, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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