Lines on the Landscape: folk songs and ballads

Across the AONB

From : Valerie Belsey for AONB

Folk tales

From Chaucer through to the seventeenth century there are no great literary figures writing about this area even if some lived here. However, what we do have are folk tales and songs which refer to local places. Thes must have been shared at many a festive gathering, workplace and hearth.

The Elizabethan period was the age of exploration and many well know explorers came from South Devon. Humphrey Gilbert from Dartmouth was half cousin to Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh was a writer and a poet but does not seem to have referred directly to the landscape in his writings and Gilbert wrote about foreign climes but not his own. Robert Herrick wrote some memorable verse set in the Dean Prior area where he lived but unfortunately it is out of the AONB.  However this is not to say that the writing of poetry and the telling of tales came to a standstill.


There are many accounts of Mummers’ plays and the custom of Wassailing apple trees to encourage good cider production. Stoke Gabriel hosts both of these every year. The play with its Turkish knight, prince of Morocco and St. George is strange and simplistic to us now. But its message of good cheer at Christmas reminds us of how important a festival this was in our countryside which can bring us a mild shirt-sleeves day or a snow-bound feast:

              ‘One mug of Christmas ale will make us merry and sing

              Some money in our pockets will be a fine thing

              So, ladies and gentlemen all at your ease

              Please give the Christmas Boys just what you please

              I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

              And plenty of good beef and barrels full of beer.’

The Dartington Christmas  Boys’ Play has a character called Johnnie Jack who well illustrates how every day folk lived then:

                        ‘Here comes I, Little Johnnie Jack,

                        Wife and family on my back

                        My family’s large and I am small

                        And so a little helps us all.


Songs and ballads came into the area over sea and land. The Trees they grow so high was collected by the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould in the 1870s from Miss Bidder who collected it from an unknown singer, possibly Mary Langworthy of Stoke Fleming. It is a well known Scottish ballad dating back to the seventeenth century which worked its way south. This sad little tale is an example of an arranged marriage. 

 The trees they grow so high and the leaves they grow so green.

The day is past and gone, my love, that you and I have seen,

It’s a cold winter’s night, my love, when I must bide alone,

For my bonny lad is young but a-growing.


As I was a-walking by yonder church wall,

I saw four and twenty young men a-playing at the ball.

I asked for my own true love but they would not let him come,

For they said the boy was young, but a-growing.

Listen in to Bill and Suzie Tresize’s recording (Audio Clips, above right) to find out the outcome of this tragic tale.  

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Lines on the Landscape: folk songs and ballads

Audio Clips

Bill 'Pop' Hingston 

Other songs collected locally have a more humorous tone to them and rely heavily on repetition. Obviously there are ballads from the sea too such as The Greenland Whale Fishery and those which talk of sweethearts lost at sea. There are songs which deal with the battle of the sexes and betrayal but also some nonsense and light-hearted repetition songs such as 'Errings 'Eads.

Listen to Sam Richards talking about Bill ‘Pop’ Hingston from Dittisham, who sang the song 'Errings ‘Eads [Herring’s Heads].

’E used to zing at home mostly you know, beside the fire, get ‘ome, light up ‘is pipe, sit there and sing away. Bert worked down lower Yetson for Elliot, Harold Turner lived in the house for Harvey. Little short man with his breeches and leggings on boots about, two, three sizes too big with half a bundle of straw in each boot, keep his feet warm funny little man’e was, he used to sing old Doug Oates song’

which ended like this:

Now what shall we do with the ‘errings tail?

Make ‘un in ships and set ‘un to sail, ‘Errings back?

Make ‘un in boys and call ‘un Jack, Errings belly?

Make ‘un in girls and call ’un Nelly,’Errings eyes?

Make ‘un into puddings and pies. ‘Errings fins?

Make ‘un into needles and pins, ‘Errings ‘eads?

Make ‘un into loaves of bread' etc.


In our area there are also many gifted storytellers who draw upon where they live including Clive Fairweather and Chris Salisbury from Wildwise.


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