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 http://www.harbourlightsmedia.com – standby for it to go live very soon).

 

At a glance:

Trelawny Shout

www.cornwallfoundation.com

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

Visit Cornwall

www.visitcornwall.com

Perranporth Tourist Information Centre ph 01872 575254 or see www.perranporthinfo.co.uk

St Piran’s Trust

www.stpiran.org

 

© Sally Bell 2017

Originally published in Cornwall Today

www.cornwalltoday.co.uk

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.

ct-feb-2017

 

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, www.oldcornwall.net, 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 www.gorsedhkernow.org.uk.

 

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

www.history.org.uk

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

 

The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies

www.oldcornwall.net

 

Gorsedh Kernow

www.gorsedhkernow.org.uk

 

© Sally Bell 2017

Originally published in Cornwall Today

www.cornwalltoday.co.uk

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 www.cornishancientsites.com. 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 dave@cornishancientsites.com. Do wear sensible clothing and footwear and please bring gardening gloves.

Guidance for visiting historic sites can be found on the Historic England website:  www.historicengland.org.uk

 

© Sally Bell 2017

Originally published in Cornwall Today

www.cornwalltoday.co.uk

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

www.thecastlebude.org.uk

 

Visit Bude

www.visitbude.info

 

Federation of Old Cornwall Societies

www.oldcornwall.net

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:

 

Krowji

www.krowji.org.uk

 

The Melting Pot Café

www.themeltingpotcafe.co.uk

 

Visit Redruth

www.visitredruth.co.uk

 

Cornish Culture Association

www.cornishculture.co.uk

 

© Sally Bell 2016

Originally published in Cornwall Today

www.cornwalltoday.co.uk

Nos Calan Gwaf

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

thisissallybell

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.

 

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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.

 

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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

www.cornishfolklore.co.uk

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.

www.lowenderperan.co.uk

Mazed Tales

www.mazedtales.org

 

© Sally Bell 2016

Originally published in Cornwall Today

www.cornwalltoday.co.uk

The power of #Poldark

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With Chris Packham, filming “The Books That Made Britain – The Cornish Coast”

Poldark returns to our screens tonight and I can’t wait. For me, it’s proper Sunday night telly – there’s the sweeping shots of stunning landscapes, a cracking tale with great characters, stories of Cornwall’s fascinating mining heritage and the struggles of those involved in the industry, Cornish music and dance and yes, ok, the odd scything or bathing scenes don’t hurt either. And according to the BBC, in the second series it’s “1790 and there is riot and revolution in the air. Ross Poldark must once again fight for his freedom when George Warleggan tries desperately to steal his mine and have him hanged as a revolutionary. Can Demelza save Ross from himself?” Mining and villains aside, Ross had me at hello so I’m in – for the long haul of however many of the Poldark books celebrated screenwriter Debbie Horsfield is prepared to adapt.

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Aidan Turner as Captain Ross Poldark on this month’s cover of “Cornwall Today”

Of course there have been criticisms; you don’t often see buildings made of Cotswold stone in Cornwall, and the actors playing the lead roles aren’t Cornish, but the production company, Mammoth Screen, went to great lengths to ensure authenticity when working on locations, with dialects, and with cultural aspects of the television adaptation. You can even see the Grand Bard of Cornwall, Merv Davey, playing the Cornish double-chantered bagpipes, and his wife, Cornish dance expert Alison Davey, co-ordinating the dance scenes in both series.

And it’s hard to argue with its success – at its peak, series one was drawing close to 10 million viewers, and the boost to Cornish tourism from international sales is now being felt. According to Visit Cornwall, there are now any number of Poldark “experiences” you can try out; perhaps kayaking around St Agnes Head, or horse riding on the Bodmin Moor “Poldark Trail”, visiting Poldark Mine on the Lizard peninsula or walking through “Poldark Land”, which is the new name for the filming locations across the Duchy which feature in the TV adaptation. You can buy the books, the DVDs, the colouring books, mugs with Ross and Demelza’s mugs on them (sorry Ross and Demelza), an “official Poldark merchandise safety letter opener with Ross on Horse”, key rings (“Ross on Horse” or “Ross on the Harbour”), there’s even an – ahem – “Sexy Ross Poldark in Cornwall” t-shirt available. The less said about that the better…

But it’s clear that, with their typical entrepreneurial spirit, the people of Cornwall have made the most of the opportunities to encourage visitors to engage with the Poldark zeitgeist. And the Poldark fans are something to be reckoned with. Recently I was asked to be a contributor for a new BBC One South West programme, “The Books That Made Britain: The Cornish Coast”. The show is part of a national series, and the episode focussing on Cornwall features the works of various authors including Daphne du Maurier, Jack Clemo and the author of the Poldark series, Winston Graham. We filmed at Botallack in West Cornwall, near where my Cornish ancestors lived and worked before they emigrated to Australia to mine copper and gold in the 1800s.

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Chris Packham and Sally Bell filming at Botallack, West Penwith, Cornwall

I was being interviewed by the TV presenter, naturalist, wildlife expert and campaigner, Chris Packham, about the influence the Poldark books had had on me and my decision to move to Cornwall from Australia ten years ago. Chris was charming and professional, interesting and interested in my connection with the Duchy. We sat on the cliffs looking down to the engine houses of The Crowns while kestrels flew in the background and Atlantic waves crashed obligingly. The next day I innocently tweeted a photo of Chris and me, making reference to the fact that we’d done some filming about the Poldark books.

The response was extraordinary. My twitter numbers tripled overnight with dozens of retweets and hundreds of likes all because of a simple Poldark hashtag. I’m sure the fact that the very popular host of the show retweeted it to his thousands of followers also contributed to this but it was nonetheless an extraordinary response to what I thought had been a pretty low-key event. Thrillingly, I even had a “like” from Robin Ellis, the original Ross Poldark in the 1970s adaptation, who also had a role in the new series. I now understand the passion that Poldark fans have for both the books and the TV programmes; I can’t even begin to imagine how the actors’ lives have changed as a result of the interest in their characters. And with twelve books in Winston Graham’s series and a third series in the TV adaptation just announced, the fans have got a lot more to look forward to.

My experience of Poldark began when I made my first family history research trip to Cornwall 15 years ago. A friend suggested that I might like the books – or the original 1970s TV adaptation, but when I got back to Australia, the VHS (yes readers, it was a long time ago) series was too expensive and I couldn’t find the books anywhere. Until a day when I was again, researching family history, this time in a small mining village in country Victoria near to where my Cornish family had settled. I was browsing in an antique shop, but couldn’t find anything I was interested in and was about to walk out. Just then, it was almost as if an unknown voice said, “Look up!” I turned, looked up, and there at the top of a dusty old bookshelf were the first 10 Poldark books. I bought all of them, and they’ve now made their way with me to the South West.  Reading them gave me a sense of connection to not just the story and the characters but even more importantly to the landscape where my family had come from.  And who knows what made me look up in that shop… maybe it was Winston Graham’s spirit calling out to me, or maybe I’ve been swept away with the romanticism of his novels, either way I’m looking forward to Sunday nights in September.

 

At a glance:

“Poldark” returns to BBC One on 4 September, 2016.

“The Books That Made Britain: The Cornish Coast” will be shown on BBC One South West on 16 October, 2016.

Cornish Mining World Heritage Site www.cornish-mining.org

Botallack www.nationaltrust.org.uk/botallack

Visit Cornwall www.visitcornwall.com

Poldark on the BBC www.bbc.co.uk/programmes

Mammoth Screen www.mammothscreen.com/mammoth-productions/poldark/

 

© Sally Bell 2016

Originally published in Cornwall Today

www.cornwalltoday.co.uk

 

Singing and community spirit in Cornwall

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My birthday treat this year was to spend the week in Penzance, which is fast becoming my favourite place in Cornwall. Recently featured as “the place to be” in several national newspapers, Penzance’s star seems to be on the ascendant and we had a fabulous week. We packed as much in as we could, including the “Don’t Wake The Fish” festival at the Gurnard’s Head, Squashbox Theatre at the Minack, cocktails and supper at the Cornish Barn, an afternoon in the beer garden at The Old Coastguard, the opening of the Jubilee Pool, fish and chips on the Prom, a walk to the top of Chun Castle, a trip to St Michael’s Mount AND a choir rehearsal for the Man Engine Project (see CT July 2016). I’m exhausted just thinking about it. But it was a joyful experience that just seemed to unfold so naturally – opportunities to do exciting things just kept coming our way and we felt impelled to do them all.

The Oggymen at Don't Wake The Fish at the Gurnard's Head

The Oggymen at Don’t Wake The Fish at the Gurnard’s Head

The “Don’t Wake The Fish” Festival is a weekend of superb food, drink and entertainment at the legendary Gurnard’s Head hotel in West Penwith. We were entertained by fellow Cornwall Today columnist, Kernow King, who never fails to engage the crowd with his insightful take on Cornish culture – my children have been re-enacting his “flashing the headlights” routine ever since.

Kernow King in action at Don't Wake The Fish

Kernow King in action at Don’t Wake The Fish

We were then serenaded by the Oggymen, a group of friends from Falmouth who, according to their website, “delight in singing traditional Cornish songs in three part harmony”. My children and I happily delighted in hearing them, and I was struck once again by what seems to be a running theme in this series – how can we create or maintain cultural experiences that are relevant to the younger generations? From the way my children – and many others – were enjoying both the Oggymen and Kernow King, it seems it’s happening in spades already.

Once they had finished their gig, I asked Andy Rowe, one of the lead singers, what singing meant to him. “Pub singing as a tradition is still hanging on in Cornwall and we wanted to carry it on,” he said. “It all snowballed into doing live events and gigs. Most of our parents were involved in singing one way or another and we never were, but we all got to our late twenties and decided it would be a good idea to try and keep the tradition alive.”

The Oggymen at Don't Wake The Fish at the Gurnard's Head

The Oggymen at Don’t Wake The Fish at the Gurnard’s Head

Again, it seems that, from anecdotal evidence, you have to either move away or get to your late twenties before you get interested in traditional activities – is it important to the Oggymen that the traditions of Cornish culture are maintained? “That’s why we do it, to keep both the songs and the tradition of how they’re sung going, but strangely we now don’t sing in the pubs as much as we used to because there’s such a demand for us singing on stage, which is a nice thing to do because it opens peoples eyes to that world. There’s something very grounding about singing, the farm labourer can be singing with the local millionaire but when they’re singing together they’re an equal unit.” And it seems the next generation of Oggymen is already coming through, though most of the current members have had daughters so they may need to reconsider renaming the group!

Andy says, “There’s lots of male voice choirs in Cornwall and the social side of it, going out and having a pint, and a laugh, and a joke afterwards is really important. And it goes hand in hand with other things like gig rowing, sailing and fishing.” Of course most men don’t need too much encouragement to get down to the pub, but sometimes making time to catch up with friends can be challenging as our lives get busier and our focus is on work, family, finances, and looking at our phones and tablets rather than each other. And that can be a really important part of traditional activities – the spirit of community that comes about as a result of it is as important as the events themselves.

Fisherman's Friends at Port Isaac, Cornwall

Fisherman’s Friends at Port Isaac, Cornwall, June 2015

Singing has been such a treasured part of my experience of living in the South West. As much as we loved the Oggymen, my family’s first love was for the Fisherman’s Friends and nothing beats a Friday night on the Platt at Port Isaac with the boys singing. These public gigs bring people from far and wide, as well as locally, and aside from instilling an incredible sense of community and passing down traditional songs it’s an opportunity once again for the younger generation of music lovers to get involved. The other really lovely side of the concerts is that they are free, and all donations are given to charities of the group’s choice. My children (and if I may, CT’s Editor’s daughter) have become unofficial mascots for the group and while it can be slightly perturbing to here mild sailor’s language coming from the mouths of (almost) babes, it’s delightful to see the way the children engage with the music and the performance.

Will Coleman of Golden Tree Productions leads the Man Engine Choir

Will Coleman of Golden Tree Productions leads the Man Engine Choir

And so it was at Hayle recently when, at a rehearsal for the Man Engine project, my eldest daughter Daisy leant her sweet 8-year-old voice to the choir which was made up mainly of the rather more senior members of the Praze Hayle choir. As enthusiastic Musical Director Will Coleman took us through our paces for the new pieces (co-written by Cornwall’s Grand Bard and esteemed musician, Merv Davey), the delight was clear to see on everyone’s faces. If you can get to one of the rehearsals, which are being held all over the Duchy and Tavistock where the Man Engine will start it’s journey, I strongly encourage you do to so. It’s an opportunity to engage in something thoroughly life-affirming, a joining of young and old, traditional and contemporary and an example of Cornwall’s rich community spirit in action.

 

At a glance:

The Oggymen www.oggymen.co.uk

The Fisherman’s Friends www.thefishermansfriends.com

The Gurnard’s Head www.gurnardshead.co.uk

The Man Engine www.themanengine.org.uk

 

© Sally Bell 2016

Originally published in Cornwall Today

http://www.cornwalltoday.co.uk

Bodmin Riding and Heritage Day

Cornwall Today - July 2016

One of the great joys of the last year of writing this column has been the people I’ve met. They have spoken of the heritage of Cornwall and its traditions, both new and revived, with such passion and enthusiasm that no one could doubt that Cornish culture – though arguably underfunded – is alive and thriving.

A particular aspect of this is the influence of these occasions on the young people of Cornwall. It could be assumed that heritage events are for the older generation but I’ve found the opposite is true. There is so much work being done at grass roots level, both by organisations such as Gorsedh Kernow and the many small but dedicated groups and individuals, who do their best to engage children and young people in a variety of aspects of cultural activity.

In the town of Bodmin, this happens with a couple of events in particular – the Bodmin Wassail (CT, January 2016) and the Bodmin Riding and Heritage Day in July.

Bodmin Riding is the town’s great feast day that was traditionally held on 7 July. Like many Cornish festivals, it originally began with a mock mayor election. People would assemble in large numbers just outside of Bodmin to elect this “Mayor of Misrule” in order that he should punish petty offenders. According to the historian Robert Hunt, young men of the town would round up their mates in order that they should be “arrested” and stand trial for minor misdemeanors such as “wearing one spur” or “wanting a girdle”, then face their punishment which would be a prank of some kind.

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The celebration was revived in the 1970s and now includes the excellent addition of the “Beast of Bodmin” which celebrates the ancient custom of guise dancing. The terrifying beast is chased through the streets of the town by the Heliers; a group of hunky young men, dressed in vests and kilts and with woaded faces who goad and ultimately capture the Beast then gruesomely pull his tongue out. The Beast is then placed on trial by the Ragadaziow, mock magistrates who carry a casket allegedly containing the bones of St Petroc. This trial takes the form of a mummer’s play, acted by mysterious creatures in leather masks who weave both history and current political and social commentary into their script. This could be particularly interesting this year as it’s rumoured the Grand Bard of Gorsedh Kernow may be one of these masked men, and I’m sure he’s got plenty to say about recent cuts to Cornish language funding, among other things. In addition there’s the symbolism of the Beast – as an incarnation of Cornwall – having his tongue pulled out, symbolizing the language being taken away.

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bodmin 24Tina Varcoe is a Cornishwoman who loves this particular celebration of her culture. Born in Canada, the daughter of a Cornish mining engineer returned to the Duchy when she was young and forged a career in education. When teaching English at Cornwall College she started the “Cornwall – One and All” Facebook page as a photography project with a former student.

“We thought we’d just go out and interview people and take photos, because I really like people and their stories”, she says. This pictorial celebration of the people of Cornwall is now followed by over 2,500 people. It features hundreds of photos of ordinary people in Cornwall along with a snapshot interview.

Luke Stevens with Bodmin Wassail cupAs part of the project, Tina regularly attends traditional and revived events and her favourite among them is the Bodmin Riding and Heritage Day. She got involved through her friend Luke Stevens, who is also one of the Bodmin Wassailers and a fabulous example of a young Cornish man engaging in the tradition of his town and helping it survive and thrive. I met Luke in January and was struck by his passion and enthusiasm for the event, and it occurred to me that there’s a trend of young guys in Bodmin wanting to get involved in traditional events.

bodmin 21“If I’m honest,” says Tina, “the thing that really grabs me is the masculinity of the event. It’s such a good masculinity – it’s strong and it’s kind, and Luke embodies it for me. When Luke was a Helier I followed him around taking photos. He and the other Heliers were dressed in their kilts, holding their staffs and singing Cornish songs – it was just glorious! The theatricality is brilliant but what really excites me is that you can see younger boys looking up to the Heliers and wanting to be part of the whole thing.”

“It’s something that people frequently come to later in life, and it really enhances their experience of living in Cornwall. It’s a new way of being – a kind of nationalism that isn’t prejudiced. Someone like Luke – who’s married to a New Zealander – appreciates the individuality of everyone he meets, but also loves being Cornish, and yet it’s not jingoistic – this is exactly the role model we need for young people. It’s really wholesome, respectful, strong and authentic”.

It reminds me of what the Grand Bard, Merv Davey said to me when I interviewed him last year – that Cornwall should be so secure in its identity that anyone can come and join in.

In addition to the Beast of Bodmin rampaging around the Town and the Ragadaziow’s orations, Bodmin Riding and Heritage Day also features a food festival, historic cars and motorcycles on display, groups giving talks on Bodmin’s history, live music and children’s activities. At 1:00pm children from local schools will parade down Fore Street to the Riding Tune, lead by the Bodmin Town Band. The children will perform the riding Dance and will be judged by the Mayor from Mount Folly.

Do get along and support this wonderful day – children will love the festivities and there will be lots to keep them occupied. And Mums might just enjoy the sight of the Heliers going past – putting a whole new spin on how to enjoy Cornish culture!

Bodmin Riding and Heritage Day will be held on Saturday 2 July, 2016. More details at www.visitcornwall.com.

One and All, the Faces of Cornwall can be found at www.facebook.com/FacesOfCornwall/

Photo credits © Tina Varcoe 2016

© Sally Bell 2016

Originally published in Cornwall Today

http://www.cornwalltoday.co.uk