The Cornish chough

The chough is a mysterious bird, in the sense that some of the information on it isn’t that reliable. The Daily Telegraph last week reported that there were now 12 breeding pairs of choughs in Cornwall, brought back by what it called ‘Operation Chough’. The chough, it went on, had been absent in Cornwall since the 1950s, a date presumably taken from a cursory look at the Cornwall Council website, which claims the chough disappeared in 1952.

It didn’t. More reliable sources confirm that the last chough seen alive in Cornwall was near Newquay in 1973. Operation Chough meanwhile was a project begun in 1987 based at Paradise Park, Hayle, to breed choughs in captivity. This had succeeded in rearing chough chicks by 2011 but was not the cause of the return of the chough. In fact, choughs returned naturally, four turning up from Ireland in 2001. Three of those liked what they saw and decided to stick around, setting up home on the Lizard. The Cornwall Chough Project is the scheme led by the RSPB to protect these birds, encourage more and ensure their survival.

A chough looking rather imperious

The chough is a member of the crow family, but with red legs and a long red beak, the latter used to dig out insects from closely cropped grassland near its nesting sites on the cliffs. In the 1800s and 1900s farmers moved their grazing animals inland. This resulted in the loss of the short grass that the choughs needed to get at the insects and the consequent decline in the numbers of the bird. However, in the 1990s the ‘National’ Trust in Cornwall had begun working with landowners on the Lizard to encourage the restoration of clifftop grazing. As it admits, this wasn’t primarily done to encourage the return of choughs but the wildflowers and rare plants that also flourish in this habitat. Anyway, it worked, and the choughs are back.

Which is a good thing as it restores a classic Cornish symbol to the land. As everyone knows, King Arthur on his death in battle was transformed into a chough, ‘talons and beaks all red with blood’. Lines in the Cornish Gorseth ceremony insist that:

Still Arthur watches our shore 
In guise of a chough there flown

So the absence of the chough from 1973 to 2001 might explain a lot.

Back in the 1600s ‘Cornish choughs’ was a common nickname for the Cornish. Shakespeare used it several times and it was also used by other playwrights. At the time the idiomatic meaning of the word ‘chough’ was ‘a rustic, a clown, a boor’ and in 1617 a Cornishman named Chough was depicted as an ‘ignorant country bumpkin’, a tiresome and unimaginative stereotype still much in use 400 years later. Mark Stoyle concludes that the English had adopted the term ‘chough’ as ‘a derogatory nickname for the Cornish people themselves.’

Richard Carew, writing in the 1590s, hadn’t helped by describing the Cornish chough as ‘ungracious, in filching and hiding of money … and somewhat dangerous in carrying sticks of fire’. This reputation for ‘filching’ money was picked up by Parliamentary pamphleteers in the civil wars and used to accuse the Cornish of being natural plunderers. In a note to Carew’s Survey, added in the 1730s, Thomas Tonkin agreed that the chough was known for ‘thievishness’ but that it was ‘much admired in other countries’ and ‘often sent as a present’, which may well have hastened its decline.

The Arthurian legend assures that one day Arthur will return. Now that the chough is back it’s just a question of time before that happens and all will be proper again.

Love it or hate it? Attitudes towards the revived Cornish language

A research article by Siarl Ferdinand published online last year provides some intriguing results of a survey into attitudes towards the revived Cornish language. The good news for the revivalists is that there was a broadly positive view of Cornish, with a majority of respondents declaring it was either ‘interesting’ or not being bothered either way. Meanwhile, a sizeable minority – around one in four – of non-learners expressed an interest in learning some Cornish.

The bad news is that a considerable minority – between a third and a half of the respondents – thought that supporting Cornish is a waste of resources. This group does not want it to be supported by the authorities or to appear on street signs (other than in placenames).

Welcome sign in traditional Cornish and revived medieval Cornish

The survey also found that only one in five of the Cornish ‘speakers’ who completed the survey defined themselves as ‘fluent’. As many as 60% of the learners admitted that they couldn’t even hold a simple conversation in Cornish. With approximately 50 fluent speakers in Cornwall, there’s a fairly long way to go to achieve the Cornish Language Strategy’s rather ambitious aim of making Cornish a ‘community language’.

Interestingly, though perhaps not unexpectedly, the research also discovered quite a stark contrast in attitudes between those non-learners who identified as Cornish and those who did not. The latter group was much more hostile to official support for the language or its introduction into schools and expressed far less desire to learn it. Given the current high level of population growth and in-migration being encouraged by local and central government, the attitudes of in-migrants is set to be the key for the future of the Cornish language.

For an extended critical review of this article see here.

Cornwall’s population: the latest estimates

The latest population estimates for mid-2019 were produced last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). These show that net migration into Cornwall from the rest of the UK is still running at a historically high level. The estimated figure of 5,527 net migrants in 2018-19 was the highest since 2003, with the one exception of 2016-17.

Population overall did not rise as much, partly because there were 1,238 more deaths than births among the resident population and partly because of a net international exodus of 553, presumably the brexit effect.

Cornwall’s population was estimated to be nearly 566,000 in the middle of last year, an increase of around 200,000 over the past 50 years, the size of a fair-sized city. In 1976 Cornwall’s planners estimated that to ‘maintain the physical character of Cornwall’ its ideal population should be 430,000. We waved that number goodbye many years ago in 1981. The planners now assure us that there is no capacity problem. Indeed, Cornwall Council stresses there is ‘no upper ceiling’ to the number of houses that are going to be built. Somewhat ironically, this appeared in a document on its plans to tackle climate change.

Cornwall’s population has been rising faster than most other places since the 1960s

Meanwhile, the ONS is now also projecting a 20% growth in the number of households in Cornwall by 2040. This is a hefty increase from the 14% over the next 20 years in their last forecast just two years ago. A 20% growth in households presumably means a 20% increase in the size of the built environment. In just 20 years!

A high population growth rate has now been sustained for the past 60 years. Meanwhile, there is little sign of any breathing space that might allow Cornwall and its communities to accommodate such growth rather than to be overwhelmed by it. Quite the opposite in fact, as thousands of planning permissions have been handed out to build houses and most of them are still waiting to be built.

Covid-19 and Cornwall: the facts

A lot of often conflicting nonsense has appeared on both social media and the ‘mainstream’ media about how far this virus is present in Cornwall or the number of cases and deaths. Let’s look at what we know.

By the end of May the ONS had recorded 200 deaths in Cornwall where Covid-19 was cited as a cause of death or a contributory factor.

A map of those deaths shows a spread across the land with only a few places – Newlyn East and Grampound Road, Padstow, St Breward, Tintagel and Torpoint and the Rame peninsula – escaping with no mortalities. More generally, the more rural north of Cornwall looks to have best survived the outbreak. Other rural areas, for example the Lizard or mid-Cornwall between St Columb and Lostwithiel – have also seen relatively few victims. However, rurality has not guaranteed immunity. The rural Probus and Roseland has recorded the highest number of deaths, while the district east of the Fowey River has also suffered more than average.

That rurality is no magic bullet is confirmed by this map of detected cases per head across the UK.

Cases of Covid-19 per 100k population

Areas that are as rural, if not more so, than Cornwall such as East Anglia, North Yorkshire or Powys in Wales have seen twice as many detected cases. Meanwhile, Cumbria has had four times the Cornish number. A marginal location also seems important. Those regions with a lower number of cases per resident than Cornwall are Dorset and rural Devon in England, Ceredigion in Wales, the Highlands in Scotland and Fermanagh and Omagh in Northern Ireland.

Clearly the number of cases reported is only the tip of the iceberg. Currently the total of detected cases in Cornwall is running at 591. Given an assumed mortality rate of somewhere between 1 and 10% we should expect the real figure, based on 200 deaths, to be more like 2,000 to 20,000! Either the proportion detected is very low or we have an unusual and shockingly high mortality rate.

Overall however, Cornwall has fared relatively well. ‘Well’ in the context of the UK is of course pretty bad when compared to most of the rest of the world. Two hundred early and unexpected deaths are hardly cause for congratulation.

Moreover, before becoming too complacent we might note the final piece of evidence – the seven-day rolling average of detected cases in Cornwall.

For what it’s worth, this suggests that after a steady fall from early May, there was a small but significant jump in the number of cases in the first week of June.

The virus is still out there, so as the tourist sector eagerly gears up to resume its operations it’s best to remain vigilant and take care.

The Miners’ and Womens’ Hospital

In 1863 the dominant occupational group in Cornwall obtained their own hospital. The West Cornwall Hospital for Convalescent Miners was opened at Redruth on land donated by T.C.Agar-Robartes of Lanhydrock. Robartes also provided the bulk of the cash needed to pay for its upkeep. Patients were under the care not of doctors working full-time at the hospital, but the various surgeons contracted to the individual mines. These mine doctors recommended their patients for admission and were then responsible for their treatment.

Rather strangely, given the number of accidents in the mines, there was initially no accident ward, this being added in 1871. Presumably, most long-term patients were suffering mainly from the lung complaints and pneumoconiosis that shortened miners’ lives in the nineteenth century. This was brought on by the inhalation of dust and if anything became even more of a problem with the introduction of rock drills from the 1890s. Between 150 and 200 patients were admitted annually in the 1870s, this rising to over 200 in the 1880s despite the contraction of the mining industry.

Site of the hospital in 1906

Patients were subject to a barrage of rules, including that they

shall be decent and regular in their conduct, shall not use improper language, play at cards, dice or other games of chance; they shall not make use of spirituous liquors or any provisions brought by friends or visitors; they shall not chew tobacco nor smoke without leave of their medical attendant nor ever in the wards of the hospital.

In 1890 the Womens’ Hospital opened as a separate establishment on the same site, with the two being amalgamated in 1901. A maternity ward followed in 1926 and this continued until the late 1970s, when centralisation of services on Treliske picked up pace. By the mid-1990s the hospital had been run down, with the remaining services transferred to nearby Barncoose Hospital, a former workhouse infirmary. In 2002 the hospital building was converted into flats and offices and the surrounding land became the site of a housing project.

Former hospital building, now at the centre of an ‘urban village’

Covid-19. How is Cornwall faring?

It seems a good time to present some facts on the progress of the current coronavirus pandemic in Cornwall, with numbers of new cases overall now hopefully declining.

Accurate mortality figures (including deaths in the community as well as in hospitals) are produced by the Office for National Statistics after a lag of two weeks. The most recent release, two days ago, relates to deaths from the virus recorded up to May 1st. At that date there had been 145 deaths from the virus in Cornwall, 11% of the total in March and April. The map below shows how Cornwall compares with counties in England and in Wales in terms of its crude death rate. While the number of deaths in Cornwall have thankfully been lower than in most places and especially in the big cities, it does not have the lowest death rate.

As of yesterday there have been 553 cases in Cornwall, or less than 10 for every 10,000 residents. This is one of the lowest rates in the UK. The main worry of residents revolves around timing the re-opening of Cornwall to tourists or allowing the owners of thousands of second homes to travel to their properties in Cornwall. If this happens too quickly it could reintroduce the virus into Cornwall from regions where it remains more prevalent.

Helston’s Furry Day and Hal-an-Tow

Another iconic Cornish festival day. Another sad silence. Although traditional furry dances were held in several places across Cornwall within living memory – I remember participating at Liskeard – Helston is now regarded as the home of the furry.

The event shares some aspects with Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss – the celebration of spring, traditional songs, decorating the town with greenery and spring flowers. However, Helston’s Furry Day seems more divided by social class than Padstow’s May Day. In the nineteenth century, newspaper accounts recorded the formal midday dance and a ball in the evening to which the ‘beauty and fashion of the surrounding towns and neighbourhood’ flocked. At the same time there were country dances elsewhere for ‘tradespeople’, while in the morning more boisterous and unruly elements indulged in the hal-an-tow.

From an early point the day pulled in onlookers from a wide area. ‘The town was crowded with strangers’ in 1825. In 1832 a constant succession of arrivals from Truro, Falmouth, Penzance, Penryn and Redruth was noted, the town being ‘filled with visitors’ by 1 pm, while the beds at all the inns had been booked solid for two weeks prior to the day in 1843.

As at Padstow the day also attracted some criticism from evangelical reformers. In 1837 this surfaced in a letter condemning ‘this heathenish festival’ which ‘every reflecting and serious-minded person must unhesitatingly condemn’. Although by 1882 it was felt that ’there are some symptoms of the ancient institution being on the wane’, the hopes of this correspondent that ‘the increasing influence of the Christian principle and feeling, will cause the entire abandonment ‘ of the festival were to be dashed.

As usual it was the more plebeian and unruly custom of the hal-an-tow that was almost stamped out, before being resuscitated in a bowdlerised version by the Old Cornwall Society in the 1930s. In its original form, this involved an early morning excursion into the countryside, a mobile mummers’ play, demands for cash, plus lots of noise and drinking. References in the first line of the hal-an-tow song to Robin Hood and Little John reinforced the inversion and opposition to authority that it symbolised. In 1857 for example the procession of a mock mayor ‘caused much amusement’, while being frowned on by the real mayor.

The post-modern Cornishised version of the Hal-an-tow

We are told that the hal-an-tow fell into disrepute and decay around 1865 but the accounts in the West Briton paint a more complex and drawn-out picture of its decline. We must also allow for that paper’s somewhat condescending and occasionally condemnatory tone in its reports of this aspect of Furry Day.

At first the hal-an-tow was ignored, although in 1850 it was reported that there was no 5 am party ‘as heretofore to go into the country a-maying’. In 1855 the paper noted with some satisfaction that there had been no hal-an-tow, which ‘time out of mind has been continued, but from the manner in which it has lately been conducted it was little other than a prescriptive nuisance’. The same thing was said a year later in 1856. ‘The greater number of the old men who formed the ‘Hal-an-tow’ are dead, and for the first time within the memory of man, this curious part of the morning’s proceedings were dispensed with; it was certainly no ornament to the innocent amusements of the latter part of the day’.

Yet attempts to revive it were reported in 1861 and 1865 and in 1870 it was mentioned without comment. By 1872 the paper was noting ‘the usual hal-an-tow party’. The condemnation of the 1850s had not apparently led to its demise but It was clearly on life support. In 1874 it was stated that it had fallen ‘into great disrepute and had been discontinued almost entirely’. Note the ‘almost’ however. Four years later, while the day in general ‘has latterly been losing much of its ancient glories and showing signs of the effects of the advanced civilisation of the times … 40 boys, three men and a caparisoned pony formed the hal-an-tow and proceeded through the town in the usual fashion’.

Despite the competing attractions by this time of a bazaar and a dog and poultry show the hal-an-tow was refusing to die gracefully, periodically and stubbornly emerging out of the grave to which it was regularly consigned by ‘respectable’ society.

Let us all unite: May Day at Padstow

Unite and unite and let us all unite 
For summer is acome unto day

The words of the ‘Obby ‘Oss songs will not be heard this year. The ‘osses will remain in their stables and Padstow will be eerily quiet as this iconic Cornish festival comes to a temporary halt, brought low by a virus. Cheer up though! We can still remember May Day virtually, by viewing the scores of video clips and old newsreel footage available on Youtube going back to the 1930s.

The first newsreel with sound

As with similar events, it’s comforting to think that the origins of this festival lie in pagan fertility rituals lost in the mists of time, although in reality the ‘Obby ‘Oss is only securely documented from the early 1800s. However, there are strong continuities from that time – the familiar prancing ‘oss, the teasers, the parades through the town, the trance-like hypnotic rhythm of the songs. All these seem to echo through the centuries.

But look and listen closely to the video clips and you’ll notice that even Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss festival has changed over time. The words of the songs, the times they are sung, the clothing, masks and paraphernalia of the participants, the flags flown, the flowers picked, have all undergone subtle change.

Nonetheless, the core festivity is intact. Moreover, it survived the attentions of nineteenth century moralists and reformers committed to ‘rational recreation’. In 1844 Thomas Trevaskis, a temperance leader and Bible Christian in the district, described May Day in Padstow as ‘a scene of riot, debauchery and general licentiousness – a perfect nuisance to all the respectable inhabitants of the place’. He decided to buy off the roistering inhabitants by offering a fat bullock to be roasted annually if only they gave up their foolish ways.

The response was not exactly what Trevaskis had hoped. ‘He himself drove the bullock, the best beast in his possession, but the people refused the offer and drove him out of the town, bullock and all, while certain of them pelted him with divers missiles into the bargain!’

Concerns about the ‘unusual amount of drunkenness’ re-surfaced late in the century. At that time, some locals began a temperance ‘oss (the blue ‘oss) as a rival to the old ‘oss (or red ‘oss). Transformed after World War One into a ‘peace ‘oss’, this joined its older mate to become an accepted part of the festivities.

The crowds have also changed over time, from comprising mainly Padstonians who own the ceremony to massive hordes of gaping sightseers. Among them stroll scores of sociologists and anthropologists eager to ‘explain’ the festival. Alan Kent, in the best extended account of Cornwall’s festival culture, remarks that the ‘Obby ‘Oss is a ‘reaction to modernity’. But it was more significant as a survival of pre-modernity. As the rough and ready festivities of pre-industrial times succumbed to the reformers and religious evangelicals in the 1800s, Padstow’s ‘Obby ‘Oss was one of the few survivors.

Its survival is due to Padstonians’ fierce commitment to their local culture in the face of condemnation from outsiders. This was helped by the town’s location on the margins of Cornwall’s industrialisation. Here, the pressures of change were less keenly felt. By the twentieth century the place of Padstow’s May Day in wider Cornish culture meant that it had become ‘too big to fail’.

Since the 1960s however, there has been a more recognisably reactive aspect. For, remarkably, Padstow is now at the cutting edge of change, of modernity, or post-modernity, in Cornwall. Some of the highest levels of second homes in Cornwall are found in the immediate vicinity, while gentrification picked up pace when it became the first centre of up-market gastro-tourism in Cornwall. In that sense, the ‘Obby ‘Oss is all about ownership, identity and belonging. It serves as a powerful remembrance of former times and a former Cornwall, reassuring us of our place in the two Cornwalls we nowadays see around us.

Hooray, hooray! It’s St Piran’s Day

The actual St Piran, if there ever was one, proves to be a bit elusive. The cult of Piran was venerated at Perranzabuloe in the eleventh century and spread to other sites at an early date. But the Life of Piran, written in the 1200s, was plagiarised from the Life of the Irish saint Ciaran, who lived for 200 years and retained all his teeth. Teeth or no teeth, Piran clearly had a relatively high status in the saintly pecking order, Nicholas Roscarrock devoting a long entry to him in his Lives of the Saints of the 1610s.

Piran seems to have been an early version of Dr Dolittle, conversing with animals and converting a fox, badger and bear on his arrival in Cornwall. He also discovered tin, which seeped out of some rocks that he’d magically set on fire. However unlikely that was, Piran became the patron saint of tinners. While the Reformation put paid to the annual parading of Piran’s relics around the parish, St Piran’s feast day on March 5th continued as a miners’ holiday in the west. On this day games such as wrestling and hurling would be organised and considerable drinking indulged in. By the 1800s this had produced the phrase ‘as drunk as a Perraner’.

as drunk as a Perraner’

However, with the decline of mining after the 1860s Piran’s feast gradually faded. By the 1950s the day was hardly noticed outside Perranzabuloe. However, in the1980s it began its revival to become the major cultural celebration of Cornishness.

This was largely due to the adoption in the 1950s by Cornish revivalists of the black and white St Piran’s flag as the flag of Cornwall. The folklore collector Robert Hunt had in the 1860s described the simple white cross on a black background as the ‘device of St Piran’ and the ‘standard of Cornwall’. Its advantage lay in its simplicity, lending itself to the explanation that the black represented the black tin ore while the white was the smelted metal.

In the 1960s St Piran’s flag was derided as ‘MK’s flag’. Yet, it began to infiltrate the mainstream in the 1970s as the native Cornish reacted against mass in-migration from east of the Tamar and looked around for resources with which to reassert their Cornishness. St Piran’s flag was perfectly placed and by the 21st century had become the immediately recognisable and taken-for-granted emblem of Cornwall, adopted by businesses and even accepted by government.

In the 1980s and 1990s processions began to be seen on St Piran’s Day, first at Truro and then across the dunes at Perranporth. Here, a play about Piran was performed on a promenade from the holiday camp to the parish church that had been abandoned to the sands in 1804. Alan Kent points out how this was a re-invention with a powerful sense of place, taking place just a mile or two north of Perran Round, a plain an gwarry where an original but lost Life of Piran may well have been performed on his feast.

Pilgrims pay homage to Piran

Since then St Piran’s Day has gone from strength to strength, with events taking place in Cornish towns from Penzance to Lanson and among Cornish communities overseas. The parades and processions echo those of Catholic Europe. At Redruth, in a conscious evocation of earlier traditions, a giant lamb (the lamb and flag being a common symbol used in tin smelting) is paraded around the town. Meanwhile, older festivals such as the Hal an Tow at Helston and Padstow’s Obby Oss incorporate references to Piran and have adopted the ubiquitous St Piran’s flag. All this gives St Piran’s day, in reality a relatively recent reinvention, in Kent’s words, ‘an illusion of timelessness’.

Housing and population: how Cornwall compares

From 2011 to 2018 the number of people in Cornwall grew from 534,000 to an estimated 566,000. This was a faster rate of growth than the other parts of Great Britain.

The number of houses built in Cornwall grew even faster. Interestingly, while the growth in the number of dwellings in England was less than the growth in population, the reverse has been the case in the Celtic countries.