Something I’ve realized since I started writing this column is that the place where a story ends is often very different to what you imagine it might be at the beginning. And so it was on a cold, bright winter’s morning when I drove into the lovely town of Lostwithiel on the trail of an ancient Cornish custom.
Lostwithiel sits on the banks of the River Fowey and to anyone driving through on the A390 may initially seem unremarkable. But turn down the main street and a charming town dating back to the 12th century opens up, full of independent shops, restaurants, great pubs and the notable parish church of St Bartholomew. It was at one time the capital of Cornwall and is overlooked by the impressive Norman Restormel Castle.
Years ago when I lived in Sydney, I picked up an old Tor Mark Press booklet on “Cornish Customs and Superstitions” at the Paddington Market. The booklet was full of stories collected and collated in the nineteenth century by the historian, Robert Hunt, and one of them was the tale of the annual re-enactment of the arrival of “The Duke of Restormel” to Lostwithiel. It was of particular interest to me as ten years ago, I moved from Sydney to Lostwithiel and lived there for a few years, yet I’d only ever heard about this tradition via Hunt, who wrote:
“A very singular custom formerly prevailed at Lostwithiel, on Easter Sunday. The freeholders of the town and manor having assembled together, either in person or by their deputies, one among them, each in his turn, gaily attired and gallantly mounted, with a sceptre in his hand, and a crown on his head, and a sword borne before him, and respectfully attended by the rest on horseback, rode through the principal street in solemn state to the church. At the churchyard stile, the curate, or other minister, approached to meet him in reverential pomp, and then conducted him to church to hear divine service. On leaving the church, he repaired, with the same pomp and retinue, to a house previously prepared for his reception. Here a feast, suited to the dignity he had assumed, awaited him and his suite; and, being placed at the head of the table, he was served, kneeling, with all the rites and ceremonies that a real prince might expect. This ceremony ended with the dinner; the “prince” being voluntarily disrobed, and descending from his momentary exaltation, to mix with common mortals. On the origin of this custom but one opinion can be reasonably entertained, though it may be difficult to trace the precise period of its commencement. It seems to have originated in the actual appearance of the prince, who resided at Restormel Castle in former ages; but, on the removal of royalty, this mimic grandeur stepped forth as its shadowy representative, and continued for many generations as a memorial to posterity of the princely magnificence with which Lostwithiel had formerly been honoured. This custom is now almost forgotten, and Lostwithiel has little to disturb its quiet.”
So, it appears that short sentences weren’t Hunt’s thing, but he’s also wrong on two counts; after further inquiry it seems that this tradition actually took place on “low Sunday” (translation = the Sunday after Easter Sunday) and secondly, these days Lostwithiel is alive with community spirit and activity. Pleasant and easy-going maybe, but not quiet.
I there to interview John Pegg, a local man who a mutual friend said might be able to help with my inquiry, and met with him in his delightful cottage in the centre of town. John Betjeman reputedly said, “There is history in every stone in Lostwithiel” and the short walk to John’s home quickly proved this right. As it turns out, walks around town are what John Pegg is renowned for, or more particularly, historical walks in Lostwithiel. John is part of the team that leads tours of the town during the summer season and consequently has become a repository of wisdom relating to all things pertaining to the town. A former town Mayor, he’s taken great delight in both educating others about “Cornwall’s hidden treasure” but has also learned a great deal during the years he’s taken the walks. I started by asking him what got him interested in history and tradition. “My family moved here from Plymouth over 30 years ago and I gradually got involved with various things in the town. When we had the 800th anniversary of Lostwithiel in 1989 they were desperate for people to participate in an historical re-enactment. I’ve done some am-dram and thought, “I could do that!” It was an amazing event, and it got me involved with the activities of the town. I’ve stuck my toe in lots of places over the years, and I ended up doing the heritage walks around the town”. In addition to his role as Mayor, some of those “other” things have been Secretary of the Lostwithiel Garden Society, Licensee of the Church Rooms, Treasurer of Lost in Play, which raises funds to provide play equipment in the town, and a long-standing involvement in the renowned Christmas Pageant.
So what appealed to him about the historical walks? “I enjoy it. It took me ages to learn all of the information – I already knew quite a lot but I had to learn more – and when you do it, it’s more like a performance. But I also learn a great deal from the people who I take on the walks. There have been times that I’ve not known about something and one of the people I’m taking around will tell me about it, and so the knowledge just builds. We get a lot of Australians coming and they are amazing because they have that connectivity, there will always find something that links Cornwall to Australia.” Being an Aussie of Cornish descent myself, this was lovely to hear, and I know there are lots of other Cousin Jacks and Jennies internationally who’d agree.
I mention that I’ve found having a very strong interest in Cornwall but not having been born in Cornwall has given me the ability to see things in a different way, and the sense of objectivity really helps when you’re trying to relay information to an audience. John agrees. “One of Lostwithiel’s secrets is that it’s very cosmopolitan. There are a lot of outsiders who bring new flavours and new enthusiasm and it reinvigorates everything. It’s been a huge advantage. We have a cinema club, Lost In Film, and it’s a great evening out even without the film. It’s so well patronised and we’ve been so lucky to have people like Mat Connolley and Kat Smith, who run the group, move to Lostwithiel because they bring others with them who are also enthusiastic, but also they build into the organisation a legacy so that if they stopped doing it tomorrow, there’s other people who could pick it up.”
At this point I have to declare an interest as I was one of the founding members of Lost In Film, and that’s what we hoped to bring to the town, that sense of something different from somewhere different, while still maintaining what’s precious about the town. “Absolutely,” says John, and one of the other things I’ve been involved with in the last few years is Lost In Play, and we’ve managed to raise a staggering £87,000 last year for the town’s play equipment. People like Siobhan Yates and her friends are just amazing; once you get in their slipstream anything is possible. Then there’s the choir, Lost In Song, which is run by Emma Mansfield, and very few people in the town know who all these people are because they just get on and do it. There’s no sense of ego, you just get on and do it for the good of the community. It’s enjoyable and self-perpetuating and it brings life to an incredibly old town.”
So how does John think Lostwithiel is now translating that sense of history to its very diverse community? “In spite of all the wonderful community organisations we have in Lostwithiel, we do predominantly have an older demographic and we desperately need more young people to get involved in community life. Our younger people are so busy with work and family lives, but also, people get put off by concerns such as health and safety. I’m a great believer in getting on with the job and finding a way. We rely very strongly on organisations such as Rotary – the local club basically runs our Carnival week in summer and we really need their can-do attitude. I used to be very involved with the Christmas Pageant but I’m trying to pull back a bit now – my daughter Jenna is now getting involved, and she’s Lostwithiel to the core, so that’s what we need really – the next generation to come on board.”
So at the end of our thoroughly enjoyable conversation I remember to ask the question I initially came for – could John shed any light on the “Duke of Restormel” re-enactment? “There’s a reference to a ‘Mayor for the Day’ tradition in Barbara Fraser’s book on Lostwithiel, but there’s not a single reference to any re-enactment of the Duke coming into the town, even in our Museum. It would be quite good fun to revive it, but we are left with the perennial question – who would do it?”
So get going, people of Lostwithiel, you have a tradition to revive and add to your already impressive collection of events. Maybe the current Duke of Cornwall might even offer his services? Just make sure you can find someone to take care of the health and safety…
At a glance
Reopens on 25 March, 2016
Lostwithiel Town website
Lostwithiel Museum and guided historical walks
The guided walks in Lostwithiel take place every Wednesday at 2:00pm from 30 March – 26 October. Meet at the Lostwithiel Community Centre and Town Information Centre, Liddicoat Road, Lostwithiel, Cornwall, PL22 0HE.
Cost is £3.50 per adult, children with adults go free, funds raised support the Lostwithiel Museum (Registered Charity No. 0192141). Allow 1- 2 hours. Group bookings at other times also available, for more details contact Kitty Chanter-Menendez on 01208 873341.
© Sally Bell 2016
Originally published in Cornwall Today