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

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

Alone on Strangles Beach

Strangles is a pretty ominous name for anything.  And it appears that this darkly beautiful beach, on arguably the most dramatic part of Cornwall’s northern coast, gets it’s name for equally ominous reasons.  The dangerous currents and jagged rocks that surround Strangles make this a particularly treacherous part of our coastline.

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There is a much repeated local adage about the ruthless nature of this stretch of water:

“From Pentire Point to Hartland Light,

A watery grave by day or by night”

and Strangles beach lies right inside this danger zone, not far from the more picturesquely named Crackington Haven. Continue reading

The Bucca

 

Winter, 1811

A gull’s wing tip topped the wave and just for a moment the air currents caught hold of its white feathers and the bird swung in the air, weightless as thistle-down.  The sea twisted, turned and undulated but the stark unmoving line of the horizon didn’t alter.   It was empty, a deep blue ribbon floating between an ocean of silver and a grey sky.  There was not a shadow to be seen beneath the surface of the lulling waves and other than the gull not a single living thing above.  The clouds stretched out over the water, still, in the last of the fading winter light.

Closer to the shore she watched, the sea spray was dancing up like a haze on the breeze.  Moisture thrown up by the insistent waves butting time after time against the rocks below the cliff.   The wet settled like a shining dust on her lashes and hair.  The red woollen shawl she clawed around her with rough tired hands had a feather-like dusting of salty droplets on it and a wintery chill was setting in her bones.  Time to leave. Continue reading

Mystery: One Gallant Little Boat: 11,000 miles to Australia

Lets face it most of the decisions you make in the pub are at best misguided and at worst dangerous.  We have all read or heard about some crazy misadventure and thought to ourselves that decision was definately made after several pints of Spingo!?  I have to admit that was my first thought when I read about the voyage of Captain Richard Nicholls and his six crew.

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One day in the middle of the winter of 1854 they set sail in their 37ft fishing boat called Mystery.  As they left the safety of the small harbour of Newlyn their next stop was to be the coast of Australia.  A treacherous journey of roughly 11,000 miles. . . Through some of the world’s roughest seas. . . In a small fishing boat. . . Somebody pass the rum! Continue reading

The Stones of Leskernick Hill

It has taken me far too long to get around to writing this article and it is only the thought of getting back out on the moor again in a few days time that forced my thoughts to turn once again to this unwritten story.

It actually began with this blog.  A piece I wrote many months ago led me to meet a group of strangers with whom I would spend many a happy hour in the vast emptiness of Bodmin Moor.

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Since I left home aged 20 and flew to Germany on a complete whim my long suffering parents have been used to my often rather impulsive behaviour but even I questioned whether I was thinking straight on that first morning. We had never met before, not even spoken on the phone but when Roy, Stuart and Colin arrived in a beat up old truck full of tools I, with no hesitation climbed aboard, and set out across the moor with 3 total strangers!

When I try to explain to people what we did this summer they usually fall into two camps: the intrigued and the confused.  In short we were uncovering large pieces of granite on a wild and windswept moor.

But of course these were no ordinary rocks Continue reading

The Wizard on the Lizard

An interview with Bartholomew Patrick O’Farrell

Driving down towards St Keverne on Cornwall’s isolated Lizard peninsula feels like drifting back in time.  With the Autumnal fog rolling in from the sea and covering the Goonhilly Downs the whole scene can suddenly become rather otherworldly. Quite an appropriate place to meet a wizard.

Bartholomew Patrick O’Farrell, or Bart as he likes to be known, is a small man with shoulder length grey hair and a white beard.  Today he is dressed exuberantly from head to toe in bright red, in his gentle lilting Welsh accent he explains, “It’s like the poem When I get old, I shall wear purple, do you know it?  Well, have you noticed that all old men just wear grey and brown and seem to fade in to the background, now that’s why I chose to wear red”.

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Bart is most certainly not a man to fade away, just a few minutes with him and the room feels warmer as he happily regales you with stories about a life full of incident and adventure.  In his 75 years he has been a copy-writer, typewriter salesman, teacher, picture restorer, artist, oral poet and a palmist.

The latest phase of what he calls his “diamond” of a life has seen him discover or perhaps rediscover his abilities as a dowser. Continue reading

Those Ruined Places: Westmoor

Bodmin Moor feels like a place with secrets and stories to tell.  Perhaps it’s the wildness, the wide open spaces and the distance that makes the visitor feel that this is a place that you will never really know completely or quite understand.  I do know that it is under my skin.  If I didn’t live so far away I would be out on that moor as often as possible.

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It is a characteristic of every moorland that there are hidden features, places that are often lost in the landscape. Places that can only be seen from a particular hilltop or when you walk a particular path.

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The ancient enclosure on Westmoor near Leskernick hill is one such place.  The tumbling walls are only visible from a particular point as the path traverses the old tin streaming works near the base of the hill.  The first time I saw it, it was the tree that caught my eye, it is just about the only tree for as far as the eye can see.  I just had to walk over and pay a visit.

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That time and every time I have visited there since the wild moorland ponies are already there or have arrived to graze.  The grass within the old walls is much finer and greener than the rest of the moor, presumably due to human activity and I assume they come to take advantage of this sweeter meal.

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It is also a very sheltered spot, calm and out of the wind.  Close by there is a steam flowing and a spring bubbling up from the damp ground.  I am almost certain that there was once a building there too.  In on corner of the enclosure there are smaller walls and what looks like paving slabs.  There are also larger pieces of granite there that may have been doorposts or part of a fireplace in another life.

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Whatever the weather it is such a peaceful place, I have never met anyone else there apart from the ponies and sheep.  And that twisted old tree festooned in lichen and moss provides a lovely bit of company and shelter from the sun or the rain.

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This part of the moor is perhaps the most isolated that I have ever visited, it doesn’t have the sites like Rough Tor or Brown Willy, there is no Cheesewring or Hurlers to draw visitors.  But I will come here again and again if only to listen to the constant chorus of the Skylarks as they rise and dip and dive above the windblown grasses.

For more moor tales try: Those Ruined Places: Garrow Tor’s Lost Village or The Singular Mr Daniel Gumb & his house of rocks

For more hidden places try my page dedicated to Forgotten Places

 

 

Cornwall & The Nebra Sky Disc

Hanns, the custodian of the hotel shakes our hands warmly.  There are no other guests so he is delighted to tell us we have been ungraded to a better room.  Our window looks out on a typical German street of apartment blocks, the walls now warmly lit red in the setting sun. Halle an der Saale gets its rhythmical name from the briny salt springs that were once the town’s mainstay but Hanns is wondering what has brought two British tourists 3 hours on the slow train from Berlin to his little town.

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Side street with tram line in Halle

When I explain that we have come all the way from Cornwall to visit Halle’s museum his belly shakes with laughter. “Fifty years I have lived in this town” he says “and I have never been to the museum – maybe next year I’ll go”.

Halle is a beautiful town, there was clearer plenty of money to be made in salt.  The cobbled market square is  surrounded by 16th century houses and in it’s centre looming above the yellow trams is the grand ancient clock tower.  The town is also a town of music having connections to both Handel and Bach, as the next day as I walk the narrow streets in the direction of the museum I notice that the buskers are of a particularly high standard.

Halle’s State Museum has one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of prehistory artefacts in Europe.  In the hills near by more than 1000 prehistoric barrows (ancient burial chambers) have been identified.  The museum houses some 15 million items, but I have come all this way just to see one.  The Nebra Sky Disc.

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Halle’s Prehistory Museum (Landesmuseum fur Vorgeschichte)

Sometimes wonderful and utterly unique pieces of our past are discovered that throw our understanding and admiration of our ancestors into a whole new light.  These objects speak to us somehow.  The first time I saw a photograph of the Nebra Sky Disc I was star-stuck but when I learnt of its connection to Cornwall I just had to go and see the real thing up close.

Despite the museum’s international reputation on the day we arrive there are very few visitors besides ourselves.  As we enter a group of elderly German tourists politely applaud their guide and shuffle back to their tour bus, a class of local schoolchildren are eating their pack-lunches on the grass outside while the security guards chat with each other and wander slowly between floors.  It is all cool marble and glass inside, a welcome relief from the sweltering summer heat outside.  I am ashamed to admit that I am so excited to finally be there that I walk straight passed the cases containing thousands of precious items and head straight for one gallery.

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The Nebra Sky Disc

The room as you enter it is initially pitch black, I feel as if I am stepping into a void.  As my eyes adjust a starry sky of glistening stars appears and as I take it all in I realise I am looking at the Milky Way silently revolving above my head.

Moving deeper into the room the sky disc comes into view, it is the only lit object and the only source of light.  It is wonderful in the fullest and most complete sense of the word.

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Detail showing the Pleiades

The disc put simply was a kind of calendar and map of the night sky.  There are stars, a crescent moon and a full moon (or sun).  The cluster of stars at the top right of the disc represents the Pleiades constellation which appears in the sky in the spring and possibly denoted when it was time for planting of crops.

The two gold arcs that run along the edge of the disc (one is now missing) are set at a 82 degree angle which it is believed indicates the angle between the sunsets of the summer and winter solstices in the precise area in Germany where the disc was found.  There is also a theory that the number of stars represented denotes how many years had to pass before the ancients had to make adjustments to their calendar – like our leap year from what I understand.

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The Golden Boat

And then of course there is the golden boat.  The myth of a boat which carries the sun and the moon across the sky is an idea which has permeated other cultures – particularly the Egyptians – but this one predates any other.

The Nebra Sky Disc is completely unique, nothing else like it has ever been found.

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The back the disc

Peering through the the glass at the reverse of the disc I can clearly see the marks the maker produced hammering it into shape maybe as much as 4000 years ago.  It is roughly 30cm in diameter and made of bronze and gold.  It’s exact age is uncertain but we know it was buried around 3600 years ago and that during it’s life it was remodelled and reused in a number of different stages while still in use.

The stages in the life of the Nebra Sky Disc
The stages in the life of the Sky Disc. Photo credit: LDA Sachsen-Anhalt

The disc’s connection to Cornwall lies in it’s creation.  Analysis of the metals used shows that the tin in the bronze came from Cornwall and the gold used to form the stars and moons was from the Carnon valley, just a few miles from Truro.  If you visit the Royal Cornwall Museum you can see many of the gold finds from the area, including a nugget of gold from in the Carnon valley – the largest found in the county.

To me this thought is magical, that something so beautiful and so important both then and now started life – if only in part – in Cornwall.  And that idea opens up so many other questions – Where was the disc made?  Who mined that gold?  Who transported to Germany?  Why was it buried and lost for so long?

When I leave Halle’s museum I have a huge smile on my face, I can’t wait to tell Hanns that it was worth it, worth the drive to London, the flight to Germany and the two slow trains it had taken to get there!

For other similar stories try: A King and our Lost Cornish Gold or Ravens & Cornwall’s first graffiti artist

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts of Carwynnen Quoit

Carwynnen quoit has fallen more than once.  It’s giant stones have been raised up again and again, the first time 5000 years ago, then again in the 19th century and the last time in 2014.  Yes, unfortunately it has taken me this long to get around to visiting but the twisting back roads led me to a impressive monument.

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I had wanted to be there a couple of years ago when the cap stone had been lifted into place but that happened at a time when the work I was doing didn’t afford me the kind of freedom that I have now.  I understand from people who were there that it was a magical moment. Apparently everyone surged forward to place their hands on the stones, almost like a blessing for them and for the quoit.

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Sketch of the quoit from 1823

This summer I have been working with a wonderful group of like-minded people who are as enthusiastic and passionate about ancient places as I am (maybe even more so).  We have been spending our days together uncovering two almost forgotten stone circles and a stone row out on the wilds of Bodmin Moor but more of that on another occasion I promise.  I choose to mention it now because one of the subjects we talked of while on our knees in the rain cutting turf was how wonderful it would be to see those stones upright again.  However since my visit to Carwynnen I have to say I have been having my doubts.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am sure that every possible care was taken with this sites reconstruction and it is wonderful to see this ancient monument on it’s feet again so to speak but strangely somehow it felt wrong to me.  Like something was out of place, not quite as it should be.  The stones looked new, too clean, too upright – as if they had just been built – which of course I guess they kind of have.

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Perhaps that is how the ancient people saw them, all clean, fresh and straight and I am just judging this place by all the other sites I love so much where everything is just a bit sunken and wonky. But it does raise a question for me – when they fall do we just leave them?

I guess the answer is a complex one.  Some would argue that these are just old pieces of stone with no intrinsic worth, why should we pay to preserve and protect them?  I am not one of those people, to many, including myself, they do mean something.

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I believe that anything that links us to our roots and to the world we live in should be treasured.  But can we go too far with restoration and how do we know we are getting it right?  Each historical sketch of Carwynnen looks different from the next and different again from the stones as they stand today.

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So if we can’t get it right should we leave well alone, rather than make a misrepresentation of the past?  I don’t know the answer. But I would appreciate others thoughts if you wish to share.

There was a big part of me that looked at the fallen stones of those circles on Bodmin Moor and wished I could see them as my ancestors did but of course I never really will and perhaps I am just not meant to.

For more stoney tales try: The Raising of Logan Rock or When is a Stone Circle not a stone circle?