At leisure: Wombling in the West Country

The West Country is a wonderful place to take a stroll and enjoy the scenery. Wandering aimlessly is called larruping in Devon, and wombling in Somerset. In Wiltshire – and if it’s more of an unsteady walk – that’s called diddling. If it’s a country walk, you might spot a dumbledore on your way – a rather delightful word for a bumblebee found in Dorset and Wiltshire. Or if you’re in a village, you’re sure to find some traditional thatched cottages like these ones in Kennford, Devon.

Traditional thatched cottages in Kennford, Devon.

( LAVC/PHO/P2040) by Herbert Voitl

Local delicacies

A big debate in the South-West is how to properly prepare a scone: jam first (the Cornish way) or cream first (as in Devon). A wonderful word for ‘properly’ is fitty-wise, recorded by the Survey of English Dialects (SED) fieldworkers in St. Buryan, Cornwall in the 1950s. 

And how do south-westerners pronounce the word scone? In this part of the world, it’s highly variable, with roughly 50% of people pronouncing it to rhyme with gone, and the other half rhyming the word with bone. In Somerset, you can by-pass the debate altogether by calling them crock-cakes: this is a dialect word that SED fieldworkers recorded in the village of Merriott.

Scones: do you like yours the Devon or the Cornwall way?

During the 1950s, fieldworkers for the Survey of English Dialects (SED) travelled all over the West Country’s six counties to record the dialects used there. While visiting the South West, informants in Devon talked of slingers. This local dish was made from bread, butter, salt, pepper and boiled water. In Dorset, the ingredients for slingers were listed as bread soaked in tea.

Pasties are a well-known Cornish delicacy, but onion and potato pasties were also mentioned by informants in South Zeal in Devon. Talking of potatoes, if you do a bad job preparing potatoes and over-boil them, they might go all to smatch or disintegrate – this phrase was recorded in Netheravon, Wiltshire. 

Feasts and fairs

A cosy Christmas custom was contributed by informants in Blackawton in south Devon. They described a Christmas Day tradition of rounds of beer being drunk according to the speed at which the beams (lengths of ash bands) binding ashen faggots (ash sticks) burned. If you had one too many beers, you may have been described by your drinking companions in Devon as one over the eight.

Copy of a photograph of Mr. Nottle of St. Neot, Cornwall, holding a large, elaborate corn dolly made by him for the Harvest Festival on September 1953.




Informants in the South West also told the fieldworkers of annual feasts and festivals which were the highlight of the calendar year. These included St Buryan Feast and the Whitsuntide Feast, both of which were enjoyed in Cornwall in May with music, stalls and dancing. In Devon, annual highlights included Chawleigh Fair and Parracombe Revel in May, the Swimbridge Revel in July, Parracombe Fair in August and Goosey Fair at Michaelmas (September). Entertainments included games, fairground attractions, tempting food and wrestling. Harvest was also a significant event in the annual calendar.

In Wiltshire, King Charles Day was celebrated on 29th May. Informants explained to the fieldworkers that this was known as Shitsack Day. Children were required to wear oak leaves to show their loyalty to King Charles. If they weren’t wearing their greenery they would be taunted with the chant ‘sitzac sitzac’.

Another local childhood prank was recorded in Wedmore, Somerset. Here Walt talks about childhood pranks incl. ‘tick-button’ [= window tapping] and tying neighbour’s door knockers together.

Listen here

Here Walt talks about childhood pranks incl. 'tick-button' [= window tapping] and tying neighbour's door knockers together.

( 1LL0014966)

West Country words of wisdom

The fieldworkers found all sorts of unusual expressions in the South-West. Here are some of our favourites:

  • ‘Thee go home and boil egg hard’ – go away (Steeple Ashton, Wiltshire)
  • ‘He’s driving the pigs to market’ – he’s snoring loudly (Parracombe, Devon)
  • ‘Much odds for bad rummage’ – good riddance to bad rubbish (Gittisham, Devon)
  • ‘Put thick board in the hole’ – shut the door! (Blagdon, Somerset)
  • ‘Sling thy hook’ – go away (Bream, Gloucestershire)

The fieldworkers also noted down traditional cures and remedies for various ailments that their interviewees shared with them. Here are a few examples – but we don’t recommend you try them at home!

  • To cure a stye: wipe the eye with the tail of an old tom cat (Gwinear, Cornwall)
  • To cure a wart: charm it with pods of broad beans, then bury the beans in a secret place (Gretton, Gloucestershire) OR rub the wart with a snail, then stick the snail on a hedge thorn (Sherborne, Gloucestershire).

View looking down a lane towards the Parish Church at Stoke St. Gregory (Somerset).

( LAVC/PHO/P2038) by Herbert Voitl.

Old dwelling houses in Gretton (Gloucestershire). Both houses are timber-framed and have thatched roofs.

( LAVC/PHO/P2010) by Herbert Voitl.

View of the main street in the village of Horsington (Somerset), showing dwelling houses on the right-hand side, and a sign for the Half Moon public house in the distance.

( LAVC/PHO/P2036) by Herbert Voitl.