For this month’s Cornwall Today magazine I was pleased to write about three different organisations which promote the study of Cornwall’s history, traditions and culture. Many thanks to Delia Brotherton from Gorsedh Kernow, Terry Knight from the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies and Ed Groom from the Cornwall/Kernow branch of the Historical Association for their invaluable assistance.
From the earliest prehistoric and Celtic times, to today’s age of tourism, Cornwall has been set apart by its geographic location, culture, traditions and language. Its rich history is distinct, readily accessible and, it seems, experiencing a new level of demand.
And while it’s easy to dip in to aspects of the Duchy’s history – iconic places such as St Michael’s Mount for example receive thousands of visitors ever year, all of whom are keen to indulge in the magic and romance of a different time – what organisations exist for the general public to both engage with and learn more about Cornwall’s history?
Cornwall recently rejoined the Historical Association (HA), a national charity that supports the teaching, learning and enjoyment of history from primary-school age upwards. The HA believes that the study of history should be accessible to all people, and with 50 branches around the UK holding over 350 events annually, this is good news for anyone interested in history of Cornwall and beyond.
The Cornish branch will be headed up by the Director of the Institute of Cornish Studies (ICS) Dr Garry Tregidga, with Bob Keys, Research Fellow of the ICS as President. I spoke with Ed Groome, the Student Representative of HA in Cornwall, about how and why the reconnection to the HA came about.
“As a third year history student at Falmouth, I jumped at the chance to become the Student Representative for the newly reformed Cornish branch”, says Ed. “There are a number of reasons why the branch has reformed, the most obvious being that there has been a resurgence in the interest in Cornish history, both from inside and outside the county, thanks in no small part to the BBC series Poldark. There is also a sense of isolation in Cornwall, with people feeling very distant from the rest of the UK, and our rejoining the HA may also help mitigate that”.
So what can we expect the Cornish branch of the HA to offer anyone interested in history? “The committee has a desire to ensure people in Cornwall have a platform from which they can explore their interest in history. We will be hosting regular talks and trips, which will enable members to hear about and then discuss varied topics. As well as having access to these events, paid members also gain access to all the HA’s online resources, such as their publications and podcasts. Our first event, a lecture about the Russian Revolution, was a tremendous success and we hope our upcoming events will be just as popular. While this event was held at the Penryn Campus, this is not purely an organisation for students. I would recommend anyone with an interest in history to join as there is something for everyone.”
The Duchy is full of rich pickings for anyone who wants to delve deeper into history and culture in Cornwall. The first port of call has traditionally been the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies (FOCS). FOCS is a registered charity and was founded in 1924 with the objective of collecting and maintaining “all those ancient things that make the spirit of Cornwall — its traditions, its old words and ways, and what remains to it of its Celtic language and nationality”.
There are now 41 individual societies dotted all over Cornwall, and all are charged with the same aims: to collect, record and publish information concerning Cornwall’s culture and heritage, including Cornish history, topography, place names, folklore, traditions, dialect, music, industries and similar subjects; to encourage the study and use of the Cornish language; and to support the preservation of Cornish antiquities and relics of the past.
Each society arranges its own programme, but each comprise a series of talks by invited speakers throughout the year with excursions during the summer months, including events such as the Midsummer Eve bonfire. Originally, a chain of fires would spread from one end of Cornwall to the other, each on the highest ground in the locality so that they could be seen by each other. Modern fire prevention requirements and archaeological concerns have sadly put paid to some of the events, but ageing memberships has killed off others. I can personally attest to the bonfire held at Kit Hill being both spectacular and full of pathos. And while there might not be quite so many as there used to be, when standing on top of Kit Hill on St John’s Eve you can still see other bonfires lit “down the line”, and the sense of connectedness that it brings is very moving.
The organisation welcomes new members and is particularly interested in involving more young people. More information about where to find your local OCS can be find on the website, www.oldcornwall.net, which also has the link to the Facebook page.
Finally, perhaps the most well known historical group in Cornwall – but one to which membership is invitation only – is Gorsedh Kernow (GK), the association of Cornish Bards. GK exists to maintain and give expression to the national spirit of Cornwall as a Celtic country. It also includes in its aims the promotion of the study and use of the Cornish language, history, literature, art, music, sport and related subjects, as well as the fostering of good relations with other Celtic countries.
It holds two public ceremonies each year: a proclamation ceremony in April and an Eisteddfod, known as the Esedhvos, and the GK Bardic ceremony in September, all of which this year will be held in Launceston.
Following nomination by an existing Bard, prospective new Bards are elected by the Council of GK and the honour of Bardship is awarded to people who have given exceptional service to Cornwall, or to people who qualify by a high degree of proficiency in the Cornish language and people of distinction who, in the opinion of the Council, should be received as Bards of Honour. More information can be found at www.gorsedhkernow.org.uk.
There are many other wonderful organisations that foster and encourage the study of history and culture in Cornwall, including fabulous museums and wonderful smaller community groups. I’d encourage you to support any of them however you can; they are fundamental in maintaining and preserving the iconic traditions and stories of our glorious Duchy.
At a glance:
The Historical Association
Also on Facebook – search “The Cornwall/Kernow Branch of the Historical Association”.
The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies
© Sally Bell 2017
Originally published in Cornwall Today