I thought I’d post the article I wrote for the July edition of Cornwall Today as this event is coming up on Sunday July 19 and you may want to attend! Also the magazine is really fabulous so do get a copy if you can – or better, subscribe – it’s full of news and excellent features about what makes Cornwall tick.
With the great success and popularity of major cultural events such as Helston Flora Day and Padstow May Day, it’s easy to forget that these celebrations are just two of many festivals that take place throughout Cornwall and throughout the year. Albeit on a smaller scale, these other events are equally as significant, just perhaps lesser known and indeed under threat of potential extinction through lack of interest, finance or knowledge.
But in a village near St Austell, one of the Duchy’s more unusual traditions, the Snail Creep, has been revived and will be performed this coming summer.
Imagine a small hamlet in Clay Country on a July day. Then imagine a band of musicians, with fifes, accordions, drums and mandolins, parading up the road to an old Chapel. Following the musicians, a large procession of dozens of couples, lead by two people holding up branches, symbolising the eye stalks of a snail. The dancers, walking quickly to the sound of the lively rhythm, and holding hands (or linking more closely in the case of engaged or married couples) form a large circle. The band then leads the dancers in ever-decreasing circles, until they’re tightly packed in a snail-like pattern, then back on themselves and out again, and the snaking in and out of the coiled serpent pattern repeats itself. This is the ancient Cornish “snail creep” dance, and it will be performed as part of the Rescorla Festival.
In 2007, the Rescorla Centre was founded in the village of the same name and the dance was brought back to life. Garry Tregidga, Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies and a man described as having “clay in his veins”, such is his love for Clay Country and its traditions, brought together a group of supporters to create the Friends of Rescorla. They bought the local Primitive Methodist Chapel which dated from 1873 but had fallen into disuse and disrepair, renamed it the “Rescorla Centre”, and turned it into a community hub which promotes the study of Cornish culture through projects relating to the history, literature and performing arts of mid-Cornwall.
One of the first projects was to revive the Snail Creep dance. Popular in the villages of Rescorla, Molinnis, Roche, Withiel and St Wenn, it had been an important part of local “tea treat” or feast celebrations, but popularity waned after the Second World War, and it ceased to be a part of traditional festivities. One could speculate that either it was a sign of the times or that given the mood of the time it wasn’t felt to be appropriate, but it was no longer practiced the way it had been for generations and the knowledge about the tradition involved came dangerously close to being lost.
In their book, “Snail Creeps and Tea Treats” Cornish music and dance experts Alison and Merv Davey refer to the symbolism of the snail itself and mention the fact that snails were held in certain esteem by miners who “offered a snail a drop of melted tallow from their candles or a crumb of pasty or fuggan, on seeing one their way to the bal (mine) in the morning”. Whether this was part of the local imagery that led to the dance being formed we’ll never know, but the dance itself was largely consigned to the memories of more senior residents of the area.
But a process began of gathering stories from those old enough to remember when the dance had originally been performed, and through a stroke of good luck, they found the melody to the original tune. A local lady, Jean Harris, remembered the tune, it was transcribed, and with the assistance of Alison and Merv Davey, local people and schools in the area, the Snail Creep was performed in the 2007 for the first time in decades.
Whilst numbers of dancers might not get into the hundreds these days, the Rescorla Festival still promises to be an enjoyable weekend of Cornish music, dance and local tradition.
Held on the weekend of July 18-19, it will begin with an evening of live Cornish music at the Kings Arms in Luxulyan on Saturday, then an afternoon of activities culminating with the Snail Creep dance and tea treat celebration on Sunday.
So if you want to join in the Snail Creep, there are no special steps, just follow the band around the field and join in. But be warned – it was traditional for young men to pick potential brides to dance with and some married couples maintained that they originally met at the Snail Creep, so choose your partner wisely!
At a glance:
Saturday July 18 – Sunday July 19, 2015
The Kings Arms, Luxulyan, PL30 5EF
The Rescorla Centre
Rescorla, St Austell, PL26
For further information about Cornish dance and music, contact Alison and Merv Davey, www.an-daras.com
© Sally Bell 2015