Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Cornish Giants and the St Agnes Bolster Festival

Giant Bolster: "Grrr!"
Of countless Cornish legends, tales of the Duchy’s ancient giants are among the most enduring. Cornwall’s giants were often violent, fighting among themselves and treating local people as vassals. But from time to time they were also ardent suitors and despite their enormous power, a few were tender spirits. In Cornish folklore, giants loom large.

Long ago, perhaps during King Arthur’s reign, giant Cormoran lived deep in West Penwith with his wife Cornelian. The two made their home off the coastline, quarrying granite to form St Michael’s Mount, but Cormoran was idle and short-tempered; put-on Cornelian did most of the work. Her husband spent his time oppressing local villages, stealing the best sheep and pigs to eat and dangling them from his belt. Cormoran was ugly, his face set in a great scowl; he stood 20 feet tall with a huge bulging chest and matching waistline.

Many tried to slay the cruel giant but to no avail; the Cornish folk despaired. Finally though, a farmer’s boy named Jack outwitted him. One night as Cormoran slept, Jack dug a great hole nearby which he covered with furze. In the early morning he blew his horn; disturbed from slumber, the angry monster raged after him. 

But Jack was standing on the far side of his pit and the giant tumbled in, defenceless. The boy killed Cormoran with a single ringing blow from his pick-axe and the grateful villagers rewarded him with a fine sword; he became known as Jack the Giant-Killer. The victor went travelling; he felled several other giants, and today we remember him through the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.      

Giants adored big rocks and stones, using them as furniture, missiles and to play their games of quoits. They’re also said to have helped form the Cheesewring, the extraordinary granite formation near Minions on the edge of Bodmin Moor. Led by chief Uther, the local giants were infuriated when a group of Saints arrived in the area. The new residents were popular with people living nearby, receiving tithes formerly stolen by the bullying monsters. 

To settle on who’d stay, Uther and holy man Saint Tue held a rock-throwing contest, pitching in turn. The idea was to toss each great boulder atop the previous until a tower was formed. With some divine help Saint Tue beat the giant, whose final throw fell short of the mark. Uther promised to give up his delinquent lifestyle; he and his cronies melted into the hills. But the huge rockpile is still there.

Holiburn: "Er, hello?"
Not all giants displayed such behavioural problems. Holiburn, the kindly giant of Carn Galva, protected the villagers of nearby Zennor and Morvah from attacks by others of his race. His fees were modest; the occasional sheep or goat to rend and crunch. The giant built himself a huge logan stone, on which he’d spend the evenings swaying gently back and forth. But sadly during a bout of horseplay, with a good-natured but careless tap on the head Holiburn killed one of his human friends; he was so mortified, he died of a broken heart. 

Other giants roamed the great stones. Cormoran’s neighbour, the giant of Trecrobben near St Michael’s Mount, built a rocky castle there for himself and his friends. Deep in Penwith, at Treen’s ancient Treryn Dinas cliff fort near Porthcurno lived deaf-and-dumb giant Dan Dynas, and his wife An’ (aunt) Venna. A good couple, they offered local people protection within during times of conflict. 

Today the best-known of Cornwall’s giants is Bolster. Living high on the Beacon hill outside St Agnes, Bolster was dastardly; as well as animals he’d gobble up children, and ill-treated his wife until she became worn-down with overwork. Bolster’s eye began to wander and ignoring his marital status, he proposed to a local maid named Agnes. 

Horrified, Agnes wracked her brains for a way to be rid of him; she set Bolster a long series of tasks to prove his ardour. The love-struck monster engaged in battles, feats of strength, races, but finally his patience ended; he insisted on one final endeavour after which Agnes would become his wife.

By then though, Agnes had a plan. She took Bolster up to the cliffs at nearby Chapel Porth, and showed him a small hole in the rock. As a final token of his love, Agnes asked the giant to make a cut in his wrist and fill the hole with blood. Bolster obeyed, believing this to be the simplest task of all. 

But Agnes knew the hole was bottomless; it ran through the rock, down to the sea. Hour after hour the hole remained unfilled, as slowly Bolster’s blood drained away. Finally, with a great sigh the monster expired. On the Beacon the villagers partied and their heroine became canonized as St Agnes; Chapel Porth’s cliffs still bear blood-red stains. 
Now, each year the oppressor’s final downfall is celebrated by the St Agnes Bolster Festival. The event takes place over the first weekend of May and includes live music, a lantern procession, bonfire and barbeque. The highlight is a grand parade, its star a colossal effigy of the wicked giant. Surrounded by his helpers, mighty Bolster struts the length of the village accompanied by the Bolster Drummers, Mr Mayor, brave knight Sir Constantine and unfortunate Mrs Bolster.

"Hi, fans!"
Bill English runs the 17th century St Agnes Hotel with wife Diane; he enjoys the weekend. “It’s a really great occasion for the whole village. Everyone gets together and people of all ages come in from miles around to see Bolster. He’s been going for about 20 years now, and his reputation’s spread far and wide. Bolster’s a villain but everyone loves him, though some of the kids are a little wary at first; he’s well over 20 feet high!”

This year’s Bolster parade begins at 12.00 noon on Sunday May 5th. Later that afternoon the challengers will gather at Chapel Porth, to challenge their foe in a do-or-die confrontation.  Before thousands of spellbound onlookers, as the drums beat ever louder Bolster will appear on the horizon; against a backdrop of towering cliffs and blue twinkly sea, the final battle unfolds.

To find out more about the whole weekend’s events at the St Agnes Bolster Festival, check out:

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Charles Causley, and the Causley Festival

Cornish poet Charles Causley is celebrated for his genius worldwide, but drew inspiration from his home; he lived nearly all his life in the Duchy’s old capital Launceston. Admired by contemporaries John Betjeman, Ted Hughes and Roger McGough, Causley’s work frequently embraced his local area, as well as broader Cornwall and its plentiful legends. But he also told tales of working people, simple stories at first glance, and the conflicts they experienced in an often tough world.

Charles was born in his grandmother’s small cottage by the River Kensey, along from Launceston’s St Thomas parish church; his passion for poetry grew as a schoolboy. Dull day jobs and evenings struggling to write was followed by naval service abroad during the Second World War. Home in one piece, Charles trained as a teacher but continued his poetry, inspired especially by WH Auden, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

Success finally arrived in 1951 with publication of Farewell, Aggie Weston, wartime recollections by turn exhilarating, sombre and bleak. Charles compiled several anthologies, attracting admiration from writers as diverse as Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Edith Sitwell and John Wain. In the 1970s he began writing children’s poetry, verses of innocence to charm young readers sometimes by their very sounds. He also produced short stories, plays and opera librettos.

Always a modest man, appearing at an Edinburgh Festival Charles shared the bill with his early hero Auden: “It was wonderful for me; I don't know what it was like for Auden.” In 1967 he was awarded the Queen's Medal for Poetry, later the CBE. During 2000 the Royal Society of Literature made Charles a Companion of Literature; his reaction at 83, a gentle-humoured, “My goodness, what an encouragement.” Roger McGough said of him: “He sits at the foot of England and tickles its toes.”

Malcolm Wright chairs Launceston’s Charles Causley Society and is a long-time admirer. He also helps organise the town’s annual literary event, the Charles Causley Festival, which this year takes place over the weekend of 7th – 9th June. Malcolm explained: “We held our first festival in June 2010, and it’s been growing ever since.  Charles was primarily a poet, but he was also an accomplished musician and dramatist, and the festival reflects all these aspects of his artistic talents.” Each year sees visits by poets, writers and musicians with live performances, talks, book-signings, exhibitions and workshops. Even guided tours are available, bringing Charles’s Launceston alive to visitors; people enjoy seeing the places mentioned in his work.

Visiting this year will be Sir Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate. Sir Andrew, patron of the Charles Causley Trust, will read from his new collection The Customs House, with a question-and-answer session together with a book-signing; he’ll be at the Town Hall on Friday from 4.00pm. Friday night will feature five contemporary poets: Matt Harvey, Simon Williams, and the Dead Chough Collective otherwise known as Alan Kent, Les Merton and Mick Paynter. At the Lawrence House Museum on Saturday, Alan will be launching his new collection of Charles’s theatre works, along with a talk and book-signing.

Until recently, Launceston resident Richard Graham ran the town’s bookshop; years ago the poet was among his customers. A great fan, Richard said: “As well as his work for adults Charles wrote a great deal of children’s poetry.  He wrote for children as equals and never talked down to them.  He didn’t believe in age distinction in poetry.” This year, among young readers’ events will be BishBashBosh Productions’ Beast of Bodmin Moor, a puppet show based on Cornwall’s mysterious big cat and how it came to wander the wild landscape. Over the weekend too, The Story Republic will be invading medieval Launceston Castle, small groups of storytellers armed with Charles’s poetry to enchant children and adventurous adults.

With most events held in and around the town’s centre, it’s easy to stroll between them. As you walk, Charles’s Launceston comes to life. St Mary Magdalene church appears in the ballad Sir Henry Trecarell as well as Mary, Mary Magdalene while the school where the poet taught is featured in Salt and Pepper, recalling a crusty colleague. Launceston Castle lends the backdrop for Mr Pennycomequick, a cautionary children’s verse about an intrepid amateur parachutist. Other poetic landmarks are Tom and Tim, the Guildhall’s quarter-jacks, as well as Zig Zag Hill and the Eagle House Hotel’s fine pair of avian statues.

Among non-fiction writers appearing this year, Caspar Henderson will talk about his Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a compendium of real creatures often more astonishing than anything dreamed of in a medieval bestiary. He’ll be at Liberty House (Jericho’s) on Saturday. Sunday sees Dr Michael Sparrow share adventures from medical life, again at Liberty House, from 1 pm; the stories, captured in his books Country Doctor and Repeat Prescription, would be entirely unbelievable if they weren’t 100% true.

Musical events will include Devon folk-singer Jim Causley; he’ll be launching his new CD featuring Charles’s poetry on Thursday 6 June at the Town Hall, as the Festival gets underway. Sunday’s music features Launceston Live, again at the Town Hall from 6.30 to midnight, with acts including Issy Paul and The Ukeladies. The evening’s headlined by Dalla, Cornish Celtic music’s first supergroup, renowned for their performances taking Cornwall’s melody and song throughout the Duchy and beyond.

But at the celebration’s heart will be Charles Causley himself. His poetry is treasured by a wide, diverse audience; its traditional forms, clarity and universal themes have an enduring quality. Malcolm Wright summed up: “The real glory of Charles’s work lies in its variety, from the sombre tones in Six Women to the humour of When I Was a Hundred and Twenty Four, and the observational skill in Timothy Winters. Charles is one of the best-loved poets of the second half of the 20th century; he stands alongside Hughes, Larkin, Heaney and Betjeman.”

Richard Graham added: “Charles had a natural rhythm and cadence to his writing, perhaps made more natural because he was also a musician. His poetry is very readable, understandable; he talked in a simple way.” Another admirer was Ted Hughes, who wrote: “Before I was made Poet Laureate, I was asked to name my choice of the best poet for the job.  Without hesitation I named Charles Causley … a poet for whom the title might have been invented afresh.”

For information on the Charles Causley Festival, visit http://charlescausleyfestival.co.uk/

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Trevithick Day at Camborne!

Camborne’s annual Trevithick Day is a grand parade of traction-engines and vintage vehicles, along with free entertainment, a bustling market, choral singing and displays of traditional dancing. The Day’s a firm favourite with locals and visitors alike, as the streets come alive with a vibrant celebration of the town’s industrial heritage. 

Richard Trevithick – the “father of steam” – was born in 1771 near Camborne’s Dolcoath Mine, where his father was a manager. A prolific and natural engineer, he pioneered the use of high-pressure steam engines and pumps in Cornwall’s mines, clearing unwanted water from the shafts’ lower reaches. Other projects included a self-powered road vehicle, a steam railway engine, even a tunnel under the Thames.  

Known locally as Cap’n Dick, Richard’s work changed the face of Cornish mining, and the ideas behind his steam engines profoundly influenced Britain’s industrial revolution. Yet he was never well-to-do and didn’t benefit financially from his schemes; nor has he always been widely recognised for his genius.

These days we remember Richard Trevithick particularly through his Puffing Devil engine. On Christmas Eve 1801 he toiled up Camborne Hill – the modern-day Fore Street – aboard his hissing, clattering creation, a crowd of rain-drenched friends encouraging him and riding on the coal-black machine. 

The Puffing Devil was the world's first passenger-carrying self-propelled vehicle, and Richard’s brief journey gave rise to the famous old Cornish song, ‘Going Up Camborne Hill’. Today, during the festivities a replica Devil can be seen in steam while the town has a fine statue of Richard, holding a model of his invention.

From the first Trevithick Day held in 1984 with just three traction engines on show, these days as it enjoys its 30th occasion the event’s reckoned to attract crowds of well over 40,000. Church bells ring out as the celebration begins with a traditional Bal Maidens and Miners dance; as well as the adults, around 250 local school-children wearing mining costume also take part. 

The dance leaves Basset Street at 10.15am accompanied by the brass of Camborne Town Band, together with a parade of miniature steam engines.  Mingling with their blasting whistles and puffing pistons, traditional fairground organs belt out strident melodies of long ago.  

All along the town’s Trelowarren Street, dozens of stalls and displays are assembled while in Commercial Square and on street corners local musicians, singers and choirs perform. Vintage and veteran vehicles drop by, exhibitions of local industrial heritage are on show and shops decorate their windows for the occasion.

This year, Trevithick Day's on Saturday 27 April; the fun begins during mid-morning. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Cornwall Council: More Exciting Initiatives!

Cornwall Council is considering selling its sublime management skills to other public authorities. 

The idea is, the Council would run someone else’s payroll system, perhaps manage their personnel records, or mastermind repairs to Spaghetti Junction.

To do this, Cornwall would team with private industry and submit joint bids for work to councils across the country. The carrot for Cornwall is preservation of its own jobs and services, and for the industrial partners, profit.

But if Cornwall Council seeks work beyond its own border, Cornish people will experience a decline in public services even more severe than the current shambles.

You don’t identify business opportunities in five minutes and depending on the prospect’s complexity, forming bid teams and submitting proposals can take months. Once the bids have been lodged, usually in competition with other would-be suppliers, often the customer asks for clarifications; sometimes even rebids are required.

These activities are seriously costly for bidders and it can be hard to predict your financial exposure, especially without a track-record. Always there's the question too: what else could have been done with the money?

Cornwall Council might not win any work. Then again, customers' budgets could be slashed, in which case there'll be no work awarded. During troubled economic times slimmed purchasing requirements become ever likelier, particularly in the area of say er, local authorities.

All in all then, not a great idea. Cornwall Council must concentrate on trying to manage its own shaky affairs. The Council’s recent hurried and risky outsourcing of some of its own staff, made under a partnership with BT, ought to provide a suitable distraction.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Frankenfood: 21st Century Cuisine!

In our busy world, sometimes we skimp on food or take the easy option. 

Instead of a proper meal just a sandwich. A gnaw of the pork pie squatting somewhere in the fridge. Maybe a quick salad, with instant cous-cous if you can brave the packet's image of Ainsley Harriot and his mad bulging eyes.

Some food though, often sold on the convenience ticket, is just too awful to bear: 'Frankenfood', produced from bubbling chemicals in sweaty industrial cauldrons. Opinions vary as to the worst but turkey twizzlers, microwavable snack products and chicken nuggets are all contenders. Or perhaps Asda's Smart Price Chilli Con Carne, a dish so lacking in taste and form that it deserves a special mention.

But pictured to our left is the undisputed champion, the absolute acme of disgusting foods. I give you (drum-roll) ... the Jimmy Dean Pancake and Sausage on a Stick, with Chocolate Chips. If anyone can beat this effort for jaw-dropping repugnance I'd be most interested to hear. Wasn't there a Jimmy Dean who died horribly of something?