Festival activities
During the Brixham Pirate Festival the whole town is full of colourful characters. Most locals dress up in full pirate regalia ‐ a black pirate’s hat or bandana, a colourful pirate shirt or blouse, pirate trousers or skirt and the all-important accessories of an eye patch, telescope and parrot. There are prizes for the best dressed pirates as an added incentive.
The streets fill up with all sorts of entertainment including sea shanty and folk music competitions. Magicians, clowns and puppet shows put a smile on the thousands of young faces, and if that fails then let the face painters get to work. Follow the sound of lively music to find majorette display teams or school choirs performing local sea shanties with gusto. In the past I have seen Circus workshops and Soak the Pirate sideshows, but every year is different and better than the last
In the evenings, the festival events tend to focus on the pubs and restaurants on Brixham’s waterfront. Take your pick from a variety of live music acts and enjoy supping real pirate ale, me hearties!
Pirate skirmishes and world record attempt at the Brixham Pirate Festival
The replica Golden Hind (Drake’s galleon flagship) is moored in the inner harbour and is the focal point of the Pirate Festival. Stand by for a Skirmish on the Golden Hind, one of several historic re-enactments put on by a variety of street theatres and entertainers attending this lively event.
There’s usually a record attempt during the Pirate Festival for you to be part of, so come dressed as a pirate and be ready for anything! Past records included the Guinness World Record for the Biggest Gathering of Pirates, the Biggest Pirate Conga Line and the Mile of Pirates. Who knows what the organisers will dream up next!
What I can guarantee is plenty of live music, loud muskets and cannon fire so best bring your earplugs too! A chance to support the local community is available at the various street stalls including the RNLI Charity Fair stand, a very worthwhile cause that is an integral part of every boating and fishing community.
☀️ There’s a good choice of holiday cottages in Brixham so why not book one and look forward to this fun event?
A Royal Summons to Ilfracombe Victorian Steampunk Celebration
Where could be more appropriate than Ilfracombe to host a celebration of all things Victorian? Each year it celebrates its Victorian past with the Ilfracombe Victorian Steampunk Celebration the second week of June. This nine-day event starts and ends with a parade, and in between the calendar is packed with things to see and do.
Some of the regular highlights of the annual Victorian event in Ilfracombe include the Suffragettes March and the popular garden parties and afternoon tea. Previously known as Victorian Week, the updated event still has plenty of opportunities to dress up in Victorian attire. Her Majesty Queen Victoria herself arrives to oversee the events and lead the parade. Dressed in sombre mourning black, she certainly doesn’t put a damper on the fun.
Dress up and be part of the Ilfracombe Victorian Steampunk Celebration
Most of the locals and business people dress up in Victorian clothes for the week and they love it if visitors join in. Dig out your old straw boater and blazer, or maybe play the part of a Victorian gentleman by sporting a top hat and tails. Ladies can trim up a hat with flowers and feathers (the height of Victorian fashion) and wear a long skirt and a shawl for the event. Think early Downton Abbey and you’ll get the idea.
Alternatively, dig out your best vintage Steampunk gear and join the fun. It makes it so much more fun to let your hair down and be part of the goings-on! As an added incentive, there are competitions for the Best Dressed as well as Art Competitions and the Best Shop Window.
On the first Saturday, arrive early to secure your spot as crowds line the narrow High Street to watch the floats, marching bands, horse and carriages, street performers and vintage vehicles that make up the lively parade. Union jacks, parasols and even old perambulators are everywhere so you may feel under-dressed in the more usual shorts and a t-shirt! The parade leads to the Vicarage on St Brannocks Road where the Trinity Fair takes place, followed by an evening of music at the Emmanuel Church.
Victorian themed entertainment for all ages
During the week there are magic shows and entertainment outside the Landmark Theatre every day. Ilfracombe Museum on the seafront has plenty of special events throughout Victorian Week.
Sunday sees everyone out in their Sunday best, admiring the vintage vehicles in the seafront followed by a Blessing Ceremony and children’s games. You are welcome to join the well-heeled "Victorian" ladies sipping tea out of fine bone china, gossiping and listening to live music from the bandstand as part of the Victorian Tea Party. If you miss the first tea party, there is a second chance to do it all over again at the Mayor’s Tea Party on Wednesday afternoon.
Past events have been very diverse. Youngsters may join in as mini Victorians with a Teddy Bears’ Picnic on the Seafront on Monday. Even if you’re too old to participate, it makes a cute spectacle to watch! Parlour Games in the afternoon and a Pearlies sing-song in the evening are always popular.
Another past highlight was when the brash “Wild West" cowboys invited everyone to their Western Encampment at nearby Killerton House complete with Buffalo Bill evening with games and prizes.
Best get an early night and catch up on your beauty sleep before the Bathing Belles and Beaus Competition or perhaps a Choir Concert and a Theatre show in the evening.
The Suffragettes Rally takes over the town on Thursday and there’s a Mock Court dealing out Victorian-style justice to miscreants in the dock which is always most entertaining.
Watch out for the Steampunks!
The final weekend welcomes Steampunks form all over the UK to add to the celebrations. They add a twist, highlighting the era of steam trains that brought many visitors to Ilfracombe for a seaside break.
The event ends with the Grand Ball and Buffet when you’ll be danced off your feet!
Even if you’re not attending the ball, it’s worth hanging around to see some of the most elaborate Victorian costumes of the week being paraded, and not just by the ladies!
Saturday morning typically includes a Crazy Golf Competition and in the evening perhaps a local talent show or a performance at the Landmark Theatre.
The Ilfracombe Victorian Celebration ends with another Grand Parade to the Pier on Sunday led by Queen Victoria and her entourage, followed by a musical concert.
☀️ Best book your holiday cottage in Ilfracombe now to be part of this fabulous week of entertainment!
Francis Drake and the Totnes Orange Races offer a zesty challenge!
There are some events that you can only find in Devon, and the Totnes Oranges Races are just once such event. Dates vary for this fruity race, which is held in mid-late August.
The history of the Totnes Orange Races
Orange Rolling in Totnes was apparently started by Sir Francis Drake back in the late 16th century. Legend has it that he bumped into a delivery boy on the steep streets of this historic town, and the boy’s oranges went rolling down the hill.
It is recorded as a historical fact that Drake did actually visit the town, and a poem was written by the son of the mayor of Totnes. According to the famous rhyme, the boy was visiting his father when he was given an orange by Sir Francis Drake in the street. Perhaps the story evolved from there, or perhaps there really was an orange-spilling accident which led to Drake picking up an orange and giving it away. Stranger things have happened in history, for sure!
The story has now evolved into an official orange-rolling day as people race each other, and the aforementioned oranges, down the steep hill of Totnes Fore Street. Although the original one-boy race was held over 500 years ago, the orange rolling races are not quite that old. The story was revived about 35 years ago and is now an annual event organised by the local Elizabethan Society, along with an Elizabethan Market.
Totnes is a quaint historic town to visit, complete with castle, and this event gives visitors an opportunity to join in a fun event. I’m not sure whether you can actually wager on the outcome, as with other races, but the odds have to be pretty long for this unpredictable race!
How to join in the Totnes Orange Races
The Totnes Orange Races are a 450-metre dash from Market Square at the top of the hill, down Fore Street. Once the starter’s orders are given, contestants throw or roll their orange down the hill and must continue to kick or throw it and get it over the finishing line. Just to make it more fun, the winner must arrive with an orange, but it need not necessarily be his own!
Unfortunately, the most enthusiastic throwers do not do well, as the ripe fruits splatter on the street. Other fruit did not survive more than a kick or two when I was watching, so this led to competitors trying to take over other people’s fruit as they ran. The things people will do for a trophy!
Like all more serious athletics events, there are several races for different age groups. Orange racing can be thirsty work and once the racing is over there are plenty of cafés serving freshly squeezed orange juice and other drinks as refreshments!
☀️ Totnes is a quirky town to visit complete with castle and market. Why not book a holiday cottage in Totnes and see it for yourself!
Join Uncle Tom Cobley and All at historic Widecombe Fair!
Most people have heard of Widecombe Fair, thanks to the Devonshire folk song of the same name. This popular village fair takes place in Widecombe-in-the-Moor each year in mid-September and is considered Dartmoor’s top day out!
The history of Widecombe Fair
The first Widecombe Fair took place in the 1850s, according to local history, and was one of the most famous country fairs in the UK. Although it has changed from being farmer’s livestock and surplus sale to a broader event, it still attracts thousands of attendees.
The song "Widdecombe Fair" was published around 1898 and is a tale about Tom Pearce lending his grey mare for his friends to attend the country fair. The horse sadly dies on the journey but continues to haunt the moor on cold and windy nights.
Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare.
All along, down along, out along lea.
For I want for to go to Widdecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
In the original song, the spelling of "Widdecombe" has two d’s, as that is how the place is pronounced, but in reality the Dartmoor village of Widecombe-in-the-Moor is spelt with just one. The people in the song were probably real characters, although nowadays the term "Uncle Tom Cobley" has come to mean "anyone and everyone".
Of course, the grey mare and its riders still attend Widecombe Fair in the form of a giant wooden horse pulled on wheels, ridden by seven motley riders in yokel dress. It leads the grand parade which includes a collection of vintage machinery, horses and locals in fancy dress.
Visiting Widecombe Fair
The fair day starts at 9am and ends when the beer tent runs dry or everyone goes home, whichever happens first. Each year this historic rural fair raises funds for a chosen charity. There is an admission charge per car, so load up and bring all your family and friends. The cost includes free park-and-ride transport from the various outlying car parks and free entry to the Fair Field with all the events, entertainment and live music you could wish for.
Other things to do at Widecombe Fair
Browse the livestock classes that are being judged. They include some fine cattle, Dartmoor ponies and unusual breeds of sheep (they may all look alike to a townie, but apparently they’re not!). There’s even a family dog show with classes of serious and not-so-serious classes including "Most appealing eyes" and "The dog the judges would most like to take home". Watch the amazing Terrier Obstacle Race or cheer on the teams taking part in the Tug of War.
Typical country pursuits on display include maypole dancing, Morris dancing, lamb shearing, ferret racing, town criers and Clydesdale heavy horse displays. Entertainment is provided by folk bands and there are dozens of stalls plus food and drink booths to keep you busy all day long.
You may want to join in the exciting Uncle Tom Cobley Downhill Race after a drink or two in the local Old Inn. It’s a quick dash from the skyline to the Fair Field and there are silver cups for the overall winner, first lady, first local, children under 8s and youngsters 9 & above.
More fun to watch are the rural games which include Hay Bale Tossing (there’s a trophy for both the male and female classes) and the Square Bale Rolling Competition in the early evening, when teams of four have to push the bales up the 60-metre-long incline.
Watch the fancy dress classes, including some on horseback, and the hotly contested gymkhana events. Local produce shows some fine green fingers in these parts, and the handicrafts and home baking classes show remarkable local talent so there’s certainly something for everyone to enjoy.
☀️ Why not book a holiday cottage around Dartmoor and experience Widecombe Fair for yourself!
Tavistock Goose Fair heralds the start of Christmas
Tavistock Goose Fair, or Goosey Fair as we know it locally, is one event I never fail to attend. This one-day event is held on the second Wednesday in October and for me, along with many other Devonians, Tavistock Goose Fair heralds the start of the Christmas season.
Tavistock Goosey Fair is over 800 years old
Traditionally Tavistock Goose Fair was all about families coming into town and buying a goose which could be fattened up on kitchen scraps and slaughtered in time for Christmas. This ancient fair dates back to the 12th century and was a big day out for farmers’ wives and daughters.
This historic tradition has died out in most other places but it is still an important date on Tavistock’s social calendar. Although it has changed in some ways, the spirit of anticipation about Christmas still pervades.
Buy your Christmas Goose at auction!
Tavistock Goose Fair attracts hundreds of traders and showmen from all over the UK. Head over to the Tavistock Livestock Centre to see pens of livestock which are still sold in a lively auction. Animals include cattle, sheep, ponies and plenty of fine white geese and hens. One year I even spotted a pen of llamas, but I don’t think they were intended to be eaten at Christmas!
Side stalls and shows are set up all over town, in front of the Town Hall, Pannier Market and all along the main street. There are usually around 270 stalls all raring to do business with the thousands of visitors who flock into town.
There also a funfair with roundabouts, a big wheel and sideshows on Bedford Square, outside the grey stone Town Hall with its crenellated roofline. Children will certainly enjoy this area after school and into the evening.
There are several mobile butchers’ vans and hot food concessions as well as toffee apples and candy floss. Alternatively, you can dine well in one of the lovely cafés scattered around the town.
The usual shops in Tavistock are also open and welcoming. It’s a great time to start your Christmas shopping with a nice piece of estate jewellery or some handcrafted silver, perhaps. You can pick up some wonderful specialty cheeses at the famous Cheese Shop tucked away on Market Road and get some unusual crackers, cured hams and specialist pies from the old-fashioned Crebers Delicatessen which has been a family-operated store in Tavistock since 1881. Just browsing the wonderful foods in the bow-fronted shop window of this black-and-white timbered store on Brook Street is enough to have your mouth watering.
Gift shops, boutiques and shoe shops all have some tempting things on sale and the market is a great place to source Christmas cards with photographs of Dartmoor in winter, handmade gifts and other crafts. Framed photographs of this scenic area make great Christmas gifts for family and friends.
Park and ride for Tavistock Goose Fair
As Tavistock is a very compact town with narrow streets, parking becomes an issue during Goose Fair so it’s advisable to use one of the Park and Ride schemes that are set up for the event. As one of Devon’s oldest and most popular historic festivals, it’s definitely worth a visit.
☀️ Why not book a holiday cottage in Tavistock and enjoy all that this beautiful area has to offer in all seasons.
Celebrating Devon culture and way of life
From pirates and wassails to anvil-firing and clementing, Devon holds on to its culture and heritage through a series of annual festivals. Check out some of these and plan your visit to Devon to include some of the county’s unique culture and history.
South Brent Winter Floodlit Carnival: a grand finale before winter
The South Brent Winter Floodlit Carnival is the culmination of a number of carnivals which are held in Devon throughout the year. This impressive grand finale usually takes place on the last Saturday in November.
South Brent is a picturesque location in the rural countryside of South Devon, just off the busy A38. It is a beautiful place to visit throughout the year and this Winter Floodlit Carnival signals the beginning of Christmas festivities.
South Brent Winter Floodlit Carnival is the Carnival of Carnivals!
The South Brent Winter Floodlit Carnival is one of the largest carnival processions in the county. It includes some amazing award-winning floats from other festivals including longer floats of up to 100 feet in length from the neighbouring Bridgewater and Somerset circuits. Carnivals have always been about having fun as a community and many of the small towns and villages in the area have carnivals that can be traced back for hundreds of years.
Starting at 6pm, the carnival consists of a parade of colourfully decorated floats as well as various walking groups who are all attending in the hope of winning some of the prize money. Plenty of effort is made to make each float stand out from the crowd as they compete against each other. South Brent’s own float is always decorated to a theme such as Boogie Belles or Scotland the Brave, in the past.
The village tennis courts are floodlit for the gathering and there’s mulled wine, a choir and stallholders to provide food, entertainment and merriment.
South Brent village
This large village seems to get more than its fair share of rain, something to do with it having its own micro climate caused by its situation on the edge of Dartmoor National Park. There’s a good chance of a shower at this time of year, so dress appropriately to keep out the cold and damp.
There is a family-run bar and cafe with accommodation in South Brent village that is worthy of a mention, especially if you are thinking of combining the carnival with a meal instead of the usual hot dogs and burgers from carnival stalls. The Station House Hotel and Cafe Bar (formerly The Oak) can be found on Station Road in the village. It has no airs and graces but it has a growing reputation for light meals, cakes and pizzas and there’s a licensed bar. It could be just what you are looking for after the fun of the carnival.
Family fun guaranteed at the South Brent Winter Floodlit Carnival
The South Brent Winter Floodlit Carnival is a lovely relaxed carnival with a great family atmosphere and everyone is welcome to join in with the fun. The bright lights and beautifully decorated floats are second to none and make a cheery sight on a cold autumn evening.
☀️ Why not book a holiday cottage on Dartmoor enjoy some late autumn walks and join in the floodlit carnival while you’re there?
Hatherleigh Carnival: A flaming good time
Another winter fest, the Hatherleigh Carnival takes place every year on the second Saturday of November. It has been one of the highlights of the year for this small town in North Devon since the turn of the last century. It combines Guy Fawkes Night celebrations with a number of other traditional activities and fundraisers including tar barrel running.
An early start for the Tar Barrels Run
This unique and historic event originally involved pulling Tar Barrels around ten different local pubs. It was a tough job and needed plenty of strong farm workers to pull the barrels along the tarmac roads. The route was a total of 15 miles!
Nowadays, on the Friday before the big day of the carnival, two sets of heavy barrels are pulled up Market Street by local children, accompanied by musical entertainment. They are situated ready for an early start on Saturday morning. At 5am, the big day starts when the first barrel run begins through the town. Some of the barrels are set alight and are dragged through the town on special sleds, usually by hardy committee members.
What to expect at the Hatherleigh Carnival
Thousands of people descend on Hatherleigh during the day for the carnival and those in attendance will confirm that it really is very exciting and special. The Hatherleigh Carnival Day includes the crowning of the Carnival Queen, Prince and Princess and there is plenty of family entertainment on the street.
In the evening, the grand procession gathers in the Market Place at 6pm and the decorated floats are spectacular. At 7:30pm the floats are joined by a torchlit procession of locals through the streets.
When it is time for the second set of flaming barrels to run at around 9:30pm, they are paraded down the street within touching distance of those at the front of the crowd. You can literally feel the heat on your face! The whole experience can be very scary so if you have children make sure that you know exactly where they are at all times! It is all over quite fast and the smouldering remains of the barrels end up on the bonfire at the market.
The night before…
The flaming barrels aspect of the carnival goes back hundreds of years and is thought to have a pagan connection. Nowhere is this more evident than in the celebrations that take place on the night before the carnival. It is a tradition that some of the locals will impersonate other members of the community, all in a fun way of course, but it’s like stepping into a scene from the Vicar Of Dibley!
Hatherleigh Carnival always attracts huge crowds so it is advisable for those attending the carnival to arrive early to secure the best vantage points. Parking is well organised and is modestly priced. You can fill in the time by enjoying something to eat as there are plenty of stalls and places offering hot food. The local fish and chip shop is my particular favourite, but queues are likely to be longer than usual.
☀️ Why not book a holiday cottage around Okehampton and experience Hatherleigh Carnival for yourself!
Colourful characters at Bovey Tracey Scarecrow Spectacular
What a typically English event the Bovey Tracy Scarecrow Spectacular is! It offers simple fun in an age when everything seems to be so high tech. Like many English countryside events, it showcases a skill which would otherwise die out.
This fun scarecrow-themed event takes place in Bovey Tracey at the National Trust property of Parke. However, pubs, businesses and individuals all contribute their own scarecrow to decorate the whole area.
Bovey Tracey is situated in South Devon not far from Torbay and is a real market town. It is often referred to as the "Gateway to Dartmoor". Just a five minute drive from the town you’ll find wonderful walks in the scenic Devon countryside.
The Scarecrow Spectacular is based on countryside traditions
Bovey Tracey is a town which is steeped in farming traditions. Even though it gets busy during the weekends and summer months with holiday makers and walkers, the thriving local community is very much in evidence throughout the year. The Scarecrow Spectacular is a lovely example of what this small town is all about.
This particular event is organised by the National Trust and is split into two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The low-cost admission represents excellent value for money and it is not just children who will be absolutely engrossed by what they will learn here.
Parke’s walled garden hosts the Scarecrow Spectacular
The Scarecrow Spectacular takes place in Parke’s walled garden and everyone gets the chance to make a scarecrow in whatever fashion they choose. Even though materials are supplied, everyone who is attending is encouraged to bring in any of their own materials which they think may be useful.
Once the scarecrows are finished they are displayed around the walled garden to serve a useful purpose of scaring away the birds as the season’s seeds are sown.
The National Trust puts on many similar events at Parke and elsewhere that keep the old Devonshire customs alive. The instructors who share their knowledge are extremely helpful and are always happy to answer questions and share their knowledge.
Things to do in Bovey Tracey
As the Scarecrow Spectacular session only takes a couple of hours it would be a shame not to take advantage of the surroundings. If you enjoy walking there are lots of options for you around Bovey Tracey. The town itself, even though it is very small, is well worth a stroll around if you haven’t visited before.
Check out the eclectic free museum known as the Jolly Roger. It’s crammed with 3D models, from tigers to vintage cars. For more local history in a nutshell, the Bovey Tracey Heritage Centre has extensive collections of photos and artefacts touching on the pottery works and local railways. In fact, it’s set in the pretty former railway station.
The Guild of Craftsmen has many local artworks while the Town Hall now houses the Dartmoor Whisky Distillery. Just up the road is the fascinating House of Marbles – another blast from the past! For anyone who fancies a bite to eat there are several noteworthy pubs and cafés along Fore Street offering meals and refreshments.
There can’t be many days out where you can learn a skill that will last you a life time and still have time for an invigorating walk, a visit to a museum and a wonderful meal afterwards!
☀️ Why not book a holiday cottage near Bovey Tracey and enjoy all the local attractions!
Avast me Hearties! It’s the Clovelly Maritime Festival
Smuggling and piracy were once the bedrock of Devon’s coastal communities. The delightful private village of Clovelly likes to celebrate its infamous culture in July when the Clovelly Maritime Festival draws visitors from far and wide.
The usual admission charges to this historic village apply, but youngsters under 16 get in free when attending dressed as a pirate, mermaid, salty sea dog or fish wife! With pirate tales, underwater adventures, coracle sailing and storytelling, this is one family day out you really won’t want to miss!
Organised in aid of the North Devon Hospice, this family fun day takes over the steep cobbled streets of Clovelly. The narrow main street drops 400 feet (120 metres) as it descends in shallow steps to the pebble beach, harbour and quay where most of the action takes place. Just in case you were wondering, there is a Land Rover service back to the car park >a href=”https://holidaycottagesindevonandcornwall.co.uk/our-a-to-z-of-devon#steps’ title=”Our A to Z of Devon’>if you don’t feel up to the climb.
The street is lined with whitewashed fisherman’s cottages which have stood the test of time. Made from wattle and daub, some with thatched roofs, many of the cottages are listed buildings. They are part of the unique charm of this lovely village near Bideford, North Devon.
Pirate adventure is part of the Clovelly Maritime Festival
Once serviced by donkeys pulling wooden sleds, this historic village is the perfect setting for the pirate-themed Clovelly Maritime Festival. Street theatre, Punch and Judy shows and maritime entertainment will provide all sorts of fun and entertainment all day long. Live music drifts up from the harbour, with lively sea shanties, pirate jigs and songs about smugglers, voyages and press gangs. Just the sort of thing you would expect from a historic maritime festival in Devon, in fact.
Snorkelling, Star Gazy Pie and street theatre!
Street theatre performances usually include tales of mermaids, shipwrecks, and of course pirates. They keep youngsters fully entertained, putting their eager imaginations into overdrive! There are also plenty of craft activities.
For adults, celebrity chefs drop in to demonstrate local maritime cuisine such as how to make the traditional Star Gazy Pie – a Westcountry creation made of pilchards with their heads peeking out through the pastry lid. Once the staple catch of Clovelly fishermen in times past, the abundant shoals of pilchards are sadly no longer found here.
Underwater explorers will want to attend the Clovelly Maritime Festival when the tide is high in the harbour. In past years, the Marine Biological Association has offered educational experiences and visitors can go snorkelling to see what lies in these calm waters. If you prefer, you can take to the water in a coracle and paddle around the harbour.
Things to do in Clovelly
Down on the seafront there are plenty more stands and activities. See local chefs demonstrating seafood recipes, browse the arts and crafts stalls or just sit on the beach and enjoy this beautiful location.
For lunch and refreshments, head to one of Clovelly’s historic pubs. The misleadingly named New Inn, which actually dates back to the 17th century, offers homemade cream teas and lunchtime specials while the Red Lion on the waterfront has its usual fine menu. There’s also a spit roast providing hot rolls throughout the day so come hungry!
If you’re looking for other things to do to make the most of your visit to Clovelly, there’s an informative Visitor Centre and shop near the car park and entrance. You can visit the Kingsley Museum and the historic Fisherman’s Cottage where you can watch an interesting 15-minute video about the history of Clovelly. There are also several craft workshops and shops to make your day complete.
☀️ Why not stay in a holiday cottage in Bideford and pop down to the Clovelly Maritime Festival for the day?
Blacksmiths celebrate St Clement’s Day at Okehampton’s Finch Foundry
Join Westcountry blacksmiths and metalworkers celebrating St Clement’s Day in late November at the Finch Foundry. This ancient celebration includes working demonstrations and creative ironware on display as part of a national competition.
Kids will love to see the sparks and bang from the traditional “anvil firing” so why not head down to Sticklepath and join in the fun?
We all know about the bells of St Clement’s from the nursery rhyme “Oranges and lemons”, but St Clement’s Day itself is much less well known. November 23rd is the actual date of St Clement’s Day and the day is closely associated with the work of blacksmiths.
Celebrate St Clement’s Day at Finch Foundry
Finch Foundry still hosts an annual gathering of blacksmiths from all over the Westcountry on or around St Clement’s Day. This unique gathering includes blacksmithing competitions for these skilled artisans to show off their talents in what is a dying craft.
Part of the St Clement’s Day event is the traditional “anvil firing” which is well worth seeing. The ritual creates a shower of impressive sparks and a massive bang which marked the commencement of celebrations on “Old Clem’s Night”. This involves stacking one anvil on top of another and sandwiching an explosive charge in-between. When ignited, the top anvil shoots high into the air and lands with a huge crash – quite a feat for such a sizeable piece of solid iron!
Other blacksmith traditions that remain part of the St Clement’s Day event include live demonstrations of their metalworking skills. There is also a display of decorative ironware and Morris Dancing. The traditional seasonal refreshments of mince pies and mulled wine can also be enjoyed in this pre-Christmas event.
The History of St Clement
St Clement (Pope Clement) is the patron saint of blacksmiths and metalworkers. Legend suggests that St Clement was the first person to refine iron out of ore and he used it to shoe a horse. What is known for sure is that St Clement was martyred, ironically being tied to a heavy metal anchor and tossed into the sea.
Historically, towns would celebrate St Clement’s Day as a holiday with a parade by members of the Guild of Blacksmiths. This was to honour the saint on his feast day, November 23rd.
In some places the smiths would go door-knocking to collect funds in an iron pot (of course!) which would fund an evening of booze and celebration at the local pub. This begging custom became known as “clementing” and evolved into children singing seasonal songs in return for apples, pears and other sweet treats of the autumn season.
Apart for horse farriers, blacksmiths are now few and far between so the St Clement’s Day celebrations largely died out in the 1940s. However, the practice was revived sometime in the 1950s at the Finch Foundry. This industrial heritage gem is where the last water-powered forge still remains in working order, thanks to the National Trust.
A visit to Finch Foundry
Finch Foundry is a unique National Trust property as it conserves an important part of Dartmoor’s history. Located at Sticklepath near Okehampton, this restored working foundry is still driven by three thundering water wheels powered by water from the River Taw.
The water wheels power an impressive array of hammers, shears and sharpening stones in what was once a successful tool factory. Just listening to the roar and clanging noise makes you appreciate just what it would have been like to work for 10 hours a day in a Victorian foundry or workshop.
At its zenith, the Finch Foundry produced 400 tools a day, hammering them out of iron. It remains the last remaining water-powered forge in England and makes an interesting day out at any time of year. However, the St Clement’s Day celebrations are particularly worth joining in. The whole event is extremely interesting and educational for everyone, so make sure you take note of the date and support the event.
☀️ Why not book a holiday cottage around Okehampton and make the Finch Foundry part of your visit?
Devonshire myths and superstition live on!
The ancient culture and history of Devon has spawned many strange customs, practices and beliefs, especially when it comes to the spirit world and fertility. Several of these strange local events are still celebrated int he 21sdt century. If you’ve never joined a wassail or seen a flaming tar barrel, you need to put these festivals on your calendar. Most take place in the winter months, so it’s a good excuse for a winter break with an experience you can dine out on for years to come!
Dig this! Turning the Devil’s Stone at Shebbear
If you’re at a loose end on 5th November and are not in the mood for fireworks and bonfires, head to Shebbear in North Devon for the annual Turning the Devil’s Stone. Stories abound about this boulder, but when left unturned, tragedy strikes!
Bring a torch and crowbar if you want to lend a hand in this ancient tradition, then celebrate with the locals at the aptly named “Devil’s Stone Inn”.
Forget Guy Fawkes and his gunpowder, treason and plot; this village is busy Turning the Devil’s Stone each year on November 5th. Legend has it that on the two nights in history when the duty was neglected, sad news fell on the village. Now no-one leaves it to chance!
If you fancy lending a hand, just turn up with a flashlight and a crowbar, or supervise the proceedings from a safe distance with a flask of hot coffee in your hand.
Crowbars at the ready for the turning of the Devil’s Stone at Shebbear
The traditional event kicks off at 8pm when villagers gather near the church and the bell ringers set off a discordant peal of bells, allegedly to confuse any lurking spirits. It’s certainly loud enough to wake the dead, if nothing else!
The bell ringers then make their way to the devil’s stone which lies near a huge old oak just outside the churchyard. Apparently the devil is imprisoned underneath the stone and the annual turning ensures that he does not escape and run amok.
Using long crossbars to lever the huge stone up, the villagers manage to flip the stone over completely and re-lay it for another 365 days. Once done, everyone can relax and celebrate at the aptly named Devil’s Stone Inn nearby, knowing that Shebbear is safe from harm – at least until next November 5th.
What is the Devil’s Stone at Shebbear?
Turning the massive stone takes some considerable exertion, as you will see. The stone is about six feet in length and four feet in width. It is made from a type of quartz which is "erratic" or a "sarsen" ie. not found in these parts at all. The bulky boulder weighs over a ton and has a pinkish hue.
If you want to check it out when visiting this scenic area, it lies near a huge oak tree just outside the churchyard. Many villages in mediaeval times had a standing stone which was a marker and a place to appease evil spirits by leaving offerings. The sighting of the stone near an ancient oak adds credibility to this theory.
How the devil did it get there?
Theories abound about where the stone originated and how it arrived in this quiet rural community. Some say it was a sacred altar stone brought to the area by a pagan cult, similar to the Druids transporting stone from Wales to build Stonehenge. Others believe it was dropped by the devil himself when he was cast out of heaven.
The final theory is that the stone was quarried as a foundation stone for nearby Hanscott Church. The devil, or another supernatural force, kept moving the stone to Shebbear. Every time the stone was returned to the church site, which lies across the River Torridge, it mysteriously returned to Shebbear, so eventually it was left.
Only twice in recent times has the Devil’s Stone failed to be turned as per the custom, with tragic results. Once was during the First World War when all the able-bodied men were away fighting. Immediately misfortune fell on the village. The same thing happened again in 1940. The stone was left unturned and the war news immediately took a downturn. For sure, the locals aren’t taking any chances. The turning of the Devil’s Stone at Shebbear will go ahead for the foreseeable future – just in case!
☀️ Why not book a holiday cottage near Shebbear and experience Turning the Devil’s Stone at Shebbear for yourself!
You don’t have to be a Wurzel to enjoy the Stoke Gabriel Wassail
Those who do not live in an apple-growing area such as Kent, Somerset or Devon are unlikely to be familiar with the ancient tradition of wassailing. This pagan fertility festival takes place on the eve of the 12th night, i.e. 5th January, or on the 17th January, according to whether you follow the old Julian calendar or the new Gregorian one.
Just digressing for a moment, the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582 to more accurately reflect the solar year of 365.2425 days with leap years to level up the part days.
What is Wassailing?
The word wassail comes from the Old English "was hal" meaning good health. As well as being a toast wishing neighbours good health, it was also used to bless the orchards of apples, pears and fruits and ensure an abundant harvest. Such celebrations were halted during Puritan times but returned in the 1660s. Many of the wassail cups and bowls are around 300 years old and are traditionally made from the rare wood of the tropical Lignum vitae or "tree of life". It was thought to have medicinal properties and the bowls were also used to administer traditional remedies. Along with the special wassail bowl or cup, the event spawned special wassail songs, which you’ll hear and join in at any traditional wassail.
There are several Wassailing events in the Westcountry, and for Devon visitors and residents the Stoke Gabriel Wassail is right up there with the best of them. Although you might think that is all a bit on the weird side, due to the Pagan origins of wassailing, they are a great deal of fun. Often they are the first opportunity for local communities to get together after the Christmas and New Year celebrations.
Join in the Wassailing at Stoke Gabriel
Stoke Gabriel is a small village which can be found tucked away on the banks of the River Dart in South Devon. It is a wonderful village but something that makes it just that little bit more special is the attitude of the villagers. They have built up a thriving local community who all pitch in together when it comes to village life. The Stoke Gabriel Wassail proves this point perfectly.
Wassail Day is usually held on a Saturday so there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy not only the local village and wassailing ceremony but also the surrounding area. The event kicks off around 4:30 pm but you should arrive a little earlier.
There is basically only one country road into Stoke Gabriel and it will get very busy, not to mention the car parking spaces fill up very quickly. Why not get there around lunch time and stop for a bite to eat in one of the two village pubs, The Church House Inn or The Castle Inn? Families should be aware that it is only The Castle Inn that caters for children.
What to Expect at the Stoke Gabriel Wassail
The Wassail itself is a cider apple blessing that takes place in the community orchard. and there is all sorts of entertainment laid on which will keep the whole family amused. Wassailers dress up in colourful robes like Morrismen. Some carry torches, drums, pots and pans to make a noise, and even shotguns in the good old days! They accompany a steaming vessel of hot beer or cider which is poured over the roots of the best or oldest tree in the orchard. This is the guardian of the orchard and it is wassailed to ensure a good harvest.
The hot food and cider bar are always well received by everyone and even though it is obviously hoped that it won’t be raining, the event generally goes ahead whatever the weather, so be prepared.
The Wassail Day usually comes to an end at around eight in the evening when most people retire to the pub to carry on their celebrations. There is a minimal charge to take part in the Wassail but it won’t exactly break the bank. The proceeds from the event go to the local school, so it is definitely in aid of a worthy cause.
Stoke Gabriel history
If time permits during the day be sure to visit the churchyard in Stoke Gabriel where the famous yew tree can be found. It is said to be over 1000 years old and if you walk around the tree backwards three times, all of your dreams will come true. Make of that what you will, but one thing is for sure. Wassailing at Stoke Gabriel is a fun event steeped in Devonshire myth and superstition which is a great way to look forward to the year ahead.
☀️ Why not book a holiday cottage in Stoke Gabriel and experience Stoke Gabriel Wassail for yourself!
Holy smokes! Watch flaming tar barrels at Ottery St Mary
Devon has some interesting festivals routed in pagan rituals and historic events, but few are as wacky as the Flaming Tar Barrels at Ottery St Mary. This amazing spectacle of locals carrying 17 burning (and very heavy!) tar-coated wooden barrels around the streets of the village takes place on Bonfire Night each year. However, the origins of the practice are a little unclear.
History of Ottery’s flaming tar barrels
As this awesome spectacle takes place on November 5th, most people assume it is connected with the failed attempt of Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament and the unpopular king in 1605. This may well be the case. As news of the foiled plot reached the far-flung reaches of Devon, no doubt there would have been public rejoicing each year around a celebratory bonfire.
Other people believe that the practice of rolling barrels, which have been coated in tar and set alight, is a more pagan practice. It certainly was a common festival in many Westcountry villages, although it has died out or been adapted in most other villages. One belief is that the flaming barrels were rolled down the streets to cleanse the village of evil spirits and witchcraft.
Whatever the history behind it, the Flaming Tar Barrels at Ottery St Mary are a novel way to celebrate Bonfire Night.
Barrels, bonfires and fireworks!
The Flaming Tar Barrels generate a wonderful carnival atmosphere throughout the normally quiet and sleepy village of Ottery St Mary. The event attracts around 25,000 spectators and there are the usual side stalls, food, entertainment and a fair down by the River Otter.
The day starts with the firing of noisy rock cannon. These are large rocks or boulders with holes bored in them of various sizes. The holes are filled with gunpowder and ignited to explode with a loud boom and an eye-searing flash.
Rock guns were a common part of 18th century celebrations, from announcing royal births and coronations to celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Today, handheld pipes packed with gunpowder may be used instead of rocks.
After dark, the flaming tar barrels are lit. Smaller barrels are carried first, by youths and women, with the big barrels carried by men to end the event around midnight. Local pubs sponsor the flaming tar barrels, so they are the best place to hang around for a good view of the barrels as they pass.
A local privilege…
Only local Ottery-born residents can have the honour of transporting a tar barrel. The chosen few really make the most of their moment of glory, dashing from side to side in the street or spinning around with the heavy barrels aloft on their shoulder. Others actually roll the burning barrels down the street – a risky business with little means of controlling the runaway flaming tar barrel, so keep your wits about you and your children close by!
The aim of the tar barrel rolling is to get the barrel as close as possible to the town bonfire which is lit on Millennium Green and is one of the largest in Devon. Few barrels make it all the way as they are either burnt up or dropped once they are too hot to handle, and they become a pile of ash in a very short time.
In between the parade of burning barrels there is a huge fireworks display – a more traditional way of celebrating Bonfire Night.
☀️ Where better to enjoy Bonfire Night? Why not book a holiday cottage near Ottery St Mary and witness the flaming tar barrels for yourself!
Well, that’s our round-up of Devon festivals celebrating the county’s history, culture, heritage, music and food. We hope you enjoyed the virtual tour! Whenever you choose to stay in a holiday cottage in Devon, there’s always something going on!