A New Era for Cutcombe Market
by Frances Nicholson
A century ago Cutcombe Market was not weekly but a spring and autumn affair. The cattle were Devons – Red Rubies with their sweeping horns – or Longhorns, and the sheep mostly Exmoors and Devon Closewool. The hill land, then largely unimproved, was not for finishing cattle or sheep for slaughter, but for the breeding of stock to be sent to the lowlands for finishing. At that time it was not unusual for 25,000 sheep to go through the market in one day.
The market that was once on the village fair field has moved as convenience dictated. Cattle were once sold in Escott’s fields and sheep on the present-day recreation ground. They were the real thing then at Cutcombe, while Exford was the place to sell cattle. Through the forties and fifties markets of 10,000 sheep were not unusual, and gradually the cattle market at Exford declined in favour of Cutcombe. At that time the sold cattle were turned in together so the scissor man came into his own. A mark for the buyer was cut into the coat of each animal for absolute certainty of identification. A sure memory for the mark, and speed and accuracy of execution were the essentials.
Sales at Cutcombe were not local affairs. Animals went far and wide from Dulverton Station, but first they had to get there on the hoof on the wide drove road up the hill to Heathpoult, along the top, then down to the valley again. In charge was the drover Long Harry, but for local youngsters it was a day to get out of school uniform as fast as possible and join in on foot, bicycle or pony. For the cattle it depended. If it was too hot some beasts might have to be turned into a field along the way to rest for a while. Sheep were taken down 1,000 at a time. I’ve heard it said that by the time they got to Brushford, some might have been lost, and others picked up, but it didn’t seem to matter so long as the numbers were right.
Gradually road transport took over and then the Beeching axe fell. Cutcombe needed not a drover but a haulier, Geoff Pugsley. But cattle were still horned, and cows were still tied up in rows to wooden rails. They were kept at much closer quarters and handled far more than is general now. Photographs of the time show men and beasts all squashed together in the cattle lines, the Devons’ curving horns a startling sight to the twenty-first century viewer.
In 1946 Phillips Auctioneers bought Watercombe Farm, sold on what was surplus, and the market settled on its present fields at Wheddon Cross. In due course Phillips were running Cutcombe, Exford and Blackmoor Gate markets, alongside farm sales and estate agency. As ever the market’s fortunes followed meat prices, as crucial to it as to farm incomes.
Times were changing. Regulation increased and improvements followed. Metal began to replace wood. Concrete was laid. A lorry-washing station was introduced and as time went on more and bigger lorries made the journey along the spine of the Brendons and through the narrows at Beulah Chapel. The washing station was used mostly officially... and also unofficially.
The next big change came when Phillips sold off their estate agency and the market’s arrangements changed. Eventually Exmoor Farmers Livestock Auctions was set up with money from the markets’ committed users, Exmoor farmers. Their investment was safe whatever happened to the market because the land it stood on was development land – then.
Regulations grew ever tighter, and it was becoming clear that the old market was beyond improvement. Foot and Mouth drove the point home. And the National Park Authority agreed the current policy that restricts house building to ‘local needs, affordable’ and the value of the development land fell. But if the market was important to Exmoor then a way would be found to rebuild it.
Taunton Market had closed. Costs in time and haulage to take Exmoor stock to the remaining alternatives, Blackmoor Gate, Exeter and Sedgemoor (by the M5 at Bridgwater) were much greater and farm incomes are not built to withstand extra pressures. Also it was becoming clear that the moor was increasingly understocked to the detriment of the landscape. Anything which would depress stock levels further was to be deplored.
So the market would be rebuilt. Co-operation between Exmoor Farmers, the County Council, the District Council and the National Park would be crucial. Between them they developed a viable plan. The market would be rebuilt, space for workshops would become available, some local-needs, affordable housing would be provided, and interspersed among these houses would be a small number of open-market houses that would provide just exactly enough funds and no more.
The major difficulty was that this was a departure from the Local Plan, so it could not be agreed by the planning authority, the National Park, and permission had to be sought from central government. Permission was granted. The National Park Authority bought a little land. The County bought some more – space for workshops. The legal agreements between all parties and Summerfield, the builders, were completed last Christmas (with me acting as chauffeur round Taunton to make sure they all got to the right place at the proper time). And early this year work began.
A grant from the National Park’s Sustainable Development Fund was made to enable roof-water recycling at the market and, it is hoped, some photovoltaic electricity generation. The market is nearing completion and work has begun on the houses. The site for potential workshops has been cleared and levelled.
The scheme could have stopped there but the County Council made great efforts to develop plans for workshops to meet local business needs at an affordable rent, and they will sit quietly and unobtrusively in the landscape. Nothing fancy, no frills, nothing that would lead to rents a penny higher than absolutely necessary. A number of potential tenants have been identified and discussions with them continue. The County has committed the money to build the units and at the time of writing a planning application is imminent.
The market itself will continue to evolve. Farming patterns have changed on the moor. Far fewer sheep are sold now as breeding stock is kept to wear out on the farms. Breeds are different with the prevalence of Continental cattle, and the crossing of Exmoors with other breeds to combine the Exmoor’s hardiness with less fatty meat. Some of a market’s living will always be from sales of land, and farm sales, but again things are different. With the break up of some big estates, and even more so since subsidies are no longer headage payments, selling up everything on retirement is much less common. Yet new opportunities arise, and the market is now a collection centre for stock for slaughter.
The prize now in sight is just the latest in a long history of adaptations: a secure and modern market, new places to live and new places to do business that will sit well in the landscape in a working village.
With thanks to Tom Rook and David Wyborn.