When I was at school I distinctly remember being told that the Romans never conquered the Cornish, that the county and the people were too wild for them and, like the Scottish in the north, they decided we were best left alone.
It is now common knowledge that that is not entirely true and I have a feeling that the myth was only perpetuated for so long by Cornish pride. We are,
you see, passionate about our status as a Celtic nation, a fact that our fellow Celts often forget. I was once involved in a heated (in more ways than one) debate on a Mayan ruin in the jungles of Honduras when a Scotsman insisted on called us English. Anyway back to the Romans, we do have lots of evidence that they had control over Cornwall, The Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro has plenty off artefacts that the invaders left behind from coins to roof tiles. Continue reading →
At 2 O’clock in the afternoon on the 1st November 1755 the sea in Mount’s Bay , Penzance rose rapidly and without warning to about 6ft above its normal level. Then it “just as quickly ebbed away”. The water continued to rise and fall in this way repeatedly for the next 5 hours. In neighbouring Newlyn however the effects were more dramatic, a
deluge of sea water was said to have charged ashore at a height of 10ft engulfing everything in it’s path.
That day a large earthquake had struck the city of Lisbon in Portugal. Despite the epicentre of the quake lying over 1000 miles south west the force was great enough to send huge waves of water rolling into the Cornish coast.
An 18th century French writer, Arnold Boscowitz, wrote at the time that “a great loss of life and property occurred upon the coasts of Cornwall”. I have been unable to verify how many lives were lost but this strange and dramatic event must have been viewed as a very frightening to the folk in the area. John Davy, brother of the scientist Sir Humphrey Davy, wrote that the people of Penzance
were “very superstitious” and that a “belief in witchcraft maintained its ground there”, they must have feared what this biblical flood of water meant.
Coincidently a few months ago while looking for something entirely different in the Annual Reports of the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society I came across a curious entry which had been written by Mr Robert Hunt, who amongst other things, was their Secretary at the time. The article was entitled ‘Particulars of the Earthquake felt in parts of Cornwall on Feb 17th 1842’. In it Hunt summarises various historical accounts of earthquakes in the county. He refers one in Falmouth in 1757 which “was attended by a great noise” and felt as far away as Camelford. The same quake caused water to gush up through mounds of lifted sand on the beaches.
Another tremor occurred in 1759 when “a bright Aurora Borealis was seen in the evening”, this time the shock waves were felt as far as in Liskeard nearly 50 miles away and also by hundreds of miners deep underground. In 1836 there was a quake in Stithians and Hunt also tells us that Mr William Henwood, who was a geologist born at Perran Wharf, had communicated to him information concerning three other shocks felt in various areas around the county.
It seems however that it was a quake in 1842 which prompted Mr Hunt to write his article. Mr Hunt, who was eating his breakfast at his home in Berkeley Vale, Falmouth, heard “a peculiar rumbling sound” which was followed by the doors and windows of the house
shaking. Many people he spoke to thought that there had been some kind of explosion at the busy harbour. Further inland Mr J S Enys, of the Enys estate near Penryn, spoke of a sound like “a heavy weight falling” and “the shaking of articles in the rooms” Again the tide rose and fell very quickly.
But down in the valley at Perranarworthal 5 miles away the earthquake was described as a “considerable” shock, so much so that many people there thought that near-by the gunpowder works at Ponsanooth had blown up. The villagers of Perranarworthal set out for the Kennall Vale works to see what help they could give. Of course they arrived to find that all was well and that the people of Ponsanooth were as confused as they were.
There were reports of tremors that day in Mabe, Constantine, Lanner, Pool, The Lizard, St Mawes, Helston and Porthleven. The stories ranged from people being shaken in their beds to books falling from shelves and tea cups rattling in their saucers. Many had been very frightened and perhaps none more so than the miners deep underground. One of them described a rush of air which was strong enough to blow their candles out and a ‘great noise’ that could be felt as well as heard. Rather them than me!
The Falmouth Packet reported that the quake lasted for around 30 seconds and that shaking was accompanied by a noise like distant thunder. The paper also said that ‘the motion in the granite districts was so violent that many people left their homes’. The Packet draws comparisons in its article with the Lisbon quake a century before and adds that the town of Falmouth is waiting with interest for the arrival of the Lisbon Packet Ship and any news it might bring which could shed light on what had happened.
I took the opportunity of spending a beautiful day walking along the cliffs at Mawgan Porth. This stunning stretch of the north Cornwall coast has high cliffs which tower above flat golden beaches and on a sunny day it is a lovely place to be. But my walk was all in the name of research, of course.
In the summer of 1827 on 3 consecutive days in June there were sightings of something odd in the waters off Mawgan Porth in Cornwall. The first occurred late in the evening. A rather nervous young man, who had arranged to meet a friend, came down on to the wide flat beach. The boys had intended to do some night fishing and were looking for that great favourite of the Cornish dinner table
: the pilchard. On arriving at the beach the boy was unable to see his friend but he heard some rather strange noises coming from a large cave which at low tide is filled with deep pools. Thinking that perhaps his friend was playing tricks he went to investigate. What he saw sent him running back up the beach screaming blue murder and telling anyone that would listen that the devil had arrived in the south west.
The boy told the papers that he wasn’t really sure what he had seen, just that it had appeared “part human” and had “long hair hanging about it’s body”. The next day a group of three men were standing on the cliffs at Bre Pen above the same beach. They were perhaps on the look out for those flashing shadows in the water which meant there was a shoal of pilchards to be caught. But it wasn’t fish that they saw, there was something rather odd on the rocks below. Later they recalled to the reporter from the West Briton that there were 3 of them, sitting together on a rock, just off shore. Mermaids.
On the third day five more were spotted and the men who saw them this time said that they watched them for more than an hour. The West Briton reported the sightings in 2 separate issues of the newspaper and provided a vivid description for their readers. The mermaids were said to have had very long hair, perhaps 9 or 10 feet long, which was trailing across the rock on which they had been seen sitting. Some of them lay in the sun as if asleep, others were swimming in the sea close by. They all had the upper body of a human, with pale skin, and their lower half was finished with a fin like a fish and was bluish in colour.
So what did they see over those long summer days nearly 200 years ago? Mermaid sightings are not confided to the rural Cornwall, the legend of half humans, half fish creatures appear in mythology all over the world from Asia to Africa and beyond. Mermaids are one of those universal human mystery stories like vampires and sea monsters and these myths date back at least 2000 years to the legend of Era, the Babylonian god. We are all also familiar with Triton, not that I am suggesting that that is what the men of Mawgan Porth saw.
What I do find odd is that the excepted explanation for mermaid sightings is that people have foolishly mistaken a seal or some other water creature for something more extraordinary. Somehow that doesn’t sit well in this case, the men were in a group, they were, if not fishermen, people who lived by the sea and should have been familiar with its wildlife. Add this to the fact that the sightings happened over 3 days and they claim to have watched the ‘mermaids’ for prolonged periods and it all seems a bit fishy!
Folklore concerning mermaids has evolved over the centuries. Not all the stories were of beautiful maidens wearing oyster-shells bras and combing their long blonde hair with a friendly sea urchin as this
19th century drawing perfectly illustrates. The tale of the Sirens who’s song lured men and ships to their doom is frighteningly dark and plays on our fear of the wild unknown ocean.
Strangely the stories of Merfolk still persist to this day, just Goggle mermaid sightings and see what pops up!
Sadly my walk didn’t bear fruit, there was nothing to see, no mermaids, just the odd surfer. Maybe next time.
I picked up another film from the developer this week. And as always it is that moment of trepidation that is half the fun, what will the pictures be like, did I breathe and blur, have I managed any double exposures and is that a good or a bad thing?
The gentleman behind the counter took my docket and reached for the packet which was sitting waiting by the till. “Can I just ask what camera you are using?” he said while handing it across to me. When I told him he seemed surprised and during the conversation that followed he explained that he hadn’t seen a Brownie film in a long time and was impressed by how good the pictures were. I left a very pleased lady. Please note he was impressed by the camera, not me but still . . .
I was even happier when I saw my new pictures, is it me or am I really getting the hang of this? Perhaps then it is time to talk about the details. In my last article My Box Brownie camera, Adventures with Parralax Error! I gave my so-called top tips, maybe it would be helpful to explain a little more on how to use this natty little camera. Of course as I have explained before it is just soo complicated!
This picture is apparently what my friends imagine I look like when I am out with my Brownie. It is understandable in a way, the idea of me roaming the Cornish cliffs with a camera which is heading for 100 years old is comical I suppose. It does conjure wonderful, soft-edged reminiscences of the past. I am sure that when George Eastman and Kodak put the first Brownies on sale on 1901 they had no real inkling of the revolution the little black boxes would create.
It was in fact Queen Alexandra who really began the craze for the Brownie. When the papers let it be known that she was using one to capture memories of her children all of a sudden everyone wanted one. The ingenious simplicity of Kodak’s little camera meant that photography was something that everyone could do. It was a magic that we could all be a part of! And lets face it we have never looked back, even in todays digital age of the selfie and camera phone we still delight as much as ever in capturing those moments in our lives, big and small to look back on.
I mentioned before coming to grips with my Brownie and how it works was a bit of a trial and error experience so I thought that I would provide a little ‘How to load your film’ slide show just in case I have inspired anyone to give it a go!
So it seems it is finally here, after what felt like a very long winter with rain of near biblical proportions it is at last the spring equinox. Nothing says spring has arrived more than the riot of colour that is the Falmouth Spring Flower Show. Despite being more than 100 years old this historical little show is often over-looked by locals and visitors alike. This year I decided I would not only attend but enter something in one of the classes.
As I entered the Princess Pavilion yesterday my winter-cosseted senses leapt into life. The large hall is a positive hive of life, all bright gaudy colours and sweet scents. There are long tables laid out with the most vibrant splashes of pinks and yellows. Daffodils, narcissus, magnolia, rhododendron, camellia and all manner of spring colour is here and after such a long dark winter it’s a joyful sight.
This year for the first time as I said I decided to become an exhibitor. My grandmother, a proper Falmouth girl, regularly showed off her pot plants and cut flowers but sadly I didn’t inherit her green fingers, I put one of my pictures into the photographic class. Each year there are different themes to choose from, I picked ‘Cornish mining landscapes’. I found that there are a couple of advantages to being an exhibitor, you get to see your work on display, which was a first for me, and you don’t have to pay the entry fee (although a rather reasonable £3 is hardly going to break the bank). No prizes for me this year however but I must say I was very happy and proud to see my name there amongst the others and I have picked up some tips for next year!
After having my nose in all that pollen I really do hope that there is a fine summer on the way. It feels like it might be time to dust off my sandals and dig out the sun screen, or perhaps I really am getting ahead of myself, lets just enjoy the fruits of a well earned spring first shall we?
So is the great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts. There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made therein.
Psalm 104 verses 25-26
The coastline of Cornwall has always been as mysterious as it is majestic. That wide, wild ocean that is full of so much potential is also full of the unknown and the unseen. Legends and superstitions are as much a part of the fisherman’s life as sea salt and fish scales. Stories abound all around the world of terrible creatures lurking in the dark depths of the ocean. In South Africa there was the Coelacanth, the Southern Sea had monstrous squid called Kraken and Greek legend told of the many-armed Scylla. In Cornwall there is the Mermaid of Zennor luring sailors to their deaths in the murky depths and the witches of Gunnards Head calling up storms from that rocky headland just to spite their neighbours. Remember the wicked-hearted Wreakers with their lanterns coaxing ships to their doom and of course the curse of Loe Pool which claims a life every 7 years. And then there is the Morqawr.
Morgwar means sea-giant in Cornish and strange creatures, giant serpents and sea monsters have been spoken about here from earliest times. However they seem to have been particularly popular in the 18th and 19th century ,indeed right up until 1999 there have been regular reports of something large and snake-like in the waters off the Cornish coast. The sightings seem to have been mostly on the south coast from Lands End up to Portscatho.
In April 1876 a group of fisherman were returning home to the little harbour at Portscatho, the waters in Gerrans Bay were very clear as it was a calm spring day, and the men spotted something strange just 500 yards from the shore. “A serpentine creature.”
The encounter was reported in the Royal Cornwall Gazette: “Upon their approach it lifted up its head and showed signs of defiance”, the serpentine creature was chased and eventually captured. But when the fishermen brought ashore to show the people of Portscatho it caused such a stir that by the time the newspaper reporter arrived, much to his disappointment, it had been killed and thrown back into the sea.
Earlier still was this report from Mevagissey:
A Great Sea Serpent – One of those great serpents . . . was brought into Mevagissey last week, by fisherman named John Hicks, which weighed 95 lbs. It is supposed to be the largest ever caught there.
West Briton, 20th October 1837
Similar sea monsters have been spotted off the coast of Lands End in 1906, near Mevagissy in 1944, off Pendennis Point in Falmouth in 1975 and most recently again in Gerrans Bay in 1999.
The serpent sighted from Pendennis Point by Mrs. Scott and Mr. Riley in September 1975 was described as “a hideous humped creature with a long bristled neck and stumpy horns”, they claimed to have seen it catch a small conger eel in its mouth before disappearing under the waves. It’s a description that is eerily close to so many historical sightings and also the “tortuous monster” in the biblical Book of Job.
When I was younger I remember hearing stories of giant eels in the deep waters of the Carrick Roads and Falmouth Bay and I would guess that in all likelihood this might be where these stories come from, coloured and exaggerated by the telling. I wonder if anyone has spotted anything recently . . .
I recently found an old camera in a charity shop. After ringing a photographer friend of mine to establish whether it was still possible to get film for it I bought it on a whim. I have always been a sucker for the old fashioned.
The camera that I had found was a Kodak Box Brownie No 2 and dates from about 1930. They were a very popular model, the must-have garget of the day, selling millions during their time in production between 1901-1935. They were reliable and easy to use, well, that is the theory anyway! For someone born in the age of the digital camera they must seem very antiquated and mysterious.
Luckily enough I am not one of those people, I did grow up using film cameras and only got my first digital camera just a few years ago.
I was however still confused!! Funnily enough it is the cameras simplicity that is a little intimidating. Your ultimate ‘point and shoot’ really. It feels strange not to have to worry about buttons and settings and gargets. But I am learning that with the Brownie it is preparation that is key however.
So I bought myself a 120 film, gave my rusty friend a wipe down and I then enlisted my trusty photographer to show me how to load it. I also had a quick lesson at the same time, which basically involved: this is the view-finder, this is the shutter, you just flick that in one direction and you’re done. That simple, flick one little lever, picture taken.
Perhaps that is why it is so joyful and I suppose a little mysterious too. It is true alchemy at work. “Click” goes the shutter but there is no whirring or buzzing. Even my camera phone makes that pretend sound of a mechanical camera to let me know something has actually happened! With the Brownie you just have to trust in that magical reaction between chemicals and light.
And happen they do and to me the results are golden. I think that the Brownie pictures have a dreamy quality about them, there is that slight fading, a blurriness at the edges that I don’t think ‘photoshop’ can quite recreate. I also like the little inclusions you get sometimes (spots of dust I think) but most of all it is that old feeling of anticipation and excitement when you go to the developers and open up the packet to see just what you have captured. It makes me smile every time.
So, I went off all snap happy with very little idea what I was actually doing. I learnt a fair bit in my first couple of films so here are my tips so far.
(please bear in mind I am NOT an expert, I am a total novice!)
Think about when you want to shoot, outside natural light is best, super strong sunlight is not ideal.
Choose what you want to shoot. The Brownie is not so good at subjects up close, I find interesting landscapes are working the best for me. And luckily in Cornwall I have plenty of those.
Try not to breath! The Brownie doesn’t like it if you have the shakes, there is no auto-correct, I jam mine into my chest and hold my breathe and even then I still get blurry shots sometimes!
Take your time, think about what you want in the picture and what you don’t, you only have 8 shots on your 120 film make each one count.
Don’t forget your Parralax Error, no this is not science fiction! It basically means that what you see through your diddy view-finder is not necessarily what your camera sees. I took a lot of sky shots on my first film.
Finally give it a go! In this world where everything is instantaneous try something that you have to plan for, think about, anticipate, wait for for a change. It might make you slow your pace and take in what is beyond the lens!
In the winter the Penwith landscape is all the muted tones of grey and soft brown as if the granite bedrock has leeched up into the vegetation. The bracken is burnt black with the cold winds. It is only when the sunlight spills across the ground that details in the countryside appear. Quite suddenly I am looking at an ancient bronze age menhir standing in the middle of a field.
This is the Men Scryfa, which literally means inscribed stone in Cornish, and craved down one side of it, the words disappearing into the dirt, is “Rialobrani Cunovali Filii”. This too is Cornish and roughly translates to Rialobran or Royal Raven, son of Cunoval. So who, you may ask, is the Royal Raven?
The words were craved into the hard granite of this standing stone hundreds of years after its original purpose had been forgotten. When it was already a historical feature in the landscape. Cornwall’s first graffiti artist was commemorating a 6th century warrior. Rialobran, legend tells us, was a warrior prince, his kingdom was the West Penwith and he gave his life in battle near to this stone. His castle overlooked Mount’s Bay and Penzance and when the area was invaded by an unknown enemy from the east he fought his foe with an evil fury. It isn’t clear whether Rialobran received his nickname before or after the battle but these large black birds would certainly have been a impressive and menacing symbol.
I have a fondness for ravens. Ravens arrived in the graveyard next to our farm about 20 years ago. They built their residence in the highest branches of the enormous pine trees which grow against the north and eastern hedges. Despite their historical and mythological associations with death and war I have always found their company comforting. I like the croaking caw they make to each other and when they soar above the valley on the rising air their jet-black shadows look mysterious and beautiful silhouetted against the sky.
They, however, are considered a bird of ill-omen in many cultures, many thought that they could bring bad luck and disease. If they ever abandon their nests it is a sign of impending calamity (I’ll keep an eye out for that). To the Norse poets they were drinkers of blood, to the North American Indians they were the trickster, the transformer and to the ancient Celts, of which Rialobran would have been one, they were potent symbols of warfare, probably because they were thought to lurk around battlefields and feed on the bodies of the dead.
But despite all that negative press ravens are extremely intelligent and are excellent mimics. They mate for life and are long-lived, in all likelihood the two ravens who moved in all those years ago are the same ones that I see today.
I have been visiting the ancient stones on the Penwith for more than 20 years now and whether it is in the dry heat of high summer or the soggy wet of early spring it has always been a landscape that inspires me and fills me with joy. It is also a place full of mystery. Rialobran, of course, is no exception. Like all the best heroes his legend says that he never really died in that battle, that he is just sleeping in his grave, sword in hand, waiting for the moment when Cornwall needs him again.
To be thirty-eight, childless and unmarried is to be some sort of social misfit. But I am no Miss Havisham.
These days we’re allowed to have it all; a career, husband and children. But what if you don’t want it all? The assumption is there must be something wrong with you. Why else would you reject convention?
Some mental derangement perhaps or physical deformity; couple of bodies in the cellar or an overly familiar relationship with a cat; that would explain it. And of course you must
secretly be desperate and grieving. Heaven forbid that it could have been your choice.
I’m too selfish to have children. I’m a great auntie but I’d be a terrible mother. I don’t believe in reproducing just because you think you might need someone to look after you when you get old, to push your wheelchair, I’ve already bribed my niece to do that. Why have children just because you can, because you want to?
Am I the only one who thinks that having children is the single most important decision you will ever make? Marriages can be undone, jobs quit, houses sold, puppies abandoned at rescue centres, hair dyed and tattoos lasered but once you have a child there is no sticking a stamp on it and sending it back.
In all likelihood it’s not just the child that’s for life, it’s the man too. Even if you divorce him, even if he emigrates, dies or just plain disappears you will still be looking at half of his genes in the face of your beloved offspring.
There is a large part of me that thinks that having children is just self-centred. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It doesn’t prove something about your worth or the strength of your relationship. It’s not big and it’s not clever. Look at this world, the billions of children born to misery and pain, famine and war or just good old-fashioned neglect. Children desperate for loving families, who grow up wanting because their birth parents didn’t think it through and the child-wanting couples for whom only a brood that shares their DNA will do. I don’t need to add to the planets burden.
The world is my very own oyster and I don’t have to share it. I didn’t give up my free-wheeling 20s to crayoned walls and breast-pumps, I travelled but not to have something to tell the kids, I did it for me. Now in my 30s I am free to fly to Rome for some gnocchi whenever I choose or maybe just quit my job and return to education.
I’m not lonely or alone. I have wonderful people in my life, people who make me laugh, challenge me, argue with me, push me, trust me, love me and rely on me. I am fulfilled. I am certainly richer and far less sticky than my childbearing peers. I am no Bridget Jones, I am happy, just as I am.
Walking beside the creek near to my home recently I realised we had been invaded by some noisy new neighbours. Canada geese had taken up residence for the winter.
I say unusual, which is true for the waterways near to where I live but Canada geese have been part of the British landscape for more than 300 years. It was King Charles II who originally introduced them. He thought that they would look attractive in his new water gardens in St James Park. With their black heads and striking stripped white cheeks he was probably right.
These noisy new neighbours of mine are really natives of the Arctic and North America. They are large birds with an intimidating wingspan of around 5 feet. They also have very loud voices. They cackle to themselves as they graze on the grass and roots of the tidal mudflats.
These birds are perfectly at home here in this country and the temperate climate means that they don’t even bother to migrate. Their success however has become their downfall and many believe that their numbers are now out of control.
There are now an estimated 62,000 breeding pairs in the United Kingdom and even the RSPB has expressed concern at the effect their numbers are having on our native species. Reports of crop damage and attacks on people have led to calls for a cull to reduce their numbers. But when last summer the West Midlands council admitted to killing more than 200 of the birds there was a outcry especially when it became clear that they had lied to the public by originally telling them that the birds had only been “relocated”.
Whatever the case if the numbers need to be reduced we really need to find a humane way of doing it. Conservationists have suggested sterilisation of their eggs or fencing the birds off from the public to reduce the risk of attacks.
I however am very happy to see my new neighbours and enjoy their company. Rightly or wrongly i am looking forward to the spring to see whether they decide to stay and more importantly whether they decide to breed.