Cornish Blues

Of course the traditional colours of Cornwall are black and gold (or black and white like the St Pirans flag) but there is another colour that I know resonates through our landscape. Blue.

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As I was falling to sleep last night I was thinking back over my day. It had been a glorious May day, more like the height of summer really and I had spent it taking photographs on Gwithian beach.  The sea had be ever-changing shades of deep navy blue, emerald green and turquoise and the sky, well it was just the most wonderful shade of . . . how to describe it . . . well. . . it was Cornish blue.

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As I nodded off it got me thinking how much blue really does feature in our culture in Cornwall. There’s Cornishware, inspired by the blue sky and the white-crested waves of our coast, there’s Cornish Blue cheese – in my humble opinion the best blue cheese out there, then there’s the traditional navy blue fisherman’s jumpers (post to follow) and, bear with me as the tenuous links continue, there’s the Blue anchor in Helston and the Blue Bar at Porthtowan!

All jesting aside artists have been draw to our coastline for generations because of the quality of the light. From the 19th century onwards they came to paint the landscape and particularly the coast. Artist colonies, who’s influence is still seen to this day, sprang up in St Ives and Newlyn.  I have heard it said that there is something unique about the light reflecting back the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky. And I find myself agreeing, there is something truly magical, a perfect kind of alchemy, that you only find on the Cornish coast. Whether you are an artist, a photographer and a stop-and-gazer like myself revel in the blue. I am looking forward to a summer of Cornish Blue days! Fingers crossed!!!

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On another note, don’t forget that it is Open Studios week this week, get out there and visited our amazing craftspeople in their studios, see them at work and pick up a bargain straight from the maker!

For more posts about the coasts try: Shipwrecked or Cornwall’s Highest Cliff or What connects Cornwall, Ketchup & Charles De Gaulle?

Randigal Rhymes

In the back of Joseph Thomas’ book of poems entitled “Randigal Rhymes” you will find, along with a list of Cornish proverbs and charm for toothache, a glossary of Cornish words.  The first one that you should look up of course is randigal and you will find that it means “a rigmarole, a nonsensical story”.

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Joseph Thomas spent his life listening.  He listened to the stories of fishwives and tin-miners, circus performers and princes, old men and school children and what he heard inspired his writing.

Joseph almost certainly didn’t write with any expectation of publication, indeed we can only read his poems now because they were printed by subscription by his friends after his death. My copy of his book was printed in 1895 and is rather battered and bruised but you can find reprints of “Randigal Rhymes and a Glossary of Cornish Words” here.

Joseph Thomas wrote because he loved it and because he seemed to want to record the comedy, beauty and whimsy of his world.

He was born near Mullion Cove, a picturesque fishing village on the Lizard in July 1840.  His father John was a local land steward and Joseph followed in his footsteps obtaining a position as an agent for the St Aubyn family on St Michael’s Mount. He and his wife Mary spent their lives in this quiet coastal community but Joseph absorbed everything that surrounded him.

 

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This poem, somewhat similar to the Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly, goes someway to imaginatively explain where the Lizard peninsula gets its name.

 

Most of the material for his poems comes from overheard snatches of conversation or superstitions and reminiscences that were told to him and he wrote them down in idle moments to amuse his friends.

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But there is an art and a beauty to his writing, his love for the county and his people, even when he is poking fun at it all, shines through.

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For those without a copy of the book to help with translation:

  • Shiner: an occasional sweetheart
  • Bosy: smart, conceited
  • Prinky: attentive to dress, natty
  • Coxey: saucy
  • Murfles: freckles
  • Fligs: fancy clothes
  • Slocked: enticed
  • Slawterpooch: an ungainly, slovenly person

His love of stories and people was unfortunately a contributing factor in his death.  At a fair in Penzance during the winter of 1894 he spent the day talking to the visiting entertainers as well as watching the usual crowd of miners and farmers going about their business.  Sadly that day he caught a chill which turned to pneumonia and he died shortly after.

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Joseph was buried on St Michael’s Mount in the private graveyard, so I am sure he is kept entertained by the conversations he can overhear these days as the crowds of visitors from all over the world go by.

For most stories like this one try Cornish Folk or St Michael’s Mount try: A Giant’s Heart

 

 

 

To the Stripple Stones

Whatever the time of year I love the moors. Whether it is in the depths of winter when the air is sharp with cold, one of those days the wind tugs at you and takes your breath away or at the height of a bright blue-skied summers day. Then its a very different place, you can hear the heat coming from the stones and the grass cracks under your feet.

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Watching the cloud shadows moving across those wide empty spaces, that is where I feel really at peace.  But of course these are not really empty spaces and each time I visit I find another new reason to go back.

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Cornish Saffron

For most people Saffron is a captivating and expensive spice which conjures up images of mysterious distant lands but for hundreds of years to the Cornish it has been a more homely than exotic ingredient.

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It is a story of much conjecture and hot debate as to when saffron first arrived in Cornwall.  There are stories of Phoenician and Roman traders from more than 2000 years ago but the more likely answer is a little later than that.  In the 14th century Cornwall had a healthy trade in tin with its Spanish neighbours, who in turn had trade routes across the globe, one theory is that saffron first arrived through them.

And this fantastic aromatic spice made its way into our Cornish cooking.  Saffron buns and saffron cake are an integral part of any cakey tea (well they always have been in my house anyway!) just as much as clotted cream.  And there is even evidence that saffron was cultivated in a few select places in Cornwall for a while – there are records of saffron fields in Launcells near Bude, Fowey, Penryn, Feock and Gerrans. Eat your heart our Saffron Walden!

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Growing and harvesting saffron is what makes it the most expensive spice in the world, it is very labour intensive.  Saffron is in fact the dried red stigma of the autumn flowering purple Crocus Sativus.  Each flower has to be hand picked and the three delicate stigma removed.  It takes roughly 200 flowers to produce just 1 gram of saffron.  But the result is a versatile spice with a unique flavour.

The name saffron comes from the Arabic word za’faran meaning yellow which gives a clue to its other use as a dye.  Saffron also has medicinal properties and known to have a similar narcotic effect to opium.  During the 18th and 19th centuries it was used in various opioid preparations, such a laudanum, for pain relief.

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Saffron went out of fashion in cooking in England but it continued to remain a firm favourite here in Cornwall. As a child I remember posting saffron cakes to various Cornish relations across the country because here was the only place you could find it.

Recently however it has seen a bit of a revival with chefs both down here and in other parts of the country increasingly putting it on their menus and a small holding in Norfolk has even begun growing the precious crop.  So maybe one day saffron will grow again in the county that has taken this delicious spice from ancient Persia into its culture and its heart.

Read more on Cornish culture here: Cornish Folk

The Propped Stone of Leskernick Hill

The connections between ancient man, the stones structures they built and the natural rulers of the skies – the sun and the moon – are overwhelming.  It seems to me impossible to understand what mattered to our ancestors without taking into account the struggle they faced with the elements and their battle to understand their often hostile world.

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On the top of Leskernick hill hidden in a little visited part of Bodmin Moor lies a simple yet wonderfully intriguing pile of stones.  This stone construction pre-dates all the others that surrounded it and there are many!   Close by you can find the remains of numerous hut circles, a stone row and 2 stone circles. Continue reading

Quenchwell Spring & a Pocket full of Nonsense.

There are literally hundreds of Holy Wells in Cornwall, each associated with a saint and usually famous for providing some kind of miraculous cure for some ailment – from rickets to infertility to lameness and eye complaints, there’s a well out there that will help you. dsc02306

We forget of course that the vast majority of wells and springs were precious for a far more mundane but vitally important reason – they provided the local population with clean drinking water.  So important were these supplies of water that there are still numerous laws protecting springs and wells from interference or pollution.

You might be surprised to know that mains drinking water didn’t arrive to some of Cornwall’s smaller villages and isolated hamlets until the 1950s, some as late as 1970.

The spring at Quenchwell in Feock really doesn’t seem anything special.  It can be found just beside a public footpath near Carnon Downs but this little well still actually supplies a number of properties with water to this day.  Continue reading

What has St Piran ever done for us?

 

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St Piran & his millstone at Helston Flora

Today is the 5th March, Saint Piran’s Day, a festival celebrated across Cornwall with marches, parades, music and some delightfully over-enthusiastic nationalism.

I went to my first St Piran’s Day pilgrimage to the cross and chapel in the dunes near Perranporth today below are some of my pictures.  I was freezing cold and the wind did it’s best to blow me over but I thoroughly enjoyed myself as did the couple of hundred other people there.  But really what’s it all about? Continue reading

Box Brownie: Lessons in Light

It’s been a little while since I posted anything about my rather lovely Kodak Box Brownie camera, if the truth be told I have been using my digital a lot more over this autumn and winter and part of the reason for that is the light, or lack of it!

I posted a little guide to the brownie’s features a while back and in that I spoke about how you to control the aperture on this camera (the amount of light you allow to enter the lens and hit the film).

dsc02321My Brownie only has 3 basic settings. The lever which has 3 different sized holes in it simply pulls up out of the body of the camera. When it is in a closed position, pushed right in, it is at it’s widest aperture (for use on cloudy days/winter).  One click out, the middle position, is for bright evening/morning light.  The third position, with the lever pulled right out, is for very bright sunshine/summertime . Continue reading

Shipwrecked

This is a story from the same time last year but recent reports are that the wreck is again visible so thought I would share with you!

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Living beside the sea means you have a long-term relationship with a wild, wonderful and mysterious entity.

You can never be sure what she will do next.  As the recent Storm Imogen has proved you can never trust her and you must expect surprises, the occasional wet foot and salt-misted glasses. 12714458_10153693334957025_1788933991_n

I grew up fearing the open water more than loving it.  Despite the obvious stereotype being Cornish doesn’t mean that you are born with gills and a surfboard under your arm.

I do love her though and I treat her with a respect I feel she deserves.

There is something restorative about being near the water.  The Victorians agreed, they thought that the sea air and salt water was the cure for just about every ill and in the 19th century Penzance became the destination of choice of the discerning invalid.  Consequently the town has a very large graveyard.

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Samuel Wallis: Cornish Explorer

I am not a huge fan of that old habit of just sailing up to a place, sticking a flag in it and calling it whatever you liked – I mean lets face it Aotearoa is a far better name for New Zealand!  But when I read that there was an island and a language named after a Cornishman, well, of course I had to find out more!

Samuel Wallis

Our world no longer seems full of intrepid explorers but back in the 18th century they were all the rage.  Samuel Wallis, born in Lanteglos by Camelford in 1728, was to become one.

His parents John Wallis and Sarah Barrett had married in the quiet moorland town of St Tudy not far from Bodmin in 1720. The couple had 3 sons and all were born at the family home of Fentonwoon (which means the spring on the downs in Cornish).  A small estate, Fentonwoon had been owned by the family since the time of Elizabeth I.

As a minor landowner and therefore a gentleman John Wallis was able to provide the boys with a good education.  Samuel like many young men of the era joined the Navy in 1744, no doubt looking for adventure.  He fought in the wars Continue reading