Devon is a rich source of folklore, a unique culture and varied customs.
By its nature this is a huge subject, and so the following information is just a sample. If you enjoy - jump on the web and find some more.
Devon has a host of folklore, and the tales go well beyond the famous rhyme of 'Widecombe Fair', with many being tales about pixies, and others about the Devil, the wild hunt, wisht hounds, and sacred groves.
Pixies have the reputation for being mischievious, and if they are not paid the appropriate respect, or given the appropriate gift, woe betide you. Perhaps the most common tales involve pixies leading people astray on Dartmoor (being Pixy-led), which with the moorland bogs and changeable weather can very easily become a matter of life and death. One way to avoid being pixy-led is to turn your coat inside-out. However pixies are not always malicious, and if left water they are sometimes reputed to leave gifts.
Dartmoor and Exmoor are also the home of the dreaded 'wisht hounds' (black dogs with baleful red eyes) who at the bequest of Dewer (the Devil or the leader of the wild hunt), hunt down unbaptised souls and sinners.
The Devil himself appears a number of times in Devon Folklore, more frequently than in most other parts of Britain. The Dewerstone (near Shaugh Bridge) is reputed to be the site where footprints (one set cloven, another human) left in the snow showed where the Devil guided a lost traveller over the cliff edge in a blizzard. The wisht hounds are also reputed to have driven people over the edge of the Dewerstone.
Here 'Widecombe Fair' is worth a mention, for beneath its comic tale of people on horseback, it is believed that the grey mare represents the taking of the souls to the Devil.
Of course, one of the more famous 'legends' is that of Drake's Drum, and it is said that in England's hour of need, when Devon's shores are threatened, the beating of his drum will bring Drake back to join the fray.
Culture and Customs
One of the more dramatic of Devon's customs is found at Ottery St Mary, where each year flaming tar barrels are carried through the streets.
Also at Shebbear, each November 5th (pixy day), a large rock is turned over. This is known as 'turning the Devil's boulder' and is meant to avert bad fortune. The rock is not from the local area, and it is reputed that the rock had been moved away from Shebbear a number of times, but the rock kept returning.
A recently revived tradition at Combe Martin is 'The Hunting of the Earl of Rone' where a mysterious 'Obby 'Oss is involved in the annual search for the Earl who when caught is forced to ride a donkey backwards.
A number of the other customs in Devon include 'Crying the neck', and step dancing.
Devon Wrestling was also popular, which is both similar and different from Cornwall wrestling. The Devon 'style' of wrestling was similar to the Cornish in using the same basic rules and the use of loose jackets, but whilst the Devonians focussed more on the 'out-play', the Cornish focussed more on the 'in-play' or 'close-hug'. The Devonian style allowed for the use of boots, and the contests involved a fair degree of 'shin kicking'. It is reputed that a match between the Devon Champion (Cann) and the champion of Cornwall (Polkinghorne) in 1826 drew a crowd of 17,000 to Devonport (10,000 paid, the rest stood of high ground overlooking the arena - see links below).
The sport of 'Out-hurling' was included in the 1922 Great Torrington "Revel" Day. As noted on the Devon County Council 'local studies' web-site, the publication Devon and Cornwall Notes and Questions 1922, volume 12, carried an account of the game, and noted that it had previously been a regular sport, and involved a small ball which was thrown 'over-hand', and a pitch approximately half a mile long (adjoining a brook).
It is believed that this sport, along with other similar games were a precursor to rugby football, and are themselves based an old celtic sport. A similar game known as Hurling is now played annually between two towns (St Ives and St Columb) in Cornwall.
Devon is also a maritime county, with a history of smuggling, piracy, shipwrecks (not all accidental), villains and heroes .
Francis Drake was probably the most succesful pirate as well as a hero and other sea salts of note include explorers Walter Raleigh, Humphrey Gilbert, and Richard Grenville.
Devonians have a reputation for being a congenial, friendly people, who work to live rather than live to work. Whilst many Devonians are initially reserved with strangers ('furreners'), once the ice has been broken you may find it difficult to shut them up.
Devon has a wide range of music to choose from, with almost every genre represented. There are a number of examples where Devon's Celtic background surfaces in this music, such as with Plymouth and folk based Mad Rush, or Dartmoor based Seth Lakeman. Go listen!
Devonians also like a good tale, and the taller the tale the better. Of course tall tales are always better if consumed with some liquid refreshment.
Devonians are reknowned for their Cider production, although Devon is also the home of many fine breweries, locally grown wines, and Plymouth Gin. Whiskey was always popular, although until the latter half of the twentieth century it would be Irish whiskey, rather than Scotch whisky that was most commonly consumed.
Language and Dialect
The Devon accent(s) (there are differences between Devon's regions) have the westcountry 'burr' that is common to much of south-west Britain. What is perhaps less well known is that Devon was one of the last places to speak the Celtic language in what is now England. That language is similar to what is now known as Cornish and Breton. Whilst Cornish was spoken in Cornwall until almost the modern day and Breton is still spoken by many thousands, common use of the language is reputed to have died out in Devon in the middle ages. Books on the ancient Devon Brythonic language do exist (for example - an excellent booklet by linguist Joseph Biddulph exists entitled 'A Handbook of West Country Brythonic' (Old Devonian) [ISBN 1 897999 06 2] which can be ordered from the author)
However the language didn't simply die - it remains in numerous place names and surnames (such as Dew or Cann), and a number of words have been retained in Devon dialect.
Although Walter Raleigh was a frequent visitor in the court of Queen Elisabeth the First, he retained his Devionian Accent throughout. So much so (and accents were more pronounced in those days, probably for both Walter, and for Elisabeth 1, who was from Mercia - the English Midlands) that Raleigh required a translator.
The word or suffix 'combe' is Celtic and means valley. It is equivalent to the Welsh 'cwm'. As any casual observer of place names will soon notice, the incidence of combe (or coombe) place names in Devon (such as Staddiscombe, Ilfracombe, Parracombe, Withycombe etc..) is extremely high, numbering in the hundreds. Combe is not unique to Devon, but in no other county is it as commonly used. Combe is found in Cornwall, Somerset, and Dorset, and infrequently further east, but nowhere else is it used as often. This usage dates back to the earliest records, and combe (or coombe) appeared in 64 Devon place names in the Domesday book. In comparison Somerset had 35 names, Dorset 18, and counties further east usually managed only 1, 2 or 3. Perhaps surprisingly, Cornwall had none!
Combe can also be well hidden, such as in the Plymouth suburb Pennycomequick, which derives from the Celtic 'Pen-y-combe-gwyk' which means settlement at head of the creek valley. Many of Devon's place names hold their Celtic secrets close about them, cloaked in anglicised spelling, and this has misled many surveyors who have looked only for the obvious 'english' meaning or selected tortuous anglo-saxon derivations.
Another example of this is Goosewell (mentioned in the Domesday Book), near Plymouth. It had been suggested that this was an Anglo-Saxon derivation meaning 'spring of the goose' (goose-wealig), however it is much more likely that it is derived from the Celtic 'cus-ughel' (pronounced cuz-ooh-ell) or high wood. The 'c' is cus has softened to a 'g' (as is common in Cornwall - where another Goosewell is given this Celtic origin). Goosewell 'fits the bill' in terms of geography, being situated on a steep slope, and elevated woodlands are still evident. There is no spring. Another hint is in local dialect (now sadly passing into memory) which used to pronounce Goosewell as 'guzzell'.
The word Plymouth itself has a Celtic origin - in part. The Plym river is a celtic word ('pen-lyn') and is a backformation from the original settlement at the head of the Plym's estuary (now Plympton).
Examples of other Celtic place names range from rivers, such as Tamar (large water), Tavy (small water), Exe (from either fish or water), Dart, Teign, Torridge, and Taw, to the name for Dartmoor's peaks - Tors (akin to the Welsh 'Twr'), to place names (eg Manadon, Laira, Pennycross, Swilly, Totnes, Combe Martin, Dunchideock, Landkey, Clovelly etc.. etc..). A number are also evident in dedications to Celtic Saints, such as St Budeaux and St Petrock, or to Celtic sacred groves (Nymet), such as Nymet Tracy, or Nymet Rowland.
Other placenames are more contentious, such as those ending in 'cott' or 'worthy', which are particularly common in North Devon, and are often attributed to the Anglo-Saxon 'cot' (small hut) and 'worthig' (enclosed land). However why would these names be so common in North Devon, being far more common than in the traditional Anglo-Saxon counties such as Hampshire and Gloucestershire, and also occur in 'celtic' Cornwall and Wales? Other possible sources for cott and worthy are the Celtic terms for wood ('coet') and upper ('wartha').
In addition to the official names, Devon has a number of places with alternate names, many of which are pre-Saxon, such as Barum (Barnstaple), Penn (Newton Abbot), Isca and Keresk (both Exeter). Devon itself is one of the few counties to have a name of Celtic origin, being derived from Dyvnaint (deep valley dwellers)
Have fun exploring in your area, and it is recommended that you don't trust the first explanation you may find, particularly if the geography does not fit the bill. There may be a deeper, Celtic meaning, hiding below the surface.
It is also recommended that you learn a little of the Celtic language. Books on the Devon Brythonic language exist but are relatively rare. There is also at least one website (An Ger Dewnansek) promoting the Celtic Language of Devon. In addition Cornish and Breton books may be useful background. Perhaps, like in neighbouring Cornwall, the ancient Celtic languageof Devon may one day be resurrected again.
Other relevant links
Devon Folklore & Pixies
World of Froud
Devil in Devon
Devon Wrestling (2)
An Ger Dewnansek
Devon Dialect (1)
Devon Dialect (2)
Luppitt History Group - Devon Dialect
Devon Celtic Music - Mad Rush/Seth Lakeman
A collection of Celtic art designs by Australian artist Bernard Casimir
Folklore, Culture, Customs and Language of Devon