Combe Martin is located on the edge of the Exmoor National Park only 12 miles from Woolacombe, set in a wooded valley, and with a lovely cove it is a popular place to visit. It’s name derives from the word ‘Combe’ meaning a wooded valley, and ‘Martin’ from the Norman family who are believed to have inherited the manor from William the Conquerors supporters. In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Combe Martin as: “a small town, a parish, and a sub-district in the Barnstaple district, Devon. The town sits in a deep romantic glen, opening into a small cove on the Bristol channel, 4 miles east of Ilfracombe, and 10 North East of Barnstaple railway. station; extends irregularly to a length of about 1½ mile; was made a market-town about the year 1264, but has long lost its market; is a seat of petty sessions; and has a post office under Ilfra-Combe, an inn, a parish church, three dissenting chapels, and an endowed school.” Today, the seaside town which sits in a valley, has something on offer for everyone. Enjoy a day by the sea, rockpooling, kayaking, fishing or walking along one of the stunning coastal paths, for the more adventurous why not try coasteering, rock climbing or horse riding.
One of Combe Martin claims to fame is it is reported to have the longest main street in any village in the Country, which is over two miles long. As the village grew it was easier to continue building along the narrow valley rather than along the slopes, hence this unusually long main street. Some say that those who live at one end of the street believe they live in the countryside and not by the sea. The environment around Combe Martin, in particular its limestone outcrops meant that the area has a number of lime-kilns which date back to around the 17th Century. The lime was then used to improve the fertility of the soil. Combe Martin’s main economy used to be in the growing and processing of hemp and flax used to make rope and sails. It was also known for silver mining, and the village built a reputation for silverware. One of the earliest records of Combe Martin Silver mines was found in 1294, when it was recorded that 337 men were brought from the Peak, Derbyshire to work the mines. In the Elizabethan period the Combe Martin mines took on a new lease of life and they made a considerable revenue. You can still see some of the old remains of the mines that were crucial in the lime and silver trade. For those visiting today, an interesting Grade II listed building to look out for is the ‘Pack o Cards Inn’, built in 1626 by George Ley it is said to be built following a large win at card playing. The Inn has 52 windows, believed to represent the number of cards in a pack and has four floors (representing the number of suits in a pack), with 13 doors on every floor (number of cards in a suit) .
Combe Martin holds a number of events each year, one that is very unique to the area is the: Hunting of the Earl of Rone The Hunting of the Earl of Rone is one of over 500 unique customs that take place at various times of year throughout England. Banned in 1837, for licentiousness and drunken behaviour, the Hunting of the Earl of Rone was revived in 1974. Over the four days of the Spring Bank Holiday weekend, the 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. Local legend says that he was Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, who was forced to flee from Ireland in 1607 and was shipwrecked in the local bay known as Raparee Cove. There is no historical evidence that Hugh O’Neill ever landed in North Devon and history tells us that he actually reached Spain and lived out his life there, so why he should become the focus of the custom is a mystery – although there are plenty of theories! Perhaps the locals were celebrating the defeat of a famous contemporary outlaw by a local landowner, a Chichester, who was the sovereign’s Lord Deputy in Ireland at the time. Perhaps the Irish population in the village, who worked the mines, were in sympathy with O’Neill and his attempts to have Ireland ruled by the Irish. Some people think the custom is the last remnant of mediæval May Games, others like to think that it is a pre-Christian, pagan, green man custom that has survived with the O’Neill legend attached to it. The Earl of Rone is seen as a scapegoat by others. People believe what they want to believe whether there is evidence or not – even those who take part have different ideas. Whatever the history, none of it actually determines what happens these days. What The Hunting of the Earl of Rone definitely is, is Combe Martin celebrating itself! The custom is run by a council of villagers, but any local from Combe Martin, or the surrounding parishes of Berrynarbor, Trentishoe and Kentisbury, is welcome to dress up and join in. Visitors are also welcome to come to watch and enjoy the festivities but, as tradition demands, collections are made throughout the weekend and once costs have been covered, surplus money is donated to good causes in the village. For more information about Combe Martin visit: http://www.visitcombemartin.com