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

 

 

 

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