Ancient Market Towns Central to Our Culture

by martinhesp


Does anyone want an old tractor wheel? It’s rusty with a jagged hole on one side.

I don’t know why anyone would desire such a thing. But then, who would buy a bucket of rusting pulleys, a box of sundry wallpaper rolls, a child’s tricycle circa 1952, or a bundle of ancient curtains?

“Put ’em in the wash and they’ll come out nice,” said the auctioneer, pointing his hammer at a sodden sash.

Someone believed him and I guess that even now those curtains are billowing with renewed vigour on a Devonshire washing line. A woman in a pink anorak with a mock fur collar went home struggling under the weight of the pulleys. A sad looking chain-smoker invested in the wallpaper and someone who may have been some sort of dealer in junk became the proud owner of the trike.

But no one wanted the tractor wheel. It was the only item left unsold after the auctioneer had been through some 700 lots at Hatherleigh Market when I last called in. I felt almost sorry for the object and thought of making an offer, but what would I do with such a thing?

On second thoughts though, I could have persuaded someone to present it to a visiting politician: “Please accept this symbol of an industry that was once the pride of the nation. The gravestone of Farming UK.”


An exaggeration of course. There’s plenty of life left in agriculture yet. But I do think political visits should include places like Hatherleigh and Holsworthy where I was the other day snapping these photographs. It’s all very well people like government ministers visiting the Westcountry’s big towns with their cathedrals and crowds – but what about taking a glance at the real countryside?

You don’t get more real than Hatherleigh or Holsworthy, or South Molton. And I could name half a dozen others. If you’ve never been to such places on market day, then go.

It is quintessential Westcountry. Our peninsula personified. If all the incomers, newcomers and retirees want to see what really makes this region tick – then go there and stand and stare.


Hatherleigh and Holsworthy were, a dozen years, ago at the epicentre of foot and mouth. After that, a great deal changed. But not everything.

Our leading politicians should come to such places – to Hatherleigh, for example, to see how the Tuesday cattle market has given way to junk. Some of it good junk – one item went for 80 quid. And some of it tat. Before foot and mouth, Tuesday was cattle day – and once they’d sold the cows the auctioneers would find time to move 50 or so lots of secondhand goods.

Now the cattle have been moved to another day because bovines are no longer allowed to mix with humans, and instead the Tuesday auctioneers busy themselves flogging 700 lots of this, that and the other.

They are selling the relics of a lost tribe. To me, there is a melancholy lurking among the rusting, wood-wormed vestiges of yesteryear that lie on the benches above the pig-pens. These are the heirlooms of a forgotten age.

An age when the countryside was a place where people used the soil to make a living.

I am happy to report they still do just that out Hatherleigh way – in that vast swathe of North Devon that stretches north of the A30.

As I drove out there the other day a city friend said: “Look at that – you don’t see that so much any more. Cows live in sheds don’t they?”

In a meadow by a stream, dairy cattle were wading among the buttercups enjoying the lush grasses. It could have been an advert for butter or clotted cream, except the industrial giants who flog such things don’t keep their cows in meadows but feed them concentrates and make them live in barns.

The politicians should have been there to see it. It would have made them proud. And at the market they could have seen the smiling faces of the country folk – red faces, strange faces, faces that looked as if they had been cleaved from Devon clay.

Just for once, wouldn’t it be great if politicians were to see things as they really are? Muck and all. If the 700 items on sale at Hatherleigh market are the relics of a passing age, then the people who lead our nation should see it and know it.

A prime minister’s very presence in such a place would be inspirational – a nod to say the the people in London still care about the folk in the sticks.

What about that rusting tractor wheel? Well, tidied up a bit, it would make a good door knocker for someone who lives in a very big house, like Chequers.