John Maidment's Blog

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Friday 30 November, 2007




Pronounced [ˈmaʊzl].  This is a small fishing village on the south coast of Penwith, west of Penzance.  It is very picturesque and well worth a visit, though it is probably advisable to go there by bus from Penzance.  Driving through Mousehole, especially in the tourist season can be "exciting" (=nail-biting).

The village is known for a number of things.  First, there is the tale of the Mousehole Cat. This is the story of Tom Bawcock and his cat Mowzer.  One winter The Great Storm Cat attacked the seas around Mousehole so fiercely that no boat could go out fishing.  The village was running out of food.  Tom decided he must brave the storm and get some fish.  He took Mowzer with him and the cat sang a lullaby to calm the Great Storm Cat.  Tom was able to catch enough fish to feed the whole village.

This brings us to the second point about Mousehole.  In honour of the bravery of Tom Bawcock and Mowzer every year on the 23 December Tom Bawcock's Eve is celebrated at the Ship Inn on the quay.  The traditional dish to serve at this festival is Starrygazy (or Stargazy) Pie.  This contains eggs and pilchards, but the pilchards' heads protrude from the crust around the edges of the pie, as though they were gazing at the stars.

The Ship Inn figures in another, much less happy, event in Mousehole's history.  This is the Penlee Lifeboat Disaster.  On 19 December 1981 the Penlee lifeboat (the station is very close to Mousehole) was launched to come to the aid of the Union Star, a coaster with a cargo of  fertiliser, which had suffered engine failure and was being driven onto rocks at Boscawen Cove near Lamorna, to the west of Mousehole, by high seas and a gale gusting up to 95mph.  The crew of the Penlee lifeboat, the Solomon Browne, were all Mousehole men, one being the landlord of the Ship Inn.  Tragically, all the crew of the lifeboat were lost.  In memory of this sad event, Mousehole's Christmas lights are turned off at 8:00pm every 19 December.

A more cheerful reason for Mousehole's reputation is its beautiful display of Christmas lights on the harbour.  There is a nice website here with pictures of displays of past years.  This year the lights will be turned on on 15 December and will last until 4 January.


Wednesday 28 November, 2007

Gerrard Winstanley



My hero(in)es: Winstanley

Gerrard Winstanley was born in Wigan, Lancashire, in 1609.  He moved to London in about 1630 and eventually set up a business in the cloth trade in Walton-on-Thames.  His business was ruined by the Civil War and Winstanley fell under the influence of the radical philosophy of John Lilburne and the Levellers.

In 1649, Winstanley published a pamphlet The New Law of Righteousness, setting out his version of this philosophy and arguing that the land belonged to all, not just to separate individuals.  He put his ideas into practice by forming a group called The Diggers and taking over common land on St George's Hill in Surrey.  There were also a number of other Digger communities in Buckinghamshire, Kent and Northamptonshire.

Needless to say, this did not go down well with local landowners, but instead of resorting to lawful means to prevent the Diggers taking over common land, gangs of thugs were employed to beat up the group members and destroy their crops.  This tactic, unfortunately, was successful and none of the communities lasted for more than a year.

"God's Englishman", Oliver Cromwell, reportedly said: You must cut these people to pieces, before they cut you to pieces.  What a nice man!

Winstanley did not give up.  He continued to publish pamphlets, his most successful being The Law of Freedom in a Platform.  He eventually became a Quaker and died in 1676.

Note:  John Wells tells me: "If Winstanley was born in Wigan, he was almost certainly pronounced with initial stress, just like the eponymous village near Wigan. Penultimate stress is seen as a southern affectation."

Tuesday 27 November, 2007

The Selus Stone




Early Cornish wit?

St Just in Penwith is the first (and last) town in England.  There is another St Just - St Just in Roseland, but those, as they say here, are "furrin parts" and need not concern us.

In St Just church is a granite pillar known as the Selus Stone.  On one face is a large CHI-RHO monogram, and vertically down one edge is the inscription SELVSICIAC-T (Selus lies here).  They were aitch-dropping in Cornwall even then apparently.

Just above the LV of SELVS there are the two letters NI.  It is pretty certain that these are a later addition. Some have suggested that this is a correction to the name and it should read SENILVS or SELNIVS.

Another suggestion (I am not sure how serious it is, but I would like to think it represented the truth) is that the two letters spell the Cornish word for "no"/"not".  The inscription would then mean:  Selus lies here.  Not!

Selus (if indeed it is Selus who is memorialised) may be the same person as St Selevan whose name is perpetuated in the name of the nearby parish of St Levan and who is thought to have been the brother of St Justinus aka St Just.

The main inscription dates to the 5th or 6th century AD.

Monday 26 November, 2007

An iron-age des res at Chysauster




Before moving here permanently, we had a small cottage as a holiday home at a tiny hamlet called Garris (four houses and a farm).  This is on a lane off the main Penzance to St Ives road and is high above Mount's Bay.  The names of settlements along this lane are wonderful poetry -- well, I think so, so there!  Badger's Cross, Garris, Hellangove, Trezelah, Carnaquidden, Bosulval.  And Chysauster.

On the hillside above the lane about a mile and half from Garris is the iron-age settlement of Chysauster.  It is one of two very well-preserved examples of courtyard house villages in Penwith.  The other is at Carn Euny near Sancreed.  There are the remains of other villages of this type in the area, but the rest are in a ruined state.

Courtyard houses are not exclusive to Penwith, but there are few examples outside this area.  The basic plan of this type of structure is seen in the figure below:

The houses were built of granite with enormously thick walls.  The rooms around the courtyard were covered thatched roofs, it is thought.

Sunday 25 November, 2007

Trenow Cove





Fortified by a lunch of celery, apple and cheddar cheese soup (homemade and excellent, even though I say so myself), we set off on a walk from Perranuthnoe [ˌperəˈnʌθnəʊ] towards Marazion and St Michael's Mount.  Perranuthnoe is a small, very unspoilt village on Mount's Bay, just over two miles south of Marazion.  The walk leads through Boat Cove and Trenow Cove.  Entertainment here was provided by a cormorant diving for fish -- how long can it stay under water?  (nearly a minute) where exactly will it surface? (totally unpredictable).

Further along the path more entertainment was on offer from three dogs taking their human for a walk.  Much ball-throwing, barking and rushing about was indulged in.  One dog was the best at finding the ball in long grass and scrub, but was just ever so slightly dumb, because one of its companions had developed the strategy of waiting till it had retrieved the quarry and then nicking it.

Perranuthnoe means "St Piran's Church in the Manor of Uthno", but nobody seems to know what Uthno means.

Saturday 24 November, 2007

Statue of Sir Humphry Davy
Market Jew Street, Penzance




Sir Humphry Davy

One of Penzance's most famous sons, and possibly the most famous, is Humphry Davy.  He was born in 1778, the son of a woodcarver.  He was apprenticed to a local surgeon, but in 1797 took up chemistry in Bristol.  He investigated various newly-discovered gases and established the anaesthetic effect of nitrous oxide (laughing gas).  He experimented on himself with this and eventually became addicted to it, saying it had all the benefits of alcohol without any of the drawbacks.

In 1801 Davy was nominated Professor at the Royal Institution and became a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was later to become the President of the RS.

His most famous invention is the Davy Lamp which avoided the many explosions and fires in mines which were responsible for many deaths.  This invention was not without controversy, however. George Stephenson, of locomotive fame, also invented a safety lamp the same year and both men claimed to be the original inventor.

However, Davy was famous for more than just the lamp.  He discovered sodium and the elemental nature of both chlorine and iodine.  Another, less well-known, distinction is that Davy was the subject of the first clerihew, written by the inventor of the form, Edmund Clerihew Bentley.  Here it is:

Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

The statue of Davy in Penzance stands outside the Market House, which now belongs to Lloyd's Bank.  The picture was taken in June last year and the banner to the left is there because of the Golowan Festival, of which more at the appropriate time.

Friday 23 November, 2007

Chn Quoit




Chn [tʃu:n] is on the north coast of the peninsula, above the village of Morvah, between Zennor and St Just.  The name derives from the Cornish chy ("house") and gn ("downland").  There are two interesting antiquities here.

The first, and older of the two, is Chn Quoit, a Neolithic chamber tomb in a state of excellent preservation.  What is visible in the picture is just the structure of the innermost chamber.  When first built, this was covered by a mound, approximately 20 feet in diameter.  This was surrounded by a stone kerb, part of which remains. Unlike all of the other chamber tombs in the area, Chn Quoit's capstone seems to be in its original position.  With other tombs, the capstone has slipped, as at Zennor Quoit and Mulfra Quoit, or has fallen and been replaced relatively recently, as at Lanyon Quoit.

The second site, only 50 yards or so to the east, is much more recent.  It is Chn Castle, an iron-age hill fort dated to around 300 BC.  It is in a very ruinous state, but is very impressive nonetheless.  Its outer defence wall is a circle of about 280 feet in diameter and this is accompanied by an inner wall with a deep ditch between the two.  It is thought that the fort fell into disuse about 300 years after its construction, but was then re-occupied in the 6th century AD.  The new occupants refurbished the place a bit, adding a clever staggered entrance way, which would slow down any intruders and expose them to attack by defenders on the inner wall.

Today Chn is a peaceful place.  At a picnic there some years ago I was visited by a very nosey fox.

Thursday 22 November, 2007

Mermaid carving in Zennor church





The first place in Cornwall I got to know well as an adult was Zennor.  This is a very small village on the north coast of the Penwith peninsula.  In the 70s and 80s I spent a number of Easter and summer holidays here, staying at Eagle's Nest, dramatically situated on a rocky promontory overlooking the sea just east of the village.  This was the home of the artist, Patrick Heron.  The converted stable-block of the house was let for holiday makers in the season.

Patrick, as well as being an internationally famous artist, was a charming man and fierce fighter for the preservation of the countryside in Penwith.  He was also very much involved with the work to found the Tate Gallery in St Ives.  Sadly, he died in 1999.

The picture is a reputedly 600 year-old carving on a bench-end in the church at Zennor.  It depicts a mermaid holding a glass and comb.  The legend is that a fisherman called Matthew Trewhella sang so beautifully in the choir at Zennor church that a mermaid, the daughter of the king of the sea, fell in love with the sound.  She persuaded her father to let her go to the church, disguised as a fine lady.  Matthew saw her and fell in love with her.  When she realised this she rushed out, but stumbled and her fine clothes were disarrayed.  Matthew, who was following her, saw that she was a mermaid, picked her up and carried her to the sea. Neither Matthew nor the mermaid was ever seen again.

In the churchyard is a tombstone marking the grave of John Davey, one of the claimants for the title "Last Speaker of Cornish".

Tuesday 20 November, 2007

Vianden. Luxembourg





For some years in the late 70s and early 80s, I went each year to do a week's teaching and examining at the Centre Universitaire de Luxembourg.  It is a very beautiful and linguistically interesting part of the world.  Going to to the cinema to see an English language film can be quite an experience in Luxembourg.  It isn't unusual for subtitles to appear in three languages: French, German and Letzeburgish.  The characters are wading around chest-deep in text.

My oldest friend lives in Luxembourg, so I stayed with him when I went.  One year the oddest coincidence happened.  I had to get to the Centre Universitaire at 9:00am, so set my alarm for 7:30 to allow plenty of time to get breakfast and drive into the city.  My friends had just moved into a new house and hadn't yet finished fixing up all the furnishings, so the room I was sleeping in didn't have any curtain at the window. 

One morning I was awoken by bright sunlight pouring into the room and reached for my alarm clock.  It showed 12:50!  I couldn't believe my eyes.  How could I have slept through the whole morning and why hadn't my friends come to see why I hadn't appeared?  I stumbled out of bed and into the hallway.  The clock there said.....12:50!

I must have stood there with open mouth for quite a time, until I noticed that the hallway clock had in fact stopped.  The pendulum wasn't swinging.  I rushed back into my bedroom and grabbed my alarm clock.  And then I realised that I had been looking at it upside down.  It was actually showing 7:20.

Monday 19 November, 2007

The Merry Maidens




Cornish maidens

I've always been interested in stone circles.  I still have a memory of when I was about 6 years old and I was given some clay to model with at school.  I set about trying to make a model of Stonehenge.  I don't remember how successful this was though.

As I said in my entry for 12 November, this area is rich in antiquities and there are three well preserved stone circles here, though none of them are nearly as grand as Stonehenge.  There are also the remains of more circles, but these are not well preserved.

The most accessible site is that of the Merry Maidens, which is not far from the coastal village of Lamorna, in a field beside a fairly main road.  Another name for this circle is Dawns Men, and no the lack of apostrophe is not an error.  The name has nothing to do with sunrise, but is Cornish and means "Dance of Stone".  The local legend is that nineteen young girls were wickedly dancing on the Sabbath day and were turned into stone.  The two pipers who were playing a tune for them fled in terror, but didn't get far before they too met the same fate.  Just across the road from the circle are two large menhirs called, naturally enough, The Pipers.

Another of the Penwith circles is called The Nine Maidens, also known as Boskednan Circle and, confusingly, The Eleven Brothers. It was until recently in a pretty ruinous state, but has now been restored somewhat.  Even more confusing is the fact that the original circle probably had 22 stones.

So what's all this about stone maidens?  One possible explanation is that the word maiden in these names started out as the late Cornish word medn  or maedn, meaning "stone".  There was a widespread sound change in late Cornish whereby word-final [n] --> [dn].  Place-names with this sound change are found only in the far west, because it is only here that Cornish was still being spoken at the time the change took place.  Other examples of words affected by the change are pedn for pen, for example in Pednanvounder ("End of the lane") near St Ives, and todn for ton ("grassland"), for example in Beagletodn ("tump of grassland") near Towednack.

Sunday 18 November, 2007



Cornwall's districts

For administrative purposes, Cornwall is divided into seven districts, most of which have rather evocative names.  They are:

  • North Cornwall (boooooooring)

  • Caradon - named after Caradon Hill, once an important copper mining site.  The name seems to be made up of two elements, the Cornish carn and the English dūn, both of which mean, roughly, "hill".

  • Restormel - The name comes from Restormel Castle near Lostwithiel.  The word is made up of the the three Cornish elements ros 'moor', tor 'mountain, hill' and moel 'bare'.

  • Carrick - named after Carrick Roads, the large inlet visible on the map to the left.  The name derives from the Cornish carrek 'rock'

  • Kerrier -  I haven't been able to discover the etymology of this name.  I'm working on it.

  • Penwith - This probably derives from the Cornish pen 'head, end' and wedh which also means 'end'.

  • The Isles of Scilly - Oliver Padel in A Popular Dictionary of Cornish Place-Names (Penzance: Alison Hodge, 1988) remarks, rather wistfully I think: "a difficult name."  One suggestion is that the islands are named after the Celtic goddess of fire and water Sulis. This goddess is honoured at Bath, whose Roman name was Aquae Sulis.

Under the present government's plans, which are strongly opposed in many parts of Cornwall, all of these districts will be swept away and replaced by a unitary authority  -- the already existing Cornwall County Council, based in Truro.

Saturday 17 November, 2007

Ohakune, 1998





At the southern end of Lake Taupo in the North Island of New Zealand there is a group of three volcanoes.  The largest of these is the still-active Mt Ruapehu.  At the foot of the southern slopes of Ruapehu, on the railway line that runs from Wellington in the south to Auckland in the north, lies the small town of Ohakune.  Apparently, the volcanic ash emitted by the mountain makes the local soil ideal for growing carrots.  So that is what they do in Ohakune  -- grow carrots.  In homage to their totem vegetable, the townsfolk have erected this wonderfully surreal monument.

For years I had wanted to visit Ohakune and I finally achieved my ambition on my second visit to NZ in 1998.