Thespis Project Productions and Tigermilk – Creative Collaboration in Plymouth


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The Wrong Side of Prohibition by Thespis Project Productions

The Wrong Side of Prohibition by Thespis Project Productions

** Originally published in Made In Plymouth, May 2017 **


In February 2017, a heady mix of live theatre and cocktails came together when Thespis Project Productions theatre company performed “The Wrong Side of Prohibition” to sell-out crowds at Plymouth’s speakeasy, Tigermilk at the Duke.  Local writer Sally Bell met Thespis’s founder and Artistic Director, Tassos Chalas to find out how this creative collaboration came about.


It’s always lovely when passions combine and it was a real treat to be asked to attend a theatre performance in my favourite bar.  Since it opened three years ago, Tigermilk has gained a reputation as being the perfect place for anyone wanting to enjoy carefully crafted drinks in an elegant, if somewhat hidden, location.  And that’s part of its charm; there are no flashy signs for this establishment, just a small bronze plaque next to the door, which is tucked around the corner from the main entrance of the Duke of Cornwall Hotel.  No door handle either – just press the buzzer then create your own dramatic entrance down the staircase and into the 1920s salon-style space.


It made the perfect backdrop for “The Wrong Side of Prohibition”, an immersive theatre performance, set in New York at the end of the prohibition era.  Written and directed by Greek-born, now Plymouth-based Tassos Chalas, “The Wrong Side of Prohibition” takes a dark look at gangland warfare, illicit love, prostitution and refugees and is performed using the whole of the floor space of the venue, with actors delivering lines and at times, throwing punches, around tables of cocktail-drinking audience members.  I met with Tassos Chalas afterwards to learn more about the company and discover how Thespis met Tigermilk.


Sally: How did Thespis Project come about and who is its driving force?

Tassos: Thespis Project was (and is!) my dream. The company was established back in 2015.  My creative ambitions were clear and ambiguous at the same time, but I was ready to work hard. Then, I remembered the classical character of Thespis of Icaria, who was said to be the first person ever to appear on stage as an actor portraying a character in a play. His mythology and pioneering spirit to create, experiment and persevere inspired me and they now serve as my constant reminder to do the same. I wanted to share what inspired me with the world, I wanted to create theatre here in Plymouth – where I have come to call home – and create opportunities for other artists.


Sally: What’s the ethos of Thespis?

Tassos: To present original writing and support local talent from all backgrounds.


Sally: Where has Thespis performed and what have been the highlights so far?

Tassos: We started with Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 and then Plymouth Fringe in 2016; followed of course by The Wrong Side of Prohibition at Tigermilk at the Duke. I would have to say performing at Tigermilk is the cast’s and my favourite.


Sally: How did the collaboration with Tigermilk come about?

Tassos: I walked in there one day – having no idea what Tigermilk was – and the connection was instant and perfect.  I could just see The Wrong Side of Prohibition and the lead character Tony’s speakeasy being there. It was just the right play for the right venue. I immediately pitched my idea for an immersive performance of the play there and co-owner Mark welcomed it straight away. Both he and his business partner Eric wanted to hear more and make it as much of a wonderful experience as possible – I cannot thank them enough.


Sally: How was it to perform in the space?

Tassos: Magic. I’ve always wanted to do an immersive performance; I love its intimacy; how close you are to the audience. And it was perfect. You could feel it straight away; there was something in the air. It felt honest and we could not get enough.


Sally: How do you feel about the cultural and creative climate in Plymouth?

Tassos: It’s flourishing and it’s wonderful to be part of it. You can see that there are artists who just want to create and audiences who crave for more. Thankfully, there is increasing support and opportunities to showcase our work and I cannot wait to see what’s next.


Sally: Where do you want to take Thespis in the future?

Tassos: I already have many different ideas and plans for the company and future productions. But the core of it all is to develop it, involve more people and create more opportunities for local talent. I also want to be able to showcase our work around the UK – which could be achieved with The Wrong Side of Prohibition going on tour.


I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of The Wrong Side of Prohibition.  The characters were full of pathos and well-cast; the storyline matched the environment perfectly and it was fascinating to watch the response of other audience members to the physical immediacy of the actors through both love scenes and fight scenes.  It was quite a wild ride at times and as well as being engaged by the central theme of gang warfare and prostitution, the additional storyline of immigration and refugees has significance and relevance in today’s world.  With Tigermilk looking to collaborate on future creative projects, I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s on the horizon – it can only be a welcome addition to the city’s cultural scene.


Thespis Project Productions:


Made In Plymouth:


(C)  Sally Bell 2017

Australia’s “Little Cornwall” cheers its roots – Kernewek Lowender 2017


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Sally Bell at the Moonta Mining Heritage area

Sally Bell at the Moonta Mining Heritage area


** Originally published in the Western Morning News 20/5/17 **

Kernewek Lowender in the Western Morning News, 20/5/17

Kernewek Lowender in the Western Morning News, 20/5/17


Cornish Australian Sally Bell travels from her home in the South West to her childhood home Down Under for Kernewek Lowender – the world’s biggest festival of Cornish culture.


The world’s largest Cornish festival, Kernewek Lowender, began yesterday in Australia’s “Little Cornwall” on the Copper Coast in South Australia.  The festival, which is expected to draw 50,000 people over three days, has been held biennially in the towns of Moonta, Wallaroo and Kadina since 1973.


The opening day drew huge crowds in Moonta, which became a Cornish community in the 1860s after the discovery of copper.  Cornish miners and their families created close-knit communities and Cornish heritage and culture is a part of everyday living in this part of South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, two hours north west of Adelaide.

Kernewek Lowender, Opening Parade at Moonta

Kernewek Lowender, Opening Parade at Moonta

Moonta was a sea of Cornish tartan with adults and children dressed in traditional costume.  The autumn sun shone for the first event of the day, a procession through the streets of Moonta, with floats with children from local schools and representatives of local business and Cornish associations of Australia.  The Grand Bard of Gorsedh Kernow, Merv Davey, who is the guest of honour, processed through the street with the group playing Cornish double-chantered bagpipes.

Pasty Bake-off with Premier Jay Weatherill, Kernewek Lowender, 2017

Pasty Bake-off with Premier Jay Weatherill, Kernewek Lowender, 2017

The most contentious event of the day was the Pasty Bake-Off, where members of the local community and the Premier of South Australia, Jay Weatherill, were challenged to make the best pasty from scratch.  Judged on the quality of their pastry, how finely their veg was cut and how good their crimp was.

Maypole Dancing, Kernewek Lowender, 2017

Maypole Dancing, Kernewek Lowender, 2017

Attention then turned to the maypole dancing with numerous May poles erected along the main street of Moonta, and children from all schools dancing proudly.  The Furry dance followed, and again the children excelled themselves to the delight of the watching crowds.

Children getting into the Cornish spirit, Kernewek Lowender, 2017

Children getting into the Cornish spirit, Kernewek Lowender, 2017

The formal proceedings began with a Welcome to Country by a local school child, then there were addresses from the Festival officials.  The Festival was officially opened by Premier Jay Weatherill who made mention of the recent news that the South Australian Cornish mining towns of Burra and Moonta have been added to the National Heritage List, paving the way for these areas to apply for recognition which would put them on the same level as the Cornish Mining World Heritage areas.


Premier Weatherill went on to add,

“Though many are aware of the significance of the Cornish, I’d like to see their contribution receive greater prominence.  The classification of the two mines means they’re connected to the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape on the World Heritage List.  Also, it means that – in a general way – they enjoy a stronger sense of identity and are even more outward-looking in their orientation to the world.  This new status is something that we – together – can use to further project this region to the world, and to share our unique history and culture.  Very few immigrant communities have been more influential – more enterprising and full of conviction – than the “Cousin Jacks” and “Cousin Jennies” of South Australia.  They’re part of our State’s social, political and economic “DNA”.  And in 2017 they continue to make this – in every way possible – a decent, buoyant and optimistic place to live.”


The Grand Bard of Gorsedh Kernow, Merv Davey, who is also the guest of honour, then addressed the crowd in Kernewek and English.

Pasties for sale at Kernewek Lowender, 2017

Pasties for sale at Kernewek Lowender, 2017

On Friday evening there was a traditional Chapel tea with Cornish music; on Saturday the festival will bring the town of Kadina to life with more Maypole and Furry Dancing, Cousin Jack and Jenny Dress up Competition, markets and plenty of entertainment. The traditional ceremony Gathering of the Bards of Gorsedh Kernow will be held in Wallaroo in the afternoon which will see bards from across the globe come together for this unique ceremony spoken entirely in Cornish.

Local man Phil Mason dressed as a Cornish Miner, Kernewek Lowender, 2017

Local man Phil Mason dressed as a Cornish Miner, Kernewek Lowender, 2017

On Sunday there will be a traditional “Blessing of the Waters” at the Wallaroo foreshore which remembers the hardships of previous generations of Cornish families.  This will be followed by a Classic cavalcade of cars and motor cycles from Moonta to Kadina and a Voices in the Ecumenical Heritage Church Service which is expected to fill the 1200 person capacity historic Moonta Mines Uniting Church.


Kernewek Lowender provides a direct economic benefit to the local community of AU$8 million and an indirect benefit of AU$30 million to tourism across the State of South Australia.  It is hoped that with increased support from the local community and the State government this will be the best Festival in its proud 44-year history.

(C)  Sally Bell 2017


Magical Caerhays Castle in Spring

** Originally published in the Western Morning News, March 2017

Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

There are few things as joyful as driving down a Cornish lane in early spring, with hedgerows fully laden with new life and the promise of the season to come.  The delight of seeing daffodils peeping out and the sighting of the first primroses are hard to surpass, especially if it’s been a long, grey February, which this year it feels as if it was.  Growing up in Australia, I never really understood the great excitement – and relief – around the first signs of springtime in Europe; where I lived, spring merely meant that the days went from mild to warm, the wattle (or mimosa as it’s known here) would come into bloom and the Melbourne Cup wasn’t far away.  European-style gardens were highly regarded in Melbourne and I was a regular visitor to “open garden” days where I would coo over camellias, rave about rhododendrons and marvel over magnolias.  I developed a particular love of magnolias and went to magnolia workshops (yes such a thing exists in Australia) where I learned to tell the difference between a stellata and a soulangeana and dreamed of having a space large enough to finally have my own magnificent specimen.


In recent weeks as the magnolias of the South West began to show signs that they were ready to burst forth, it was with some sense of shame that I confessed to a friend that I’d never visited the Cornish estate that is probably best known for its National Collection of over 450 magnolias – Caerhays Castle and Gardens.  So, it was with great delight that a few days later we found ourselves winding down the lanes from St Austell to the south coast of Cornwall in search of these giants of the floral world.


As we reached the village of St Michael Caerhays itself, with its chocolate box cottages, primrose-laden roadsides and abundance of self-entitled meandering pheasants, the road opened up to a magnificent view of the sea.  In fact, that’s the first great delight of Caerhays – it has its own beach, Porthluney Cove.  The car park for the estate is next to the beach and overlooks a perfect stretch of the Cornish coast, complete with granite cliffs, caves to explore and a fabulous beach café.


Pronounced “Car-hays”, or with the Cornish tongue slipping over the first syllable, “C’hays”, or, if you’re from the village, “C’raze”, the property has only been owned by two families.  From 1370 – 1840 it was in the ownership of the Trevanion family, who lived in four different houses, the last of which is the Castle we see today.


In 1854, Michael Williams of Burncoose and Scorrier purchased the Estate and set about restoring the Castle which had fallen into dereliction.  At that stage, Williams was reputed to be “the richest man in Cornwall”, and his fortune made from mining was put to good use at Caerhays.  His relative, John Charles Williams (known as JC) was responsible for creating the gardens we now see today; he was fascinated with the work of the great Victorian and Edwardian plant hunters and was determined to exhibit plants, which were until then previously unseen in Europe.


The property passed from JC to his son Julian, and now belongs to Julian’s son Charles, who runs the 140 acre Estate and its associated businesses including Burncoose Nurseries in Redruth which regularly exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show, winning a coveted Gold Medal for their garden there in 2016.  Charles is a member of the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia Group and has put forward many new varieties of these plants for registration and awards.  Charles is supported by a dedicated team including Head Gardener Jaimie Parsons, who since starting at Caerhays in 1994 has instigated the greatest expansion of the gardens since the early 20th century.


“The estate is made up of several businesses, each important in their own right”, says Lucinda RImmington, Marketing Manager of Caerhays.  “As the gardens are at their best in spring they are only open from 16 February to 18 June.  After that, the Estate focusses on events at the Castle, but people come from all over the world to see the magnolias.  We get lots of phone calls from people checking to see what state of bloom they’re in so they don’t miss them, then they plan their trip accordingly”.   Caerhays is an understandably popular wedding venue – being by the sea with the Castle as a background – and there is also a busy holiday let business with cottages available all year round.  Staying on the Estate must be a wonderful experience, and I made a mental note to put The Vean, which sleeps 16, on my bucket list for a once-in-a lifetime future house party.  There’s also the Coastguard’s Lookout which is licensed as a wedding venue for twenty people.


The property is also very popular with shooting parties, and has a pheasant-breeding programme, which explains the numerous feathered pedestrians I encountered on the drive through the village.  It is also mentioned in the Poldark books and with its established track record as a filming location (filming for Tim Burton’s “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” took place on the Estate and the beach in 2015), it is hoped that it may feature in a future episode of the current television adaptation.  Caerhays is a great example of a Cornish business that has adapted to make the most of all of the seasons, not just spring and summer – there’s always something going on.

Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, image supplied

Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, image supplied

Caerhays is the holder of the Plant Heritage National Collection of Magnolias, one of only four sites in the UK to have this honour.  The oldest magnolia on the site is a stellata or “star” magnolia at the front of the castle which was planted in 1897.  A number of the distinctive magnolias raised at Caerhays including “Caerhays Belle” and “Caerhays Surprise” are also available to purchase through Burncoose Nurseries.

Magnolia at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

Magnolia at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

The garden is also one of the twelve “Great Gardens of Cornwall” and is one of the key gardens that is included in the measurement of when spring arrives in the Duchy.  Six nominated magnolias are monitored in six Great Gardens to record the date when at least 50 blooms have flowered on each tree – this year spring “arrived” on 28 February.  You can find more information at and follow the “bloomometer” for each garden.


Pick up a flyer for the Great Gardens of Cornwall, have it stamped when you pay your entrance fee then you can get discounted entry at the other gardens in the scheme when you show your stamped flyer.


After leaving the beach car park, we crossed a road to walk through the archway of a crenelated gatehouse, then past a lake where geese and swans happily bickered, and up a sweeping driveway where the Castle revealed itself.  Built in 1808 by the well-known Regency architect John Nash, it sits elegantly on the side of a hill, and at this time of the year when the mature trees that surround it are in full flower, the first sight of Caerhays makes a lasting impression.

Entrance to Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

Entrance to Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

In the Cornish edition of his definitive text, “The Buildings of England”, Pevsner describes Caerhays Castle as “A very picturesque mansion, in a superb position overlooking Porthluney Bay, so deeply hidden in its woods that the sudden revelation of the castle with its battlemented walls and square and round towers among ornamental trees and shrubs is breath taking”.  I quite agree.


The walk up to the Castle is an easy one, not so some of the estate paths (more on this later), but there is plenty of help available at the ticket office to advise on which paths might be appropriate to tackle.  There are spring flowers of every kind everywhere you look – primroses, daffodils, camellias, rhododendrons and the stars of the show, magnolias.  We enjoyed a morning coffee in the Magnolia Tea Rooms in the Castle yard then set off on a walk around the garden.

Magnolia Tea Room courtyard at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

Magnolia Tea Room courtyard at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

As an avid gardener and a great lover of plants, for me walking through Caerhays Garden was like walking through fairyland.  We had been worried that the grey skies would take away from our enjoyment of the colours of the plants – there’s nothing quite like the vivid colours of a magnolia contrasting against a Cornish blue sky – but we weren’t at all disappointed.


There are four colour-coded walks which take in different aspects of the garden and are suitable for different abilities.  We took the Blue Route up into the Main Ride and one of the first large trees we saw was the stunning Magnolia Sargentiana (var. Robusta x Sprengeri “Diva” if you’d like its full pedigree) known as “Julian Williams”.  This huge tree was full of spectacular deep pinky-purple flowers and in spite of its size is a newly registered hybrid.  There was something to see everywhere we looked, with plenty of well-placed benches for walkers to stop and enjoy the spectacular views.

Magnolia at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

Magnolia at Caerhays Castle, Cornwall

Of all the plants I saw, my favourite was the magnolia on the mound just to the left of the archway that goes through to the Castle yard.  It was a hybrid unique to Caerhays – its parent was Magnolia sargentiana var robusta but because it’s so old it’s not known what it’s been hybridised with.  The form of its petals reminded me of Balenciaga ball gowns floating down the Parisian catwalks in the 1950s; they were flouncy and heavy, and each one looked like it had been painted with watercolours.  All around the ground underneath were the outer coverings of the flowers which resembled a scattering of small furry creatures quietly resting and once again, I felt as if was in fairyland.


Hybridisation of magnolias has been taking place at Caerhays for generations.  Phillip Tregunna, the former head gardener lead the way, to be followed by Jaimie Parsons and his team.  I spoke to Deputy Head Gardener Michael Levitt about the technical process of registering a new variety of magnolia.  “Hybridising is a really important part of what we do”, says Michael.  “Once we have a new magnolia, we contact the Magnolia Society and go through an administrative process that records what the parents of the plant were, the height of the tree, when it was planted, when it first flowered – it’s a bit like registering a new baby!  You also need to supply pictures of the flowers, you have to colour match the pictures to a colour-chart and when it’s approved you can reproduce the plant and sell it.”  I asked Michael how he feels when he’s seen the process through over years?  “None of mine have been named yet as it takes so long to do, but Jaimie feels very proud when he sees the plants on display.  We submit them to the RHS Flower Shows and also really look forward to attending the Cornwall Spring Flower Show at Boconnoc in April”.

Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, image supplied

Caerhays Castle, Cornwall, image supplied

I asked Lucinda what is special about working at Caerhays?  “Every season is so lovely, and I’ve been here for a few years now and every year we’re all still just so excited.  We all love coming in to work to see what stage of bloom the plants are at and you never bore of them.   Every time you drive down the hill something looks different, something new will have come into bloom or the sea looks different. Right now, it’s so wonderful and I just find it really uplifting.  My favourite place to sit is a bench just around from the Castle that looks to down across the lake and out to sea, it’s so lovely”.


Seeing spring flowers, especially if they’re as magnificent as those at Caerhays, has an undoubted positive psychological impact and anyone wanting to brighten their week must take a trip to Caerhays.  I left feeling renewed and inspired, with an even greater sense of plant-envy and a shortlist of plants I’d like to order from Burncoose.  I can’t wait to have a little piece of Caerhays magic in my garden, and with the Grade I Castle open for tours on Monday, I’m already planning a return visit.

Caerhays Estate

Gorran, St Austell, PL26 6LY


Gardens open daily but be quick – they’re only open until 18 June.  Guided tours available.

Castle open for guided tours from 20 March – 16 June, bookings essential.

Dogs welcome in the garden on leads.

Ph 01872 501310

(C)  Sally Bell 2017

With thanks to the Caerhays Castle Estate for supplying some images

In search of St Piran in Cornwall


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Cornwall Today, March 2017

Cornwall Today, March 2017

For Cornish people around the world, St Piran’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate everything that is glorious about Cornwall. The patron saint of Cornwall is remembered on March 5 each year and during the preceding week, known as “Perrantide”, parades, festivals and all manner of festivities are held. There’s also the excellent “Trelawny Shout”, a pub singing event, which for the past couple of years has tried to get 20,000 Cornish men (and women) singing communally at 9 pm. Do look up your closest pub (see below) and get amongst it, it’s great fun and raises much-needed funds for the Cornwall Community Foundation. It’s got the backing of St Austell Brewery, is championed by those lovely buoys from the Fisherman’s Friends and is always featured on BBC Radio Cornwall and BBC Spotlight.

While singing and – erm – drinking with the Fisherman’s Friends can be an almost religious experience, if you fancy marking this most meaningful of days in a more thoughtful way, you may consider a making a pilgrimage to St Piran’s Oratory in Perranporth. St Piran, by all accounts, didn’t mind a drink or ten (hence a well-known saying “to be as drunk as a Perraner”) and allegedly met his death by falling down a well after imbibing a little too enthusiastically. As he was also the patron saint of tin miners it’s also alleged that in days gone by, some miners would enjoy this holiday by following in St Piran’s lead and bunking off work for the day to enjoy the festivities in the sanctuary of the local pub.

These days, on the Sunday closest to March 5, hundreds of people congregate in the sand dunes near Perranporth to enjoy the St Piran’s Play, a procession and three-part miracle play. Spectators are welcome to enjoy this portrayal of the Saint’s life, from his arrival in Cornwall, to his rediscovery of how to smelt tin and his Christian ministry. As March 5 is on a Sunday this year, the play will be held on St Piran’s Day itself and all are welcome.

But for one man, St Piran’s Day is an opportunity to venerate St Piran with an overnight walk from Truro to Perranporth. Cam Longmuir has been making this pilgrimage for over ten years and I met up with him to find out why.

Cam Longmuir at St Brevitas Holy Well, Lanlivery, Cornwall

Cam Longmuir at St Brevitas Holy Well, Lanlivery, Cornwall

We first met several years ago on the Three Wells Walk, which is held in May and takes in the West Cornwall holy wells of Sancreed, St Euny and Madron. Back then, Cam was homeless and living in the hedgerows of the Roseland, researching Cornish saints and visiting ancient churches and holy wells. He’s now living in Devon but travels to Cornwall as often as possible to continue his pilgrimages, and also runs “pardons”, which are celebrations held at Cornish saints’ holy wells on their traditional feast days.

Cam, whose Mum is Cornish, was brought up in the Midlands but moved to the Duchy when he finished school. “My mother was into archaeology and I never really went into churches until quite recently but during my homelessness, I had a thirst for water so I’d search for springs all across Cornwall, and realized some of them were holy wells, and my interest just escalated from there.”

And the inspiration to walk to the Perranporth celebrations at came when another homeless friend heard about them and decided to go. Cam was intrigued and went along to see what it was about and has been attending ever since, usually leaving from Truro but on occasion walking on his own from Falmouth to Perranporth. “It took me two days to walk from Falmouth, with the coldest weather I’ve ever experienced, and I was sleeping rough”.

Cam Longmuir at Perranport, Cornwall after the St Piran's PIlgrimage

Cam Longmuir at Perranporth, Cornwall after the St Piran’s Pilgrimage

How did making these pilgrimages affect him? “They helped me to feel more connected – to everything – especially the faerie energy of the places. And the water that you can drink along the way is important too. Science has discovered that water can hold memory and I believe the water connects us to our ancestors. When we drink from the springs and the wells it connects us to our history”.

Talking to Cam is fascinating, his knowledge of – and passion for – his subjects is obvious. But what would he like to do with the information he’s collected over the years? “I had a nasty head injury when I was 15 so I struggle a bit with computers, but I do have a wealth of resources I’d love to share with people.” All evidence to the contrary; Cam underestimates his ability to communicate his vast knowledge, and the multitude of Facebook groups and pages he runs is a testament to this.

“I want people to do traditional things again, like going to feast days and following the saints, and I guess a sense of community comes out of that. When I first went out on pilgrimage, I experienced what I would call religiousness, and I don’t think people experience that anymore. It would be amazing to have more people join us this year, but it’s difficult for people to get out of their usual comfort zone and into a completely different one, by walking through the night.”

Cam Longmuir at Prideaux Place for the May Day celebrations

Cam Longmuir at Prideaux Place for the May Day celebrations

“Cornwall is called the land of the saints, and I’d love to see them celebrated properly. St Piran’s Day should be about St Piran, and it would be great if the general public could learn more about him and the other Cornish saints. I want people who possibly don’t know much about the reason why they’re carrying the St Piran’s flag to know that I care so much about St Piran that I’ve walked through the night to be there.”

As our interview concludes, the strains of Jeff Buckley singing “Hallelujah” float through the café and I can’t help feeling a bit evangelical about wanting to help Cam and his cause.

This year, the “Cornwall’s Pilgrims” group will meet on the steps of Truro Cathedral at 9 pm on St Piran’s Eve (March 4) and leave at 10 pm. They will take about four hours (with stops along the way) to walk the eight-mile distance through the night, mostly through country lanes. But a word of warning – in true St Piran’s style, participants enjoy a drink along the way so it’s not a purely pious event (Cornwall Today, of course, advocates the responsible consumption of alcohol, even on the Duchy’s patron saint’s day). Anyone is welcome to go and wave them off, or to join in the pilgrimage; if you have any questions you can contact Cam via his Facebook page (see below). Cam suggests leaving a car (and tent) at Perranporth in advance of the pilgrimage, then taking the bus into Truro, which allows for a much-needed soft landing at the end. The group rests at Perranporth until 2 pm on Sunday when it meets for the procession over Penhale Sands. However you choose to celebrate, Gool Peran Lowen!

PS (This is the last column I’ll be writing for Cornwall Today a while; I’m spreading my wings to bring you even more stories from across Cornwall and the South West via my new website – standby for it to go live very soon).


At a glance:

Trelawny Shout

Facebook – search “Cornwall’s Pilgrims” for more information or to contact the organisers

Visit Cornwall

Perranporth Tourist Information Centre ph 01872 575254 or see

St Piran’s Trust


© Sally Bell 2017

Originally published in Cornwall Today

Exploring Cornish History


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For this month’s Cornwall Today magazine I was pleased to write about three different organisations which promote the study of Cornwall’s history, traditions and culture.  Many thanks to Delia Brotherton from Gorsedh Kernow, Terry Knight from the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies and Ed Groom from the Cornwall/Kernow branch of the Historical Association for their invaluable assistance.



From the earliest prehistoric and Celtic times, to today’s age of tourism, Cornwall has been set apart by its geographic location, culture, traditions and language.  Its rich history is distinct, readily accessible and, it seems, experiencing a new level of demand.


And while it’s easy to dip in to aspects of the Duchy’s history – iconic places such as St Michael’s Mount for example receive thousands of visitors ever year, all of whom are keen to indulge in the magic and romance of a different time – what organisations exist for the general public to both engage with and learn more about Cornwall’s history?


Cornwall recently rejoined the Historical Association (HA), a national charity that supports the teaching, learning and enjoyment of history from primary-school age upwards.  The HA believes that the study of history should be accessible to all people, and with 50 branches around the UK holding over 350 events annually, this is good news for anyone interested in history of Cornwall and beyond.


The Cornish branch will be headed up by the Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies (ICS) Dr Garry Tregidga, with Bob Keys, Research Fellow of the ICS as President.  I spoke with Ed Groome, the Student Representative of HA in Cornwall, about how and why the reconnection to the HA came about.


“As a third year history student at Falmouth, I jumped at the chance to become the Student Representative for the newly reformed Cornish branch”, says Ed.  “There are a number of reasons why the branch has reformed, the most obvious being that there has been a resurgence in the interest in Cornish history, both from inside and outside the county, thanks in no small part to the BBC series Poldark. There is also a sense of isolation in Cornwall, with people feeling very distant from the rest of the UK, and our rejoining the HA may also help mitigate that”.


So what can we expect the Cornish branch of the HA to offer anyone interested in history?  “The committee has a desire to ensure people in Cornwall have a platform from which they can explore their interest in history.  We will be hosting regular talks and trips, which will enable members to hear about and then discuss varied topics.  As well as having access to these events, paid members also gain access to all the HA’s online resources, such as their publications and podcasts.  Our first event, a lecture about the Russian Revolution, was a tremendous success and we hope our upcoming events will be just as popular. While this event was held at the Penryn Campus, this is not purely an organisation for students. I would recommend anyone with an interest in history to join as there is something for everyone.”


The Duchy is full of rich pickings for anyone who wants to delve deeper into history and culture in Cornwall.  The first port of call has traditionally been the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies (FOCS).  FOCS is a registered charity and was founded in 1924 with the objective of collecting and maintaining “all those ancient things that make the spirit of Cornwall — its traditions, its old words and ways, and what remains to it of its Celtic language and nationality”.


There are now 41 individual societies dotted all over Cornwall, and all are charged with the same aims: to collect, record and publish information concerning Cornwall’s culture and heritage, including Cornish history, topography, place names, folklore, traditions, dialect, music, industries and similar subjects; to encourage the study and use of the Cornish language; and to support the preservation of Cornish antiquities and relics of the past.


Each society arranges its own programme, but each comprise a series of talks by invited speakers throughout the year with excursions during the summer months, including events such as the Midsummer Eve bonfire.  Originally, a chain of fires would spread from one end of Cornwall to the other, each on the highest ground in the locality so that they could be seen by each other.  Modern fire prevention requirements and archaeological concerns have sadly put paid to some of the events, but ageing memberships has killed off others.  I can personally attest to the bonfire held at Kit Hill being both spectacular and full of pathos.  And while there might not be quite so many as there used to be, when standing on top of Kit Hill on St John’s Eve you can still see other bonfires lit “down the line”, and the sense of connectedness that it brings is very moving.


The organisation welcomes new members and is particularly interested in involving more young people.  More information about where to find your local OCS can be find on the website,, which also has the link to the Facebook page.

Grand Bard Dr Merv Davey of Gorsedh Kernow - image credit Gareth Parry

Grand Bard Dr Merv Davey of Gorsedh Kernow – image credit Gareth Parry

Finally, perhaps the most well known historical group in Cornwall – but one to which membership is invitation only – is Gorsedh Kernow (GK), the association of Cornish Bards.  GK exists to maintain and give expression to the national spirit of Cornwall as a Celtic country.  It also includes in its aims the promotion of the study and use of the Cornish language, history, literature, art, music, sport and related subjects, as well as the fostering of good relations with other Celtic countries.


It holds two public ceremonies each year: a proclamation ceremony in April and an Eisteddfod, known as the Esedhvos, and the GK Bardic ceremony in September, all of which this year will be held in Launceston.


Following nomination by an existing Bard, prospective new Bards are elected by the Council of GK and the honour of Bardship is awarded to people who have given exceptional service to Cornwall, or to people who qualify by a high degree of proficiency in the Cornish language and people of distinction who, in the opinion of the Council, should be received as Bards of Honour.  More information can be found at


There are many other wonderful organisations that foster and encourage the study of history and culture in Cornwall, including fabulous museums and wonderful smaller community groups.  I’d encourage you to support any of them however you can; they are fundamental in maintaining and preserving the iconic traditions and stories of our glorious Duchy.


At a glance:


The Historical Association

Also on Facebook – search “The Cornwall/Kernow Branch of the Historical Association”.


The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies


Gorsedh Kernow


© Sally Bell 2017

Originally published in Cornwall Today

Respectful use of Cornwall’s holy wells


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Cornwall Today, January 2017

Holy wells have always been places of contemplation, prayer, pilgrimage and for some, sanctuary. In Cornwall, they were sacred places long before the coming of Christianity, and today the remaining wells are revered and enjoyed by people of many faiths along with the communities that surround them.

In historical context, they were important not only because their waters were “sweet”, or drinkable, but also if they were associated with a particular Saint, their water could be taken to the local Church for use in sacred rites. They became places where local people and pilgrims would come to pray, to be baptised, or be immersed in the healing waters. Different wells were renowned for their different healing properties; in 1894 the Quiller-Couch sisters wrote in their, “Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall” that local people made pilgrimages to Madron Holy Well in West Cornwall on the first three Sundays in May in order to cure rickets in children:

“Three times they were plunged into the water, after having been stripped naked; the parent, or person dipping them, standing facing the sun; after the dipping they were passed nine times round the well from east to west; then they were dressed and laid on St Madern’s bed; should they sleep, and the water in the well bubble, it was considered a good omen. Strict silence had to be kept during the entire performance, or the spell was broken.”

Indeed, Methodist services and baptisms were held at Madron Well until fairly recently. And Madron was also known for the tradition of tying small rags – or “clouties” to the surrounding trees – the theory was that as you prayed at the well, you tore off a piece of cloth that had been close to your skin, tied it to a tree, and then as it disintegrated, so too your worry or illness would disappear.

But an unprecedented event at Madron Well in September 2016 thrust it into the news and provoked an extraordinary reaction from local communities. A small metal cross was found glued to a stone in the Baptistry near the well site; this was brought to the attention of the general public via the Facebook page of the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network (CASPN), generating outcry. The reasons behind the protest seemed to be multi-faceted – some Pagans found it outrageous that a Christian symbol could be affixed to a site that had pre-Christian origins – although it was attached to the Christian baptistry chapel rather than the wellspring beside which the cloutie trees stand; some Christians found it troubling that someone presumably of their faith might do such a thing, but the real issue was that the site is an official scheduled monument, and legally nothing must ever be done to change a site in any way without permission of the relevant authorities. The cross was removed, the site was not permanently damaged, but it begs the question – if this action was inappropriate in so many ways, then what is an appropriate way to enjoy and venerate these special places in the 21st century? I sought the opinion of two very learned local women to find out.

Cheryl Straffon is a writer, publisher, pagan, Chair of the CASPN and author of “Fentynyow Kernow: In Search of Cornwall’s Holy Wells”. I asked her why the incident at Madron provoked such a reaction?

“CASPN has a lively Facebook community with over 1,500 subscribers who really care about our ancient sites. There’s a sense of ownership of sacred places; people feel that they belong to them and that nobody should do anything to affect them or alter them in any way. I think they have become important to all kinds of people in modern society, because we live in such a crazy, uncertain world, somehow these places which date back in time seem to have a permanence about them. And if you’re leaving bits of cloth tied to a tree, they’re not permanent; they will degrade or can easily be removed if not biodegradable. But this cross was affixed to the stone, and I think it was the permanence of the action that was particularly offensive.

We’ve seen some very strange things left at the sites, underwear and bus tickets, somebody recently left a huge floral tribute that had come from a funeral. But now it’s become so popular to leave something at a site that people feel they can’t visit without leaving something. It’s usually done with sincerity, and hope, and faith, but sometimes people forget that these sites are for everyone. It’s difficult because one person’s detritus is another person’s sacred object. But some sites are very vulnerable, and we’d ask people to respect the fact that these are scheduled sites and their nature must never be changed in any way without permission. We have to clear certain items from the sites or the sites would become overwhelmed. We believe the best kind of management of these sites is the invisible kind, where we tread lightly and work with the relevant authorities to preserve and maintain these very special places. We encourage everyone to treat these places with respect.”

Professor Michelle Brown is an expert in the area of Medieval History and also sits on the committee of CASPN. She’s a Lay Canon of Truro Cathedral and Professor Emerita of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. I started by asking her why holy wells are so important in our psyche?

“For human cultures all around the world, water has always been a potent symbol of the source of life. Therefore, sites associated with water and the point of entry and exit of water from the earth have been places that have exercised a great call on the human spiritual imagination. Many cultures, right back into antiquity, have chosen to see wells as sites of not only practical use, but as a spiritual focus of our relationship to something bigger than ourselves. So we find that around the world and in Cornwall in the landscape around us there are many such places that have been among the earliest sites of humanity trying to place itself in the bigger picture.

And perhaps to try to connect with the divine?  “Yes, to connect with the divine, but also to the land and the environment. And so different expressions of that human impulse, which we call religions, have all focused on similar places at different points in history. And one of the tendencies has always been to want to leave something of yourself – or something that symbolises your prayer and your personal part in that bigger relationship – behind. Within a Christian context, the votive offerings become known as clouties. So if you were going to a well for healing, you would leave your bandage tied to an adjacent tree and that symbolised your prayer, your hope for healing.   And taking the holy waters was part of that holistic healing of spirit and body. Many of the early wells, such as Madron, had Baptistries associated with them, and people across the centuries have carried on using them.

Sancreed Holy Well, Cornwall

Sancreed Holy Well, West Cornwall

So in the 21st century, what’s important about the wells to you?  “They are genuine and authentic places in our landscape where we can celebrate our humanity and our reaching out to place ourselves in a bigger picture both within our environment and the divine, the creative force. They’re deep waters that we can all dip into and that can sustain and refresh us all. They’re important as places in our landscape that celebrate our interaction with and sensitivity to that landscape, and as such they need to be carefully respected and although everybody can share them they should be recognised as historic monuments and places of living, multi-cultural, multi-faith traditions.”

And you’ve seen some pretty strange things being left at sites from time to time.  “Yes, we’ve seen everything from black bandages, underwear and burnt offerings to beautiful dream catchers and palm crosses. In one case we found an entire family of garden gnomes! Sadly we also see a great deal of plastic items. We would always encourage people to tread lightly, and if things are left that aren’t biodegradable, CASPN will periodically clear them away”.

So if members of the public want to come and enjoy these sites, what is an appropriate way of going about it?  “I’d encourage anyone wanting to visit our ancient sites to approach them with a sense of journey; both your journey and those of others dear to you. They’re good places to travel to, often they’re accessible with a little bit of effort, and they’re beautiful places of refreshment and thoughtful mindfulness in the landscape where you can take stock and think about the bigger questions of life. If we want to leave something of ourselves there, let’s make sure it’s of the landscape and that as we then move on, we make way for other people’s journeys.


At a glance:

Michelle’s book, “Pagans and Priests: the Coming of Christianity to Britain and Ireland” (2009) is readily available online, as is Cheryl’s book “Fentynyow Kernow: In Search of Cornwall’s Holy Wells” (2005).

For more information about the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network and a list of forthcoming events, see CASPN welcomes the assistance of volunteers at monthly clear-ups; the next clear-up will be at Sancreed Well on January 15 at 2pm, and a clear-up at Madron Well and Baptistry will be held on February 19 at 2pm. If you have any queries in advance, please contact Dave Munday on 01736 787 230 or email him at Do wear sensible clothing and footwear and please bring gardening gloves.

Guidance for visiting historic sites can be found on the Historic England website:


© Sally Bell 2017

Originally published in Cornwall Today

Seasonal Cheer in Stratton and Bude


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Cornwall Today December 2016


Having lived in the South West for over ten years, until recently – and to my shame – I had never been to Bude. But when I interviewed Alex Langstone from Cornwall Folklore recently (CT October, 2016) he mentioned that the towns of Stratton and Bude have a lovely tradition of carol singing, with carols that are peculiar to the area, and so it was time to right my wrong and head to the most north-easterly part of the Duchy.


While the seaside town of Bude may be the better known of the two, Stratton, which sits inland by a couple of miles, was originally the main town of the area. That is until the railway came, and tourism took over, and Bude became the star in the constellation of towns that make up the northern-most part of Cornwall.


Apart from its spectacular beaches, sea pool and canal, Bude’s greatest treasure is an interesting piece of early Victorian architecture known as The Castle”. Formerly the home of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, a fêted but now somewhat forgotten engineer and inventor, it now houses an excellent Heritage Centre, complete with galleries, shop and café which all enjoy spectacular views of the sand dunes, town and beaches beyond.


I arranged to meet Janine King, Heritage Development Officer, to find out more about the two towns and the intriguingly named Sir Goldsworthy. Janine was a helpful and enthusiastic guide and having been brought up in the area, she was able to give a “local’s” viewpoint on the history of the towns and the forces that had shaped them. It quickly became obvious that there is more to Bude and Stratton than initially meets the eye.


The well constructed and visually engaging displays range from insights into local shipwrecks, battles and wars, the geology of the area and finally Sir Goldsworthy Gurney himself. There is a depiction of “Sir Bevil Grenvile’s Regiment of the Sealed Knot” by artist Robert Lenkeiwicz, and I was delighted to see references to the Bude Surf Life Saving Club (the first surf life-saving club in Cornwall), which was started with the assistance of Aussie lifeguards. A mechanical display shows how in Victorian times, canal boats were winched up a hill to get to higher ground in order to collect goods, then winched down again to get the goods back to the canal at sea level. It’s a worthy illustration of fabulous ingenuity and an important nod to Bude and Stratton’s industrial past.


Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, Cornish engineer and inventor


Regular readers of this column will note that I occasionally take the liberty of slipping a personal connection into my writing. My closest school friend when I was growing up in Melbourne, Australia was Katherine Gurney, who comes from a family of architects and designers, and so it was with great delight that I discovered that The Castle was built by and home to another Gurney – Sir Goldsworthy. Gurney is often referred to as Cornwall’s “forgotten genius” and when looking at the displays about his life it’s easy to see why.


Born near Padstow, Goldsworthy Gurney was an engineer, inventor, surgeon, chemist, lecturer, architect, pianist and scientist of the Victorian era. Inspired by Richard Trevithick, he dreamed up many ingenious innovations, including a series of early steam-powered road vehicles. His was a story of boom and bust, yet with the application of classic Cornish can-do attitude, he recovered from bankruptcy to create a novel form of illumination, the Bude light, examples of which can still be seen in Trafalgar Square and Pall Mall today. He lit the Houses of Parliament in London, and one of the fascinating displays in the Heritage Centre is a set of keys to the Palace of Westminster, gifted to Gurney. He famously claimed that he could light the whole of The Castle with just one of his lights and many mirrors. Gurney invented “limelight”, the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, the steam jet, and laid claim to the blastpipe, a key component in the success of steam engines. He also built huge Gurney stoves, which were used to heat enormous areas such as cathedrals, an example of which is in The Castle. The Castle itself is also one of his inventions. Legend has it that Gurney was challenged to build his new house in Bude on sand, with the challengers believing it couldn’t be done. Gurney’s response was “Wait and see.” That was in 1830, and anyone visiting The Castle today will readily see that Gurney has had the last laugh.


If you haven’t been, I strongly encourage you to visit The Castle and learn a little about the rich and varied heritage of Bude and Stratton. And there’s no better time to visit than Christmas – a Christmas market will be held at the Castle on Sunday 4 December, and there are lots of other events taking place during the festive season including the Christmas Day Swim.


And speaking of Christmas, what about those special Stratton carols that I mentioned earlier? The Old Cornwall Society hosts the “Stratton Hundred Carols” each year. It recalls the traditional carols of the area known as the Stratton Hundred and is an event close the hearts of many local people. This year, the event will be held on Monday 28 November at 7:30 pm at the Parkhouse Centre, Bude. Carols from the local area will be sung along with better known Cornish carols such as “Hark The Glad Sound”. All are welcome to bring their voices to this great celebration of the season and the music of the area, and more information can be found on the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies website (see below). The programme will then be repeated at Truro Cathedral on Monday 19th December at 6 pm and I’m very much looking forward to being in the audience.


And so, at this very poignant time of the year, I’d like to take the opportunity to wish you all Nadelik Lowen ha Blydhen Nowydh Da – Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.


At a glance:


The Castle, Bude


Visit Bude


Federation of Old Cornwall Societies

The Redruth Wassail


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Cornwall Today, Redruth Wassail

Cornwall Today – November 2016

I’m sitting in one of Redruth’s hidden gems, the Melting Pot Café at Krowji, Cornwall’s creative hub in the up cycled former Redruth Grammar School. Redruth sits in the centre of the Cornish Mining World Heritage site, and Krowji, in its former industrial heartland, is Cornwall’s largest creative hub.


The café is warm, colourful and bohemian with mysterious corners and book-lined alcoves begging to be explored. I’m here to meet Mike Chappell, Town councillor and passionate Redruth local, to chat about the revival of both the Redruth Wassail and the town’s flourishing community spirit.


Mike is a native of Redruth and spent 30 years in the police force before returning home. “I was born in this town, as were generations of my family on my mother’s side, and I felt a real call to come back here to retire.”

Councillor Mike Chappell at the Melting Pot Cafe, Krowji

Councillor Mike Chappell at the Melting Pot Cafe, Krowji

But “retirement” didn’t last long; before he knew it he was busy with offers to get involved in various community organisations. He began a new career as a writer and poet, and buoyed by publication of his work and being accepted into Cornwall’s vibrant poetry scene he quickly became hooked.


Social media has proved to be a useful asset to this new vocation. Mike now runs six Facebook pages with nearly 20,000 followers, including “The Cornish Are A Nation”, and the “International Cornish Association” page, responsible for connecting sons and daughters of Cornwall to stories and events of interest both locally and nationally.


“I’m in daily contact with Cornish people from around the world. And when they come back to Cornwall, I look after them.”


And his interests also include politics. “I’m quite a political animal, I was part of the campaign group that saw Cornish people recognised by the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities in 2014. I’m a prolific letter writer as well and I’m not afraid to tackle politicians. I’ve been a Town councillor for a few years now, and I love it. I’m not aligned with a political party and that’s how I like it – I see myself as being in the ‘Redruth party’ because that’s who I stand for”.


So what is it that Mike loves about his town? “Redruth has been through really hard times. As a young boy in the ’60s I remember it as a thriving town, it was still on the back of mining and mining engineering – at one time it had been the wealthiest area in the world. But I think the one thing Redruth has got, and it’s been something I’ve been very proud to tap into, is a very strong sense of community. And that’s more important than pounds in your pocket. I still know of people here that leave their keys in their car and their doors unlocked. And to say that in the 21st century is incredible. Of course you do get crime, I’m on the local Police liaison group, but we are lucky that our crime rate here is incredibly low, and I’m proud of that and I’m proud of the people in this town.


What is it about Redruth that give it this sense of community? “It’s difficult to put your finger on it, but I think it’s just how Cornish people are, we’re incredibly outward looking and we think about other people. Cornish people have a way of connecting to each other – at home and abroad – in a very strong way. I was once in Dallas, Texas and struck up a conversation with a businessman whose great-great grandfather was Mayor of Truro. We sat and chatted to each other for two hours and you’d think we’d known each other all our lives, and it’s an incredible thing. We are the indigenous people of this land and we are all connected.”


I absolutely agree with this, I personally have had so many similar “co-incidental” experiences, from striking up conversations with strangers to then find we both have Cornish ancestry or the discovery that the majority of my dearest, closest friends – here in the UK and in Australia – have Cornish ancestry. There is a sense that we are bound by something and that we recognise that in each other. I can’t quantify it but it’s a feeling so strong for me that I also can’t deny it.

The Redruth Wassail Parade, 2015

The Redruth Wassail Parade, 2015

And while the sense of Cornish identity appears to be strengthening in the face of funding cuts to the Cornish language, more talk of what devolution might mean and the looming threats of “Devonwall”, it’s still community events that are at the heart of bringing people in the Duchy together.


In 2015 Mike was instrumental in the revival of the Redruth Wassail, a custom originally embedded in the Christmas guizing traditions of the area. In a similar fashion to the Bodmin Wassail (CT January 2016), Wassailers would go from house to house, singing and carrying a bowl full of specially concocted spiced ale, offering it to the householder or landlord as they went. The Wassailers would then receive a reward of some form of refreshment and continue on their way.


Simon Reed from the Cornish Culture Association wrote a book on Wassailing several years ago and came across the Redruth tradition. He approached the Town Council to revive the event which they agreed to, with the help of Mike Chappell. The revived Wassail is based on Simon’s research and includes the performance of the Redruth Wassail song.

The Redruth Wassail Bowl

The Redruth Wassail Bowl

Simon says “The 2015 Wassail was one of the most successful events I’ve ever been involved with. It’s beautiful in its simplicity and is getting bigger this year thanks to the work of CCA trustees Pol Jenkin and Jo Kennedy. It will include a Cornish celebration this year at the Miner’s Arms and everyone is invited. I am so delighted that we can support the community of Redruth and bring this very special tradition to its people”.


This year’s event will be held on Saturday 26th November and will start at the Regal Cinema at 5:30pm with stops thereafter. It will be led by a procession of musicians and singers who stop at several places in the town, including under the town clock where the bowl is presented to the Mayor of Redruth. The bowl was commissioned and decorated by Pol Jenkin and the custom is now set to occur on the last Saturday of November every year. Dress will be mock formal with seasonal greenery and all are welcome to this wonderful celebration of one of Cornwall’s proudest towns.


The Redruth Wassail Song


The Mistress and Master our wassail begin,

Pray open the door and let us come in.


Chorus: With our wassail, wassail, wassail, wassail;

And joy come to our jolly wassail


The Mistress and Master sitting down by the fire,

While we poor wassailers are travelling in the mire.


The Mistress and Master sitting down at their ease,

Put their hands in their pockets and give what they please.


I hope that your apple trees will prosper and bear,

That we may have cyder when we call next year.


And where you’ve one hogshead I hope you’ll have ten.

So what we may have cyder when we call again.


I hope that your barley will prosper and grow,

So that you may have some and enough to bestow.


Now we poor wassail boys growing weary and cold,

Drop a small bit of silver into our bowl.


I wish you a blessing and a long time to live,

Since you’ve been so free and willing to give.


At a glance:




The Melting Pot Café


Visit Redruth


Cornish Culture Association


© Sally Bell 2016

Originally published in Cornwall Today

Nos Calan Gwaf

It’s Allantide again… if you fancy learning more about Halloween traditions in Cornwall, read my blog from October 2015 here:


Image by Kate Geraghty Image by Kate Geraghty

My first job in Cornwall was at Cornish Orchards in Duloe, working on the production room floor. It was hard work, pressing, bottling, pasteurizing and labeling juice and cider, but the fantastic camaraderie made the time pass quickly and my workmates gave me a crash course in Cornish life and Cornish humour for which I will always be grateful.

The best task I was given was during the first (and only) autumn I worked there. I was presented with a recipe, a box of oranges, a peeler, numerous bags of herbs and a hosepipe. I was then directed to a large heated vat, instructed to fill it with water and add the appropriate amounts of herbs according to the instructions and the peel from the box of oranges and stir. The result, some hours later, was a steaming cauldron of amazingly scented liquid, which was to…

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Cornish folklore and ghost stories​


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I love a good ghost story, but I confess to preferring to err on the “entertained” side of scared. I’d like to say I’m tougher but I’m just not. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m in the unusual position of being home alone and I’m actually finding it quite unnerving. What is it about ghost stories that pulls us towards them in such a love/hate way? I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that Cornwall has a treasure trove of fabulous tales that range from the sublime to the actually-very-scary and everything in between. With legends of “the wild hunt” and flying dogs among others, there’s a rich catalogue to explore. And there’s no better time to indulge in a few spooky stories than October, when the nights begin to draw in and the veils between the worlds become thin.


I have had two ghostly experiences in Cornwall. First, while researching family history in West Cornwall many years ago, I was standing in the doorway of an old pub when the external door opened, then closed in front of me. Then the heavy, wooden internal door going into the pub then opened, and closed. There was no one else around; I have no explanation for it. I recently met the new owners of the pub recently and they said when they took it on, they decided to have it blessed, as even the local dogs wouldn’t go inside. I’m pleased to report that it’s now a warm and cosy spot to spend a couple of pleasant hours with no spectral interruptions. My most recent experience happened earlier this year when I was staying at a stately home, also in West Cornwall. Apart from seeing an old man appear in a pitch black room of the house – he became visible only when the headlights of my car shone into the room – I then spent the rest of the night with the television and lights on after the constant sound of footsteps upstairs (in what I had been assured was an empty part of the house) had kept me awake and rattled me into the early hours. It should be said that I am neither an hysterical woman nor a fantasist; these are very real experiences that have happened exactly as I’ve written them.


I decided to seek the opinion of an expert. Alex Langstone is an author, folklorist and founder of the Cornish Folklore – Lien gwerinek a Gernow website. His Facebook group of the same name has over 1,800 members and is a wonderful resource for anyone seeking information about Cornish stories – true or imagined.



Alex Langstone

I asked Alex if, as a folklorist, if it’s a challenge to approach the telling of stories without turning them into a confection of hype and exaggeration. “Absolutely. There’s too much “VisitorLore” as AK Hamilton-Jenkin called it. Folklore is the stories of the people and place – all of the people. It can be difficult to differentiate between what is genuinely old, what has been dropped into Cornish folklore from elsewhere, especially in, say, the Victorian gothic revival period, and then what has been layered across the top, in terms of primary evidence”. I add that the diversity of Cornwall, its landscape and cultural difference between geographic areas must create a challenge, especially if you have to bundle “Cornish folklore” together as a whole. “Yes, it is so diverse, and you also have the problem that what one person calls East Cornwall, another person calls North Cornwall, and so on”. Alex’s forthcoming book, “From Granite to Sea: The Folklore of Bodmin Moor and East Cornwall” addresses the gap in reported folklore from this part of Cornwall, and brings in some exciting tales that Alex has collected.


One of the stories Alex mentions in his book is the tale of “Patten Peg”, and this tale also features in the “Mazed Tales” project. Produced by Denzil Monk, recently of the Man Engine fame, Mazed Tales is a multi-media community project designed to reinvigorate traditional droll (story) telling in South East Cornwall and re-imagine it for the digital age. There are numerous tales on the website, some of them animated in English and Kernewek and voiced by Will Coleman, also of the Man Engine Project. The project has now finished but the website is well worth a look; my children particularly like the stories but be warned, they are quite dark. Old Patten Peg was from the village of Antony, and she gained her name from her habit of wearing wooden overshoes called pattens to keep her feet dry. Peg was very poor, the story goes that she cursed a man who refused to give a drop of milk. He died as a result, so she dug him up, chopped off his leg, mixed it with spiders, drank the potion and died, then haunted the village with the sound of her pattened footsteps on the cobblestones of the streets forever more. That’s enough to give even me the heebeegeebees.



Forrabury Church, Boscastle

Alex and I also talked about the story of the lost bells of Forrabury Church in North Cornwall. It’s particularly appealing as one of the Cornish – originally Norman – families that I’m descended from was the de Bottreaux family of Boscastle. The residents of Boscastle could no longer tolerate the joyful peals of bells from the neighbouring village of Tintagel and decided they should have some of their own for their church at Forrabury. There had also been the suggestion made that the bells would keep away the threat of the Plague, so their case was even more urgent. They petitioned the Church council, which then went to Lord Bottreaux, who decided three bells should be commissioned from London. When the bells were ready, they traveled to Boscastle by boat. The proud Boscastle villagers boasted to their neighbours that their bells were coming from the best manufacturer in London, and before too long the sound of Tintagel’s bells would pale into insignificance. But the boat and its crew came undone – as they neared Boscastle harbour, the pilot heard the bells of Tintagel church and devoutly crossed himself. The Captain mocked the pilot’s superstition, then, as it sailed closer to the harbour, the boat was swamped by a freak wave, and all the crew, and the bells, were lost. It’s said when the storms draw in from the Atlantic, the bells can still be heard, tolling from their watery grave. It’s also said that this was the beginning of the downfall of the de Bottreaux family, and all that is left of them now is the mound on which their castle stood. The church tower is still called “The Silent Tower of Bottreaux”. Now that’s a cracking tale for my children.



At a glance:


Cornish Folklore – Lien gwerinek a Gernow

You can meet Alex Langstone at the cultural expo at the Lowender Peran International Celtic Festival cultural expo on Sunday 6 November, 2016, 11am – 4pm, Atlantic Hotel, Newquay. Entry is free.

Mazed Tales


© Sally Bell 2016

Originally published in Cornwall Today