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:

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