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Combe Martin & Berrynarbor, North Devon

Devon is a bit of an enigma: people outside the area look at a map of the UK and think it must be pretty small; that all Devonians must know someone Cornish since the two counties are bang next door to each other. The reality is, it takes longer to go from one end of Devon to the other by car than it takes to get to London by rail from the town I live in. The reason for the unfair comparison between car and rail by the way is because there are practically no trains IN Devon: the network is, in short, totally shagged. Apparently North Devon was served pretty well until about 1966: trains ran all the way out to Lynton and Lynmouth right on the tip of North Devon coast, but then some bright spark up in Westminster decided country bumpkins didn’t really need trains and all the services were axed. As a result, the whole of North Devon, though served by bus, is pretty much cut off from the rest of Devon: as us teens always lamented growing up, unless you drive, you’re screwed! (The buses always used to leave my village out, natch…They were supposed to pick us up, but frequently didn’t bother, but that’s a story for another time). The upshot of that was, my siblings and I were incredibly fit as we had to walk everywhere or stay in with our parents on a Saturday night. No contest! Ah, the nights I spent walking along country roads in my Goth dress and Morticia make-up, getting beeped by passing Fiestas as Young Farmers would hang out the windows shouting, “FREAK!” Those were the days.

So anyway: I didn’t live in Combe Martin, I lived next door in Berrynarbor, a small village that had once been owned back in medieval times by some French Overlord apparently; this accounted for its strange name, in that it was a bastardised version over time of his surname. I moved there when I was about thirteen, the eldest of five children with an attitude problem, bad hair and my parents’ house was falling down. We were Darling Buds of May with Wednesday Adams tacked on. Niiiice.
Anyway, Berrynarbor is a tiny place, beset by flowers and more strangely, flower pot men the villagers make in some kind of countryside tradition, though my parents never indulged (which may or may not account for our estrangement from the rest of the village). These things were sometimes life-size and usually engaged in gardening acts outside people’s houses, though once I saw two flower pot men doing it doggy-style near the school. I was severely traumatised.

Just like Berrynarbor, Combe Martin is named after its original owner, a bloke called Martin, though whether this was his first or second name is unconfirmed (a “combe” is apparently an old Devonian word for “valley leading to coast”). Back in my day there was a curious rivalry between Berrynarbor and Combe Martin, its reason long-forgotten and logic disregarded. Us Berrynarborian teens called people in Combe Martin Combe MARTIANS and the teens there called us, originally, T***s. It backfired anyway, since those people in Combe Martin delighted in their Martian tag and there was always a team in the annual carnival going by this name.

Combe Martin is a place of tradition. The Top George Inn (named after St. George and unsurprisingly at the top of Combe Martin high street) is the home of the fabled Combe Martin “Hobby Horse”, a kind of jester horse May Bank Holiday sees the Earl of Rone: over the four days of the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, the Barnstaple Grenadiers, Hobby Horse, Fool and villagers hunt through the village for the ‘Earl of Rone’, finally finding him on the Monday night. He is mounted back-to-front on a donkey and paraded through the village to the sea. He is frequently shot by the grenadiers and falls from the donkey only to be revived by the Hobby-horse and Fool, re-mounted on the donkey, and carried onwards to his fate. At the final shooting on the beach, he is not revived, but thrown into the sea. Apparently this never actually happened and this Rone guy fled to Spain instead, so why this has come about is a mystery, but it’s fun and 600 villagers do this every year.

The village is a small town really, but North Devon seems adversed to calling any of its settlements towns unless the population hits about 20,000. As a result, villages have become vast with not so much as a W.I in sight. Instead, there is a Carnival Committee, since there is a massive Carnival every year in Combe Martin in August, which has a variety of events: the parade, the knockout and the wheelbarrow race the jewels in the crown. The parade is self-explanatory, but the knockout consists of a variety of teams basically competing on mad things like skipping and three-legged races. The winners get pride of place in the parade. Needless to say, I’ve never taken part, thank you. The wheelbarrow race is a slightly odder tradition: grown men and women dress up and run down the massively long high street with wheelbarrows down to the sea front. They used to stop in the multitude of pubs along the way but this was knocked on the head since the race then took three million years and also there were loads of crashes. The perils of drink-driving, my friends.

“Nothing ever happens” is something often whined by kids in the country and certainly nothing ever did in Berrynarbor as far as I was ever aware (apart from Buses not picked us up and highly-sexed flower pot men), but no one could ever make that accusation of Combe Martin. At three miles long, its high street is arguably, if not the longest, in Great Britain and it has a vast array of pubs on its way – at my estimation, one every 500 yards. Nice one. Its most famous is of course the legendary Pack O’ Cards, named for its 52 windows and Combe Martian and Songs of Priase Presenter Harry Secombe’s regular when he was still alive. Some of its windows are still bricked up thanks to the window tax of some weirdo king back in the seventeenth century, but you can appreciate the history. Another favourite place to eat of mine is The Fo’clse on the sea front itself: it has an amazing view out into the cove. I worked here for three shifts as a waitress when I was about 16 before I was “let go” for crying off one night to go and sing Karoake in Barnstaple one night instead. Some git taped it and gave the Publican the evidence. Forget Big Brother: Combe Martin will get you!

So there you have it: Combe Martin in one article. Any Combe Martians out there, please give us your view of the village too. Other interesting facts include the fact I was swept out to sea in a dinghy at Combe Matrin; my husband and his triplet brother and my sister were once in the carnival dressed as failed bungee jumpers (mind boggles); my wedding reception was at Combe Martin, at my parents’ house (they moved there after I left home and have since moved again). I also spent my wedding night there at a very nice B&B on the sea front, but let’s not dwell on that too much ; )

If you like the sound of the place, here’s some links:

Here’s a map of the area.

You can find Combe Martin by road here (if you’re starting in London!).

Here’s some good tourist info, including places to stay and go.

Here’s Martin Strickland’s fabulous blog, complete with his amazing photographs of the village and surrounding coast and countryside.

The BBC have some interesting pages on Combe Martin, here.

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5 thoughts on “Combe Martin & Berrynarbor, North Devon”

  1. Good piece of text, you should try writing for a living! tee hee

    Some great information there but I went on Martin Sticklands blog site and he sounds like a right loser!

    Thanks for the plug (cheques in the post)and keep up the good work!

  2. Apparently North Devon was served pretty well until about 1966: trains ran all the way out to Lynton and Lynmouth right on the tip of North Devon coast, but then some bright spark up in Westminster decided country bumpkins didn’t really need trains and all the services were axed.

    Lucy, I think you’ll find the lack of railways was the result of the devastating overhaul of Britain’s rail network instigated by Dr Richard Beeching who, in 1961, was appointed as chairman of the recently formed British Railways Board by Ernest Marples, the Minister of Transport who had co-founded the road construction company Marples Ridgeway some years earlier.

    At the time the country’s rail network was in desperate need of improvement and after the publication of his report The reshaping of British Railways in 1963, over 8,000 miles of track on routes that were considered uneconomic and more than 2,000 stations were closed around the country. Carrying out his study without consulting either the railway management or unions, his decisions were seen by many as the actions of a “crazed axe-man.”

    If you ever watched David Croft’s mid-1990s sitcom Oh, Doctor Beeching! set in a rural railway station and wondered about the title, that sound you’re hearing is the penny dropping.

    Check out

  3. Thanks for the piece about the Earl of Rone – it has to be the most accurate we’ve found on the web! And thanks for the link, too. Hope to see you down here for it again some time.

    Barbara (Sec. Earl of Rone Council)

  4. Cheers GD, I was aware of Beeching, since his name was practically a swear word when I was growing up!

    Thanks Barbara, you’re welcome!

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