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.
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.
Tina 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.
As 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.
“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