Last night was the annual Midsummer Eve Bonfire on Kit Hill in Cornwall. The Christianised version of Midsummer (or the Summer Solstice), is St John’s Eve, and June 24 is the designated Feast Day of St John. As with most old festivals, observance of the event begins at sunset on the preceding day, and so it was last night that we ascended Kit Hill to celebrate.
Kit Hill, or Bre Skowl in Cornish, is an easily identifiable object in the landscape of South East Cornwall. It forms part of the Tamar Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it’s easy to see why.
Situated in between the Tamar River and the town of Callington, its graceful curves are covered with patchwork fields and its peak is capped with an impressive mine stack. It’s home to Neolithic and Bronze Age barrows, mine works and an abundance of wildlife, and it was given to the people of Cornwall by Prince Charles (who is of course, the Duke of Cornwall), on the birth of Prince William in 1985.
So it was a bit of an adventure last night – completely mad really, as it was a school night and proceedings weren’t supposed to start until 8:30pm, and with the ceremony not being conducted at 10:00pm. But it was a perfect Summer’s evening – mild, without a breath of wind, no prospect of rain, so we packed the children into the car with camping chairs, chocolate muffins and hot chocolate and set off.
The view from the top is something to behold. A perfect 360 degree panorama of Cornwall, from north coast to south coast, from Dartmoor to Bodmin Moor. Stopping on the side of the road, our eldest, Daisy, exclaimed “Mum, this just makes me feel so Cornish!”. It would be impossible not to be affected by such a perspective, especially on such a glorious evening.
At the top of the hill, there’s a large, flat area and the mine stack. When we got there, people were already gathering. There was a pre-prepared pyre ready for lighting, a car with a PA gently playing Cornish pipe music, and a rather loud (but eminently necessary) food van. Daisy immediately ran around the site, with the kind of exuberance only a 7-year-old who’s still up at 9:00pm on a school night can muster. Before long we were treated to live music from a piper and mandolin player who were magnificently silhouetted against the slowly lowering sun.
The dancing began, tentatively at first, and then with enthusiasm and vigour, dancers being led around the bonfire, and Daisy, proudly waving her St Piran’s Flag joining in.
By 10:00pm we were all silenced by the sound of a lone piper and drummer who were playing atop a granite knoll to the edge of the site. This was Merv and Alison Davey, local exponents of Cornish music, dance and folk tradition. They are highly esteemed, lovely people who are the driving force behind Lowender Peran, the annual Cornish Celtic festival, and the website, www.an-daras.com.
Merv and Alison processed down to meet the members of the Callington Town Council and the Launceston and Callington Old Cornwall Societies, who then walked to and around the bonfire. A ceremony was then held, in Cornish and English, prayers were said and a symbolic sheath of flowers was laid on the bonfire. The fire was then lit, to great response, and as everyone stood around in awe of its majesty and the stunning colours of the sunset on the horizon, we sang “Trelawny”. Well, those who were able to hold it together did, I was too emotional to manage much of it.
The singing continued, with “The White Rose”, “Lamorna” and “Camborne Hill” amongst others, led admirably by the Mayor and Portreeve of Callington, Andrew Long. In distinct contrast to Andrew’s clear and authoritative voice was the sweet and proud sound of our 5-year-old, Freddie, who has been completely brainwashed by me into loving Cornish songs and happily sang along. We didn’t sing his favourite, “The Oggy Song”, but a loud cry of “Oggy Oggy Oggy; Oi Oi Oi” at the end of the ceremony kept him pretty happy. My Australian compatriots will notice the similarity to the “Aussie Aussie Aussie; Oi Oi Oi” often heard at national sporting events in Australia and may not realise that the cry has been appropriated from the Cornish.
I spoke with Andrew Long afterwards and he told me how keen he and his Council are to involve and include the local community in the cultural activities in the area. His view is that Cornish identity shouldn’t be exclusive; if you “feel” Cornish then that’s the most important thing. He talked of the feeling of “coming back over the Tamar bridge”, and “coming home”, and how important it is that people feel connected to that sense of place. I know that this is a potentially controversial viewpoint, but as someone who understands that “feeling” so strongly that I travelled half way around the world to live here, I can completely identify with it. Andrew is also involved in Shout Kernow, a cultural organisation which aims to bring back Cornish folk singing to local pubs around Cornwall. This is particularly appealing to me, as singing has been a big part of my cultural experience living in the South West. I was struck by how natural it was after the bonfire was lit that almost everyone – young old – just broke into song. There was no perceived discomfort, no one laughed or sniggered, it was just part of the cultural norm and seemed a very appropriate way to finish the ceremony. I’ve heard it said that culture can be a dirty word in Cornwall, and that the Cornish identity can be so disparate that it’s difficult to classify one quintessential “Cornishness”, but none of that was evident at this event. It was inclusive, joyful, respectful and celebratory. I felt that the singing helped me to feel even more connected to the sense of heritage and the people around me, and that combined with the symbolism of the bonfire was heart-warming indeed.
We discovered during the evening that this was just one of numerous bonfires that were being lit across Cornwall, and we could actually see a couple of them in the distance. It was an incredible linking-up, connecting us both with our ancestors and each other, and it was a profoundly moving experience. As well as being a complete feast for the senses – with music, dancing, warmth of the fire, and a stunning natural landscape. We drove home feeling we’d participated in something that would become part of our own family’s history; it was an unforgettable experience.
PS (For those of you who, like me are ultra-geeky and enjoy obscure facts, Kit Hill is one of the five “Marylin” hills of Cornwall (who knew!), click here to find out more)
An Daras Cornish Folk Tradition: www.an-daras.com
Callington Town Council: www.callington-tc.gov.uk
The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies: www.oldcornwall.net
Lowender Peran: www.lowenderperan.co.uk
Tamar Valley AONB: www.tamarvalley.org.uk
Shout Kernow: https://shoutkernow.wordpress.com
© Sally Bell 2015