Combe Martin

There’s plenty to admire here, as the town has a long and interesting history.

Squeezed into the crease between two hillsides, within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, this straggly but well-kept town once claimed to have the longest High Street in England. This has now been modified to the longest street party in England, and perhaps the largest number of name changes in one street: five. Once over 70 shops and 19 pubs lined this road; now there are only a handful.

In the early 19th century Combe Martin was noted by writers, and not just the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, as being run down. Charles Kingsley called it a ‘mile-long manstye’. There was a reason, however – landlords deliberately let houses deteriorate to avoid contributing to the Poor Law rates. Inhabitants at that time were called Shammickites, a shammick being a term for a slum.

Nowadays there’s plenty to admire here. The town has a long and interesting history. The Martin part of the name comes from Sieur Martin de Turon, who was granted the lands by William the Conqueror. Legend has it that the last Martin failed to come back from a hunting trip so his father, assuming the lad was staying the night elsewhere, ordered that the drawbridge over the moat be raised.

The unfortunate hunter returned in the dark, fell into the moat and was drowned, thus ending the Martin line. His father was so consumed with grief and guilt that he left Combe Martin forever.

Combe Martin, Exmoor, UK by Andrew Rosu, Shutterstock
Combe Martin bay is popular for watersports © Andrew Rossu, Shutterstock

The family seat passed to the Leys, a descendant of whom built the town’s most extraordinary building: the Pack o’ Cards, a piece of 18th-century eccentricity created by George Ley, a gambler, in homage to his success. All its numbers echo those in a pack of cards, hence its four floors (suits), 13 doors and 13 fireplaces (cards in a suit), and originally 52 windows (cards in a pack); also the whole thing looks like a house of cards. Ley, who died in 1709, has a memorial in the church of St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains).

Its 100-foot-high tower has been dated at 1490, and was probably built by the same stonemason as neighbouring Berrynarbor and Hartland. A local jingle describes these towers: ‘Hartland [in northwest Devon] for length, Berrynarbor for strength, and Combe Martin for beauty.’ It is indeed a decorative tower, with statues set in niches. Inside are all sorts of treasures.

The rood screen, which dates from the 16th century, has been expertly cleaned to bring out the colours and details of the painted saints in the panels. There are some carved bench ends and more recent poppyheads (three-dimensional wood carvings) in the choir including a Combe Martin fisherman and a whale. Carved on the capitals above the pillars are the usual vine leaves and grapes, but look out for the rare green woman. On the wall, but too high up to see the detail, is a highly regarded marble sculpture of Judith Ivatt, wearing an exquisitely carved lace collar.

The town has more than its share of festivals. A lively carnival is held during the second week of August, when a giant ‘grey mare’, ridden by Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All, parades around the town on Wednesday evening, presumably looking for Widecombe Fair. There’s also a Strawberry Fayre in June, celebrating the town’s history as a major fruit-growing region, and the bizarre but hugely enjoyable Hunting the Earl of Rone, which takes place on the Spring Bank Holiday. ‘They like dressing up in Combe Martin,’ the lady in the tourist office told me. Indeed!