Sunday, 4 April 2021

Some East Cornwall May Day Traditions

The Maypole Battles and Other Customs

Alex Langstone

 

Many villages, hamlets and farms around Bodmin Moor and eastern Cornwall had a peculiar May Day tradition of the Maypole Battles.   At the end of April, each village would choose a stripped fir tree between thirty and fifty-foot-high and would fasten it to the highest chimney stack in their home parish at midnight on May eve. Alternatively, it would be attached to the highest tree in the vicinity. In the early hours of May Day, it was trimmed with streamers made of coloured scraps of material and with flowers and vegetables taken from neighbour’s gardens. The moment the pole was up and decorated, each village became a fortress, with other rival villages setting off on raids to try to steal the Maypole of the next village. At some villages, such as Merrymeet, the pole was cemented in and tarred, so it could not be climbed, but the men of St Cleer simply sawed the pole at the base and carried it away.  At Trekernal a pole was fastened to the highest tree and decorated in the traditional manner. However, it was quickly taken, before dawn, by a man from North Hill, who climbed the tree with a rope and lowered the pole to the ground. 

The maypoles were generally left in position throughout the month of May, and were guarded each night by the men of the village throughout the entire month. At the months end they were then taken down and stored safely until the following year.  

Around 150 years ago the biggest Maypole battle to have been recorded, took place between Altarnun and Trewen.  The folk of Altarnun managed to steal the Trewen pole and this resulted in a fight where it is reported that the villagers “fought like Dragons”.The descriptions of these East Cornwall maypoles sound remarkably like the Maypole seen every year at Padstow, (above) which are very different to the maypoles decked with ribbon for dancing around. 

The East Cornwall maypoles were instead bedecked with garlands and hoops of flowers. Other villages recorded as having these poles include, Berriow, Middlewood, Menheniot and North Hill. St Neot had its own version of the Maypole tradition, recorded by W. Arthur Pascoe in Old Cornwall 12, winter 1930. This was considered the most favoured of all the festivals once observed in the village. One of the last observances of this once popular custom saw one of the large farms cut a pole and raised it in the village, having much faith in their ability to defend it. However, they did not foresee such a mass attack, which they would have to repel. Amid scenes of great confusion, dire threats, the firing of shotguns into the air and discharges of hot water and pepper the St Neot pole was lost and the victors marched off with the pole on their triumphant shoulders, singing a long-lost song of maypole victory. The custom died out around 1890, but until then was firmly entrenched into the St Neot village calendar.  

Bringing in the maypole. Lanreath, 1940s

The greatest maypole battle celebration was centred on the village of Lanreath, and the tradition is thought to stretch back at least six hundred years, and was still going in the early 1980s, when it started to decline, due to complaints and police intervention. It was all about the virility of the young men of the village, who would steal the biggest tree from the local woods, which would be taken at the dead of night. The poles were huge, and in 1973 the maypole was recorded at 105 feet before it was stolen by the lads of Pelynt. Upon its return it was a bit shorter, and was found hidden within rows of the potato crop. 

Games of skittles locally called ‘keels’were played, with the stumps (skittles), having been made from the previous year’s maypole. (See below). The battle of the maypole was often between Lanreath, Pelynt and Lerryn, and local rivalry was intense. Each village would never know who would raid who, and Doublebois and Duloe also often raided Lanreath. The maypole guard would hide in and keep watch from the churchyard, armed with sticks and one night the army arrived from Bodmin’s barracks and tried to take the pole back to Bodmin, however they were unsuccessful.  

Playing 'keels' in Lanreath, 1940s

Aside from the May Pole Battles, other more sedate form of observance are also recorded from the region.  A may-pole used to be erected on West Looe Quay on the 1st May with dancing and street processions with garlands of flowers that were an art form in themselves, which processed through both East and West Looe. The May Frolics followed during the evening, where bands of young people would gather together and walk to a nearby farm.  Accompanied by a fiddler, they would dance until midnight. If the weather was foul a barn would be emptied for them, if the weather was fine a field would be used and the dances performed under a starry sky. They would dance four-handed, six-handed and eight-handed reels, riotous quick-steps followed by the more sedate Triumph and Cushion Dances, which were slow and graceful. Metheglin, Sloe and Elderberry wine would be supplied for the occasion along with junkets of cream and rich milk and ‘Whipped Syllabubs’ straight from the cow. Similar festivities were common at Fowey and Polperro.  

The following poetic description of the late-night return home from the ‘May frolicks’ at Looe, can be found in the Old Cornwall Journal, Summer 1930 – 

One can picture the happy party returning from Hay Farm, each with a lantern, keeping very close together as they turned the corner of Hay Lane, and the trill that shook them as they glanced apprehensively toward Plaidy, fearing they might catch a glimpse of the Phantom Horsemen careering across the beach on his ghostly headless steed. To keep up their courage they would lustily troll a catch, and the “dug-dug” of the maidens’ red-eared festal clogs would be a gentle accompaniment.

First published in Meyn Mamvro, No. 95, Spring/Summer 2018

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

The Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow

 

The Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow

Alex Langstone


The legends and paranormal activity of the screaming skull stories form a fascinating part of the vast canon of ghost-lore and folk-horror. Within Britain, they seem to be almost entirely restricted to a few counties in England and are generally linked to the guardianship of particular historic houses. There is just one recorded in Welsh folklore that recounts a screaming skull at Ffagnallt Hall on Halkyn Mountain close to the Dee estuary. The skull is believed to be that of Dafydd, a Welsh prince who lived during the reign of Henry I, and if removed a wild shriek will haunt the house until it is returned, and a small fragment of the skull still remains in the house today. 

The only known Cornish example of a screaming skull was recorded by Sabine Baring Gould, from a diary entry in 1882. Where he states - “A more curious tenancy is that of Tresmarrow near Launceston, where the house goes with a skull. The farmer now there buried the skull, but the noises,  voices, knocks and trampling’s heard at night were intolerable, so they dug the skull up again and restored it - then the sounds ceased.”

I first came across this obscure legend on a visit to Launceston’s Lawrence House museum, where amongst the jumble of military, agricultural and domestic displays is the somewhat out-of-place but intriguing ‘Screaming Skull of Tresmarrow’.

The folkloric history of the skull begins during Cromwell’s war against the crown. At this time Tresmarrow House was owned by Sir Hugh Piper, who was Governor of Launceston Castle under Charles I.   Piper was a staunch Royalist, and the original Tresmarrow, built in 1578 was razed to the ground by Roundheads marching from Launceston to Bodmin in 1646. After the restoration of the monarchy, Piper rebuilt Tresmarrow House and local  tradition suggests that he placed the skull of a Roundhead in a niche in one of the walls of the new building to remind his family of the gruesome fate of Charles I.   It may be interesting to note that a skull is carved on Sir Hugh Piper’s memorial in Launceston parish Church.

The skull seems to have been left alone for a couple of hundred years, until the Dawe family purchased Tresmarrow House in the late nineteenth century. One of the family took offence to the skull, and had it buried in the garden. However, loud noises and mighty disturbances began as soon as it was buried, and it was quickly recovered and placed back in its niche on the outside of the house. The screaming skull appears to have been kept in its original niche at Tresmarrow House since 1649, (except for when it was occasionally buried) and was rumoured to have been taken to Canada, when the Dawe family emigrated there in 1908. Tresmarrow House was demolished in the same year. The skull was finally returned to Launceston in 2001, which was when it came to be displayed in the town’s museum. Image below.


Interestingly, there is another tradition associated with the skull, and local historian and journalist with the Devon and Cornwall Post, Arthur Venning, reported that once it was removed from Tresmarrow in 1908, it found its way to London and was exhibited there as the skull of Oliver Cromwell. There were stories circulating in Launceston that suggested that the skull was indeed that of Cromwell, so it may be that a London collector had heard about the artefact and purchased it from the Dawe family when they emigrated. Whatever the case, the screaming skull has seemingly returned to Launceston and seems to have quietened down in its current home.

So, in summary, what if anything, does the only known Cornish screaming skull folk-legend have in common with any other screaming skull tales from across Britain? Well actually not very much. Each tale tells a different backstory. However, the one thing that they all have in common is a kind of guardianship for the buildings to which they are attached, and foreboding paranormal activity occurring when a skull is removed. In the case of the skull at Ffagnallt Hall, if the remains of the skull are taken, a shrieking noise will be heard in perpetuity until it is returned. Similarly, in Somerset, 18th century farmer Theophilus Brome from Chilton Cantelo laid a curse saying that if his skull were ever removed from his farmhouse after his death, he would scream, disturb and moan for all eternity.

There is one other human skull curiosity from eastern Cornwall that needs further investigation. On Looe Island, there was a skull preserved in a cupboard in the sitting-room of the Island House. Maybe this once had similar folklore associated with it?  Research is ongoing around this subject, and if anyone has anything to add, please get in touch.

For more folklore from eastern Cornwall, see my recent book From Granite to Sea
Art by Paul Atlas-Saunders

Friday, 5 March 2021

5th March: St Piran's Day

 


     
Ciarán was born on Cape Clear Island, Irish language Cléire, Co. Cork situated off Ireland’s south coast, in the sixth century AD where he was renowned for his miraculous deeds and his love of the natural world. Nevertheless, groups of Irish kings were afraid of his powers and were jealous of his influence amongst the people. On a wild and stormy day, Ciarán was chained to a millstone, and thrown from the top of a high cliff into the sea below. The blustery wind was blowing a deadly gale, the sky was black with thunderclouds and the dark stormy sea was a maelstrom, white with foam, and swollen with massive waves.

As Ciarán was hurtling towards certain death the sun broke through the clouds, and instantly the winds abated and the raging stormy sea became calm. As the stone hit the sea it floated, hundreds in the crowd above, seeing Ciarán alive on the floating stone, were immediately converted to Christianity.

Wind and weather remained favourable for our reluctant spiritual hero, and after many days at sea, Ciarán landed safely on the beach that bears his name today - Perranporth, the cove or harbour of Piran, on the north coast of Cornwall within the modern parish of Perranzabuloe. 

In the vast, remote and lofty sand dunes, overlooking the Celtic Sea, Ciarán built a cell and a small church. His first converts to Christianity were a fox, a badger and a bear. The Cornish people flocked to him as news of his teaching spread. It is alleged that he lived to the age of 206, at which time he still had all his teeth, perfect eyesight and showed no sign of old age. He is reputed to have died in a state of drunkeness by falling down a well. Legend states that he is buried at his Oratory in Perranzabuloe, Cornwall.

 
St Piran's Cross, close to the site of the  
6th Century Oratory, Perranporth' 

The etymology of Piran?
The letter C in Irish becomes P in the Cornish language. For example, the Irish word cenn meaning head becomes pen in Cornish, as in Pentire, Cornish language for headland. So it is easy to see why Ciarán became known as Piran in Cornwall.
           
Today St Piran’s Oratory lies within the shifting sand dunes. The Oratory has recently been uncovered by archaeologists, and it is hoped that the ancient building will be preserved and maybe future generations will be able to visit this incredibly important site of cultural and historic importance.

This once flourishing Celtic Christian community of Piran would have rivalled Iona and Lindisfarne in its size and stature. Nearby is the ancient wayside cross of St Piran.

 St Piran window from the medieval chapel of 
Sen Pyran at Trethevy, Tintagel, Cornwall

These days St Piran is widely regarded as the patron saint of Cornwall and his feast on 5th March is a day of celebration across the Duchy and in Cornish Diaspora across the world.  His flag is a white cross on a black background, said to depict the moment that Piran discovered tin, which poured from his blackened hearth-stone and today the flag is proudly flown across the historic nation of Cornwall.

 

Thursday, 11 February 2021

The Enquiring Eye #2 and the Finchingfield Witch Sticks


You can read all about my latest research into the Finchingfield Witch Sticks in issue 2 of The Enquiring Eye. This paper takes a complete look at the unique Essex sticks, the folklore surrounding them and compares these artefacts to other similar items in the folklore archive.

Check it out here

Above: The spot where 'Goofy Mumford' is believed to be buried.
Find out more in The Enquiring Eye #2




Saturday, 23 January 2021

Lien Gwerin 5 now available


Lien Gwerin: A Journal of Cornish Folklore, number 5, is now available to order. This is another bumper edition, even bigger and better than before, featuring leading writers and artists from Cornwall and around the world. Included in this issue is a fresh look at the infamous curse of Mother Ivey, plus some of the the folklore and other mysteries surrounding the famous tidal sea cave holy well, near Newquay, and the retelling of the folktale of the Zennor mermaid. PLUS a look at the folklore of the Scillies and loads more. 

Please click the link for full details on our fantastic content line-up and how to order your copy.

ORDER HERE






Tuesday, 19 January 2021

The Wild Hunt

 Cornish Folklore of the Wild Hunt

Alex Langstone

The Wild Hunt folklore motif occurs across Europe and typically involves a ghostly or supernatural group of hunters, horses and dogs passing in a wild pursuit, sometimes seen flying across the sky or leaping across the land. One of the earliest recorded stories of the wild hunt in Britain comes from Peterborough, was recorded during the mid-twelfth century where the ghostly hunt was described as having “huge and hideous hunters, who rode on black horses and on black he-goats, and their hounds were jet black, with eyes like saucers”

Cheney's Hounds of St Teath by Paul Atlas-Saunders

In Cornwall we have our own versions of the ghostly and sometimes demonic wild hunt. 

In North Cornwall we have Squire Cheney and his hounds, who haunt the countryside around St Teath during wild and stormy weather (1)  and nearby at Pencarrow, the folkloric memory of Lord John Arscott’s seventeenth century hunt, sees their ghostly forms ride out from Pencarrow House to the cliffs around Port Isaac, and is said to end with the spectral hounds, huntsmen and horses jumping to their demise from the clifftops (2).  At Bodmin, Robert Hunt recorded a vague childhood memory of the wild tale of Hender the Huntsman of Lanhydrock(3),  and there is a tale of the wild hunt which haunts the ancient bridge which spans the River Ottery at Yeolmbridge, a couple of miles to the north of Launceston.(4)  

Up on the high ground of Bodmin Moor we have Cornwall’s most famous demonic ghost, Jan Tregeagle, and his anguished howls can be heard as he is chased by the Devil’s Dandy Dogs(5) which snap mercilessly at his heels around the shores of the desolate Dozmary Pool. By day his spirit lurks within the waters, tasked with emptying the lake with a holed limpet shell. But it is by night that his true demonic force is felt, as he is chased across the tors and through the coombes with the fangs of the hell-hounds snapping at his heels. Here he makes sport for the devil himself, who leads the wild hunt across the desolate bogs and  over the rocky tors. On particularly stormy night you can hear his cries, as his Tregeagle howls are carried on the wind as it whips through the valleys.

Tregeagle and the Demonic Wild Hunt
(Old Looe Stories & Legends card)

On the banks of the Lynher river, near St Germans comes the old tale of Dando and his Dogs.  This pack of ghostly hounds, led by the spirit of local priest Dando who rides a magnificent horse, black as night, with eyes that gleam like the brightest stars.  (6)  

Robert Hunt recorded the tale, and is reproduced below.

In the neighbourhood of the lovely village of St. Germans formerly lived a priest connected with the old priory church of this parish, whose life does not appear to have been quite consistent with his vows.

He lived the life of the traditional "jolly friar." He ate and drank of the best the land could give him, or money buy; and it is said that his indulgences extended far beyond the ordinary limits of good living. The priest Dando was, notwithstanding all his vices, a man liked by the people. He was good-natured, and therefore blind to many of their sins. Indeed, he threw a cloak over his own iniquities, which was inscribed "charity," and he freely forgave all those who came to his confessional.

As a man increases in years he becomes more deeply dyed with the polluted waters through which he may have waded. It rarely happens that an old sinner is ever a repentant one, until the decay of nature has reduced him to a state of second childhood. As long as health allows him to enjoy the sensualities of life, he continues to gratify his passions, regardless of the cost. He becomes more selfish, and his own gratification is the rule of his existence. So it has ever been, and so was it with Dando.

The sinful priest was a capital huntsman, and scoured the country far and near in pursuit of game, which was in those days abundant and varied over this well-wooded district. Dando, in the eagerness of the chase, paid no regard to any kind of property. Many a corn-field has been trampled down, and many a cottage garden destroyed by the horses and dogs which this impetuous hunter would lead unthinkingly over them. Curses deep, though not loud, would follow the old man, as even those who suffered by his excesses were still in fear of his priestly power.

Any man may sell his soul to the devil without going through the stereotyped process of signing a deed with his blood. Give up your soul to Satan's darling sins, and he will help you for a season, until he has his claims carefully wound around you, when the links are suddenly closed, and he seizes his victim, who has no power to resist.

Miserichord in St Germans church, 
featuring Dando and his Dogs.

Dando worshipped the sensual gods which he had created, and his external worship of the God of truth became every year more and more a hypocritical lie. The devil looked carefully after his prize. Of course to catch a dignitary of the church was a thing to cause rejoicings amongst the lost; and Dando was carefully lured to the undoing of his soul Health and wealth were secured to him, and by-and-by the measure of his sins was full, and he was left the victim to self-indulgences--a doomed man. With increasing years, and the immunities he enjoyed, Dando became more reckless. Wine and wassail, a board groaning with dishes which stimulated the sated appetite and the company of both sexes of dissolute habit exhausted his nights His days were devoted to the pursuits of the field, and to maintain the required excitement ardent drinks were supplied him by his wicked companions. It mattered not to Dando--provided the day was an auspicious one, if the scent would lie on the ground--even on the Sabbath, horses and hounds were ordered out, and the priest would be seen in full cry.One Sabbath morning Dando and his riotous rout were hunting over the Earth estate; game was plenty, and sport first-rate. Exhausted with a long and eager run, Dando called for drink. He had already exhausted the flasks of the attendant hunters.

"Drink, I say; give me drink," he cried.

"Whence can we get it?" asked one of the gang.

"Go to hell for it, if you can't get it on Earth," said the priest, with a bitter laugh at his own joke on the Earth estate.

At the moment, a dashing hunter, who had mingled with the throng unobserved, came forward, and presented a richly-mounted flask to Dando, saying:

"Here is some choice liquor distilled in the establishment you speak of. It will warm and revive you, I'll warrant. Drink deep; friend, drink."

Dando drank deep; the flask appeared to cling to his lips. The stranger hunter looked on with a rejoicing yet malignant expression;--a wicked smile playing over an otherwise tranquil face.

By-and-by Dando fetched a deep sigh, and removed the flask, exclaiming: "That was a drink indeed. Do the gods drink such nectar?"

"Devils do," said the hunter.

"An they do, I wish I were one," said Dando, who now rocked to and fro in a state of thorough intoxication, "methinks the drink is very like--" The impious expression died upon his lips.

Looking round with a half-idiotic stare, Dando saw that his new friend had appropriated several head of game. Notwithstanding his stupid intoxication, his selfishness asserted its power, and he seized the game, exclaiming, in a guttural, half-smothered voice: "None of these are thine."

"What I catch I keep," said the hunter.

"They're mine," stammered Dando.

The hunter quietly bowed.

Dando's wrath burst at once into a burning flame, uncontrolled by reason. He rolled himself off his horse, and rushed, staggering as he went, at the steed of his unknown friend, uttering most frightful oaths and curses. The strange hunter's horse was a splendid creature, black as night, and its eyes gleamed like the brightest stars, with unnatural lustre. The horse was turned adroitly aside, and Dando fell to the earth with much force. The fall appeared to add to his fury, and he roared with rage. Aided by his attendants, he was speedily on his legs, and again at the side of the hunter, who shook with laughter, shaking the game in derision, and quietly uttering: "They're mine."

"I'll go to hell after them, but I'll get them from thee," shouted Dando.

"So thou shalt," said the hunter; and seizing Dando by the collar, he lifted him from the ground, and placed him, as though he were a child, before him on the horse. 

With a dash, the horse passed down the hill, its hoofs striking fire at every tread, and the dogs, barking furiously, followed impetuously. These strange riders reached the banks of the Lynher, and with a terrific leap, the horse and its riders, followed by the hounds, went out far in its waters, disappearing at length in a blaze of fire, which caused the stream to boil for a moment, and then the waters flowed on as tranquilly as ever over the doomed priest. All this happened in the sight of the assembled peasantry. Dando never more was seen, and his fearful death was received as a warning by many, who gave gifts to the church. One amongst them carved a chair for the bishop, and on it he represented Dando and his dogs, that the memory of his wickedness might be always renewed. There, in St. Germans' church, stands to this day the chair, and all who doubt the truth of this tradition may view the story carved in enduring oak.

The name Dando, seems to have mutated to Dondo within the Rame peninsula and along the south coast. Between Rame and the cliffs around Looe the wild hunt of The Dondo still haunt the lonely lanes, wild cliffs and dark woodlands.  Between Halloween and Candlemas, they can be witnessed on dark stormy nights,  and are traditionally seen as an eerie portent to a shipwreck. The Dondo also hunts the souls of the recently deceased and is sometimes seen disappearing into the cliffs between the Brawn and the Long Stone, to the east of Downderry. The Dondo’s ghostly wagon can also be heard rattling along the nearby lanes carrying the dead and collecting the odd lost traveller for good measure. (7) 

Bodmin Moor wild hunt at Dozmary Pool. 
(Churchman cigarette card number 2 from the Legends of Britain series)

Notes.

1. Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt

2. The Pencarrow Hunt by Merv Davey. Lien Gwerin No. 3 

3. Mentioned in the introduction to Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt

4. Haunted Britain by Antony D. Hippisley Coxe, p 16

5. Popular Romances of the West of England by Robert Hunt

 6. A medieval misericord carving of Dando and his dogs can be viewed in St Germans church

7. Memory, Place and Identity, The Cultural Landscapes of Cornwall edited by Garry Tregidga, pp 104, 105