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.

Deprivation in Cornwall: new data

Recently a new Index of Multiple Deprivation was published by the Government. This index measures deprivation in several dimensions, including income, health, educational qualifications and crime among others. In the press reports of this, no comparison was made with earlier indices. Although the methodology has changed somewhat, which makes the exercise a little difficult, it’s still interesting to compare the new data with that of 2010.

In 2010 eight of Cornwall’s 328 Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs – census areas with around 1,500 residents) were among the 10% most deprived in England and Cornwall. Here’s a map of their location.

Now, in 2019, 17 of Cornwall and Scilly’s 323 LSOAs are in the 10% most deprived.

Here’s a map of the current situation.

Meanwhile, the numbers at the top show little change. In 2010 three of Cornwall’s LSOAs were in the 20% least deprived. Now there are five. The least deprived is Carlyon Bay near St Austell, followed by LSOAs at Latchbrook near Saltash, one at Helston and two at Truro.