- Fishing and mining in Cornwall
- Cornish superstition and religion
- Cornish language and Cornish hurling
- Celebrate each solstice
- Celebrating May Day in Cornwall
Fishing and mining in Cornwall
Cornwall was shaped by its fishing industry, copper and tin mining history. You’ll spot many tiny harbours still sheltering a small local fishing fleet alongside flashy leisure boats.
If you want to understand more about the dependence of Cornish villages on pilchard fishing, visit Mousehole (pronounced Mow-zel) on Tom Bawcock’s Eve. That’s December 23rd in the rest of the world, but remember, you’re in Kernow now!
Sample Stargazy Pie at Tom Bawcock’s Eve in Mousehole
Tom Bawcock’s Eve is a traditional festival celebrating a 16th century fisherman, Tom Bawcock, risking his life so that Mousehole residents wouldn’t starve over Christmas. It is celebrated each year with a procession of handmade lanterns through the narrow streets. It is followed by a feast of Stargazy Pie, a unique dish which only seems to be enjoyed in this small harbour village.
Mousehole is a delightful place to visit, but most people only experience one of the most beautiful harbours in Cornwall during the glorious summer months.
In the deepest winter, Mousehole takes on a completely different feel. Visit this quintessential fishing village just before Christmas and you can enjoy the shops, seasonal lights and take part in a local tradition that is an integral part of village life here.
Some historians will argue that there was no such fellow as Tom Bawcock and the celebrations commemorate all the brave fisherman who have lived in Mousehole over the years, but to be honest it doesn’t really matter. Tom Bawcock’s Eve is an event which everyone should experience at least once in their life because it is very special and emotional event. There is even a special song that locals sing during the evening to the tune of the Wedding March.
I should mention that the famous Mousehole harbour lights are also lit up at this time. If you’ve ever visited Mousehole you can probably imagine what a stunning backdrop the colourful Christmas lights are for Tom Bawcock’s Eve celebrations.
Where else would you find Stargazy Pie?
A lantern procession usually takes place in the early evening of Tom Bawcock’s Eve and Stargazy Pie is the highlight of the menu. This dish tastes far nicer than it actually looks as it is basically a pie made of whole pilchards, eggs and potato. The appearance can be slightly off-putting as it has whole fish heads sticking out of the top! The lid is also decorated with pastry stars, hence the name “Stargazy Pie”!
If you are considering attending Tom Bawcock’s Eve in Mousehole and fancy a bite to eat there is a great pub which is situated right on the harbour side with stunning views. The Ship Inn is right in the middle of the harbour lights, which would surely make even Ebenezer Scrooge feel like celebrating Christmas!
The staff at the pub are extremely friendly, the food is simple but out of this world in terms of quality. Children are welcome and the prices are reasonable so you will be able to enjoy Tom Bawcock’s Eve and the magical harbour lights without breaking the bank.
Mousehole Christmas lights
Unlike many other towns and villages across the UK, the Mousehole Harbour Christmas Lights don’t get turned on until the second Saturday in December. The switching on of the lights is an event in itself, with a choir and Christmas carol singing around the harbour. There’s plenty of steaming spicy mulled wine to keep out the cold!
As well as fixed lights, there are floating lights in the harbour appropriately featuring whales, sea serpents and a unique set of lights depicting a Stargazy pie! It’s a wonderful evening for families to join in, wander around the lantern-decorated streets and browse the shops in this tiny village. It’s a great time to appreciate the harsh reality of Cornwall’s less-than-glamorous past.
☀️ Book a holiday cottage near Mousehole, and look forward to experiencing Tom Bawcock’s Eve for yourself.
Digging deep into Cornish mining history
Inland, you can’t miss the landmark chimneys and dilapidated engine houses in the UNESCO listed Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape. These eye-catching ruins epitomise Cornwall and make the perfect focal point for photos, postcards and Cornish artworks. Other ways that these once-lucrative enterprises are remembered is through annual festivals.
To find out more about Cornish tin mining history, Camborne is the place to be. There are several mines that are now open as educational attractions allowing visitors to learn about the hardships and disasters that were all part of this hazardous activity.
These include underground tours at Geevor Tin Mine, Pendeen, and a larger-then-life museum and tour at King Edward Mine Museum in Camborne. Poldark Mine at Wendron was used as a set in the TV drama Poldark. Alternatively, visit the National Trust-owned Levant Mine at St Just to see the restored working beam engine in the landmark engine house.
Trevithick Day celebrates Camborne’s famous engineer
Visit Camborne on Trevithick Day (the last Saturday in April) and pay homage to the man that transformed mining history. This annual event celebrates the life and work of Richard Trevithick, an 18th century inventor and mining engineer who was a pioneer in steam-powered rail transport. Steam engines, a parade, vintage cars, concerts and street entertainment make up this free fun-filled local festival.
Steam engines were the workhorses of Cornish tin mines and were used to pump water out of the shafts and powered the miners’ lifts. They were used in Cornish mines since they were invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. However, Richard Trevithick pioneered the use of high-pressure steam and became known as the Father of the Locomotive.
Who’s heard of Richard Trevithick?
Richard Trevithick was born near Illogen in 1771 and went to the village school in Camborne. He was immersed in mining and engineering from an early age and would no doubt have been fascinated as he watched the early steam engines pumping water from the local tin mines.
Steam engines had been in use in Cornish mines since they were invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712. Trevithick pioneered the use of high-pressure steam and became known as the Father of the Locomotive.
He was the engineer at the Ding Dong Mine near Land’s End in 1797 and made many modifications to Watt’s patented inventions until he was served an injunction. Trevithick built a full-size steam locomotive in 1801 which he named “Puffing Billy”. To celebrate, he carried passengers up Camborne’s Fore Street to Camborne Cross on Christmas Eve. Imagine the sight! No wonder the town celebrates their famous son each year with a fun-filled street festival.
Trevithick’s next project was building an engine in Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. Next, as part of a bet, he built a locomotive at Pen-y-Darren Ironworks. It was the first to carry a heavy load up a slight gradient. Not done yet, in 1812 he designed the “Cornish Boiler” which doubled the efficiency of pumping engines.
Despite his many successes, Trevithick died penniless of pneumonia in Dartford. However, he is well remembered in Camborne, not only by the annual Trevithick Day celebrations but also by a statue outside the library showing him holding one of his engine models. The Trevithick Society was founded in his honour and members make a point of attending the Trevithick Day each year.
Trevithick Day – worth a visit!
Today the festival of Trevithick Day focuses on steam power and all the main streets of Camborne are closed for the event. The Steam Parade is the focal point of the celebration and many heavy steam engines rumble down the high street gushing steam and heat. There are miniature steam engines and a collection of restored vintage vehicles which are well worth admiring. This smoky, noisy, fun-filled event is hugely popular with Cornish locals and visitors alike.
The Camborne Town Band with its brass instruments and uniformed musicians leads the local school children in a traditional Bal Maidens and Miners Dance – a Cornish tradition that is kept alive by this historic festival.
Big brass bands, clowns, street theatre and tasty treats
You will find something going on in almost every corner of Camborne. There are concerts by several local bands and male voice choirs from all over Cornwall, a throwback to when all the pits had their own brass band, and often a male voice choir too. The local Flower Festival is also held and visitors can browse the exhibits and see the winning arrangements in the various categories.
Families are always well entertained in Camborne during Trevithick Day festivities. There are fairground rides, street entertainers, clowns, buskers, dancers, street theatre and plenty of stalls selling food and drinks. Best of all, the event is free to attend.
With vintage vehicles, entertainment, exhibitions, advertising, schools, professional entertainers and dancers, there is a lot going on. The Camborne area is more industrialised than other areas of Cornwall and the event certainly preserves the rich heritage of this former mining area.
It all began in 1984…
The first Trevithick Day was held in 1984 after the founding Trevithick Day Committee was put together in 1983. The hugely complex event is organized solely by volunteers. They must be part of the local community and have relevant skills in whatever part of the event they take responsibility for.
☀️ Book a holiday cottage near Camborne, and look forward to experiencing Trevithick Day for yourself.
Letting off steam at the Boconnoc Steam Fair!
Another place to listen to the rhythmic huffing and see the smoke pouring from the stack of an early 19th century steam engine is at Boconnoc Steam Fair. Organised by the Liskeard Steam & Vintage Club, it brings the Industrial Revolution vividly to life, and nowhere was it put to better use than in Cornwall’s mines and mining railways.
Boconnoc Steam Fair is a three-day event in July hosted by the Liskeard Steam & Vintage Club. Keeping alive the historic means of power that brought about the Industrial Revolution, this fun event takes place in the stunning setting of the Boconnoc Estate. Even if you have less-than-zero interest in noisy oily engines, you will certainly enjoy the chance to visit this picturesque and historic location.
Steam power circa 1700s to 1930
The main showground area is filled with vintage vehicles including large steam engines and miniature versions, all beautifully restored and in fully working order. This is the original “heavy metal” dating back to the late 18th century, although steam engines continued to be produced until the 1930s.
Other vehicles on display at the Boconnoc Steam Fair are vintage motorcycles, old tractors, classic cars and stationary working engines, as well as some nostalgic military and commercial vehicles from past times.
My family love taking a ride aboard a steam-hauled trailer, or you can opt for a tractor and trailer ride to Boconnoc Lake with its gorgeous weeping willows. The historic vehicles parade in their various classes throughout the day.
Family fun includes craft stalls, model displays, a licensed beer tent, a children’s fun fair and the usual food concessions and trade stands. Don’t miss the crazy Lawnmower Race or the Family Fun Dog Show.
The historic use of traction engines and the Cornish Beam Engine
Many of the traction engines on display at the show weigh well over 20 tons, so watch your toes when they’re moving! They were used in agriculture and the timber industry, powering other machines off a flywheel and belts.
Steam power also was what kept the Cornish tin mines open. They were used for pumping water out of the shafts and for winching miners and materials in and out of the mines. The Cornish Beam Engine was invented in the 1830s. The engine lifted a weight which fell and powered the pump in a primitive but effective way.
Most steam engine examples are cumbersome traction engines with two large and two smaller metal wheels, tractor-style, and a smoking chimney. They were the forerunner to the steam roller which was used for flattening ground and road surfacing, as well as preceding railway locomotives and smaller steam wagons.
The history of the lovely Boconnoc Estate
The Boconnoc Estate lies is a wooded setting between Dobwalls and Lostwithiel, just off the A390. Dating back beyond the Domesday Book in which the estate is listed, the present-day Grade II listed house was built in mediaeval times. It belonged for a time to the Pitt family, including Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger.
The estate is steeped in Cornish history and has the largest landscaped park in Cornwall, so it’s pretty impressive. Located on the banks of the River Lerryn, it was the location for the filming of The Three Musketeers, the BBC drama Daphne, and scenes from Rosamunde Pilcher’s Cornish fiction stories.
There is an Important Plant Area, a deer park, an obelisk to family friend and MP Sir Richard Lyttelton, and a church with a 15th century font. The estate land was the site of the Braddock Down Battle during the English Civil War.
Now owned by the Fortescue family and used for weddings and corporate events, the beautifully maintained grounds are full of flowering rhododendrons and trees. You need to go early in spring, well before the Boconnoc Steam Festival takes place, to see the best of the camellias and azaleas.
☀️ Book a holiday cottage near Liskeard, and experience Boconnoc Steam Festival for yourself.
Cornish superstition and religion
Much of Cornwall’s feast days and festivals are steeped in ancient rites and superstitious beliefs. For Cornish Celts, the importance of fertility and a bountiful harvest cannot be over-emphasised. Naturally they did everything they could to call upon the favour of various gods (from Druid to Christian they covered all bases) to fill their barns with food. Those traditions are remembered today is some lively and unique festivals.
Old Cornwall Societies continue the traditions
The Old Cornwall Societies maintain and preserve the ancient spirit of Cornwall through traditions, language and nationality. Pedrog, the Archdruid of Britain inaugurated the first Gorsedd of Cornwall to represent the Celtic and national aspects of Cornish culture. Henry Jenner was installed as Grand Bard and twelve bards were created. If this sounds like ancient history, think again. This took place in 1928!
Regular gatherings of the Cornish Gorsedd start with the sounding of the Corn Gwlas horn issuing a call to all four points of the compass. This is followed by the Gorsedd Prayer and the Ceremony of Peace led by the Grand Bard. The ceremony offering Fruits of the Earth is made by the Lady of Cornwall. Former bards are commemorated and new bards are initiated. These traditions may date back to the 9th century, but the ceremony is an annual event in modern-day Cornwall!
Here we come a-wassailing at Trelissick Garden
Old traditions die hard in Cornwall, and wassailing is just such an event. The Annual Wassailing at Trelissick Gardens is just one example of old festivals that were once common across most of the Cotswolds and the Westcountry. Wassailing was used as a blessing of the fruit orchards to ensure a good harvest and it traditionally took place on the Twelfth Night.
Learn to wassail at Trelissick Garden
Traditionally wassailing took place on the Twelfth Night, which on the old Julian Calendar was 17th January. “Wassail” comes from the Anglo-Saxon phrase “waes hael” which means “be well”. The event starts after dark and lasts from 6pm to 8pm.
Everyone meets at the Visitor Reception and there is always a good-natured atmosphere and a sense of anticipation for what lies ahead. The main part of the event is the traditional procession through the garden following the Wassail King. Part of the ceremony includes singing ancient wassailing songs and “toasting’ the orchard followed by the Wassail King blessing the orchard.
Wassailing is a noisy event!
Visitors are encouraged to bring a torch and a musical instrument, maracas, drums, pots and pans or something to make plenty of noise with. Children certainly enjoy this rare occasion when they are actually encouraged to make as much racket as possible! At the original wassail, rifle shots were fired into the trees, but for obvious reasons this particular authentic tradition has had to be abandoned. The idea is that evil spirits are banished from the orchards and the trees are then blessed.
Different places have different ceremonies for blessing the trees, but it usually entails carrying a wassailing bowl or pot of hot cider down to the orchard and pouring it over the roots of the oldest or best tree in the orchard. In some places toast is dipped into the cider and put onto the branches as a gift for the tree spirits or for the wassail robin. Ancient wassailing pots that have survived are often made of earthenware or silver and look like elaborate punchbowls.
Once the ceremony is over, everyone troops back up through the gardens and gathers around in the barn to hear some traditional wassail stories told by the Wassail King. Hot pasties and a pint are then served along with live music and this part of the evening does require a ticket. It is advisable to book your place for the music, tales and food by calling Trelissick ahead of time.
Bearing in mind the time of year, you should definitely dress up warm and wear sensible footwear to navigate the sloping gravel paths that lead through the gardens at Trelissick.
What Trelissick Gardens offer beyond wassailing
Unfortunately you won’t see much of the estate and gardens during the wassail but Trelissick Gardens is well worth returning to in daylight. The estate is located on its own peninsula and is one of Cornwall’s many National Trust properties. It is located at Feock, on the outskirts of Truro. It’s a lovely place to visit at any time of year.
Trelissick covers 300 acres and offers many scenic woodland walks. One heads down to Roundwood Quay which is listed as one of the Top 10 Walks in Britain. There are some magnificent trees in the woods just made for climbing, and some interesting outdoor artwork to discover along the way.
The former farm buildings now house Cornish crafts and demonstrations in the gallery. There is also a restaurant serving Cornish produce. The highlight of the attraction are the elevated gardens which have an unusual collection of tender and exotic plants. They seem to thrive in the deep wooded valleys that extend all the way down to the River Fal.
☀️ Book a holiday cottage near Feock, and experience Wassailing at Trelissick Garden for yourself.
Cornwall’s hallowed saints and spirits
Saints days are still part of the Cornish calendar and are the focal point of many festivals held annually and dating back many centuries. The best known Cornish saint is St Piran, traditionally known as the county’s patron saint. However, the patron sainthood is also shared by St Petroc, who formed a monastery at Padstow, and by St Michael who, after all, has his own island and mount in Marazion Bay.
Other saints days include the Feast of St John, better known as the Penzance Golowan Festival. As it is celebrated on Midsummer’s Day, you’ll find full details of St John’s Feast Day under the “Celebrate each Solstice” section below.
St Piran, Patron Saint of Cornwall
Like all kingdoms, Cornwall has its own patron saint. St Piran was a 5th century abbot who gave his name to Perranporth. Legend has it that this Irish holy man had miraculous powers which a group of kings feared so they threw him into the sea. He was carried across the sea on a millstone, washed ashore at Perranporth and founded a church there.
March 5th, St Piran’s Day, is now considered the National Day of Cornwall and is celebrated across Cornwall. The Cornish national flag, a white cross on a black background, is proudly flown around the county and is known as St Piran’s Flag.
Watch the re-enactment on St Piran’s Day at Perranporth
The popular seaside resort of Perranporth gets its name from St Piran, one of the patron saints of Cornwall, so it is fitting that every year St Piran’s Day is celebrated in the town. The event is held on the nearest Sunday to St Piran’s Day, which is 5th March.
This family event draws thousands to attend the anniversary. It is the tradition for local Cornish people to dress in black, white and gold, the colours of Cornwall. You will also see many people carrying the Cornish flag (white cross on a black background) which incidentally is also known as St Piran’s flag.
History behind St Piran’s Day
St Piran’s Day marks the anniversary of St Piran arriving in Cornwall from Ireland in the 8th century and founded a Christian church.
The festival was started by local tin miners and soon became the National Day of Cornwall. The miners believed that St Piran in some way imparted secrets about tin mining to their ancestors. Whatever the history, the day was traditionally celebrated in Perranporth with plenty of alcohol and food being consumed on what was known as Perrantide. The local saying “drunk as a Perraner” sums up how the day generally ended.
The festival of St Piran’s Day was revived in the 1950s by Celtic Revivalists. Parades and celebrations take place in towns all over Cornwall on a lesser scale than in Perranporth, where it is an official public holiday for council workers and schoolchildren. So far, petitions to make it a Cornish public holiday have not been taken up by the rest of Cornwall, or indeed the UK. You may well see more black and white St Piran’s flags flying during that week if you happen to be visiting the county.
What’s happening in Perranporth on St Piran’s Day?
The St Piran’s Day event focuses on a dramatic reenactment of the saint arriving on the beach. A procession of locals walk from the beach across the sand dunes to St Piran’s Cross. It’s fun to attend as a family and watch the play and then join in the parade which usually sees at least 400 people marching with flags. The parade is led by musicians, drummers and bagpipes with plenty of banners, written of course in the Cornish language.
Children from local schools and Bodmin College traditionally join the procession down Fore Street, pausing at the Flamank Stone (Miner’s Statue) to show a mark of respect. The procession continues to Mount Folly for speeches and rousing singing of “Hail to the Homeland” and “Trelawny”.
The procession ends at St Piran’s Church with school children performing Cornish songs, dances and plays. Back in the town there are plenty of events including stalls and the obligatory Cornish pasties or “oggies” for lunch.
St Petroc’s Church
If nothing else, it’s worth attending St Piran’s Day to see St Piran’s Oratory. This simple stone church is one of the oldest and most important religious sites in the UK.
It was believed to have been built in the 8th century by St Piran himself, although an inscribed stone in the walls dates back to the 5-6th century. No-one can quite remember! Built close to the seashore, the chapel eventually became buried in the shifting sands for centuries. It was unearthed in the 19th century but was carelessly lost again beneath the dunes until being rediscovered in the 1970s.
That brings us neatly to the Lowender Peran Festival!
☀️ Book a holiday cottage in Perranporth, and experience St Piran’s Day for yourself.
Lowender Peran Festival – Celebrate your roots, Cornish style!
Nowhere is Cornish culture celebrated more authentically than at the Lowender Peran Festival. Steeped in ancient Cornish culture, this “Festival of Celts” is a five-day celebration of Cornwall’s Celtic heritage including music, dance, songs and traditional storytelling. Held in Perranporth in October, it includes a Ceilidh, concerts and music workshops.
Described as Cornwall’s Celtic Festival by the beach, the Lowender Peran Festival takes over the town of Perranporth during the third week in October. Cornish people are especially proud of their heritage, so much so that a large number of the locals consider themselves Cornish rather than English or British!
Traditional Cornish music, language, dance and poetry are celebrated each year at this local celebration of culture. It also includes plenty of Cornish Celtic history.
Lowender Peran is a registered charity
Lowender Peran is a registered charity which raises funds to raise awareness of Cornwall’s Celtic history. It also teaches young locals more about the Cornish traditions which are part of their personal history and heritage.
The Lowender Peran Festival takes place in the middle of October and runs for five days. It has a non-stop programme of dancing, music, workshops, entertainment and fun from start to finish.
The festival includes traditional dance demonstrations, Cornish language lessons and live performances by international Celtic bands. You can also enjoy themed workshops and a market which has many unique and interesting stalls selling Celtic related products.
Do your homework before you go!
If ever there was a ‘niche’ festival then the Lowender Peran Festival would fit the bill perfectly. If you’re interested in attending, it is wise to carry out a little research beforehand. The Celtic history associated with Cornwall is quite fascinating, not to mention Cornwall’s acceptance into the Celtic Congress in 1904. A little background knowledge will set the tone for a very enjoyable few days at the festival.
Ceilidhs and Cornish language lessons at the Lowender Peran Festival
In the evenings, the Lowender Peran Festival entertains with concerts and ceilidhs. The concerts are generally small gatherings in local pubs and hotels. If you attend any of these, you will soon find your foot tapping along with the music. Bet it won’t be long before you will be joining in with the best of them, especially after a few drinks to loosen up a little!
Past events have included Celtic singers from Ireland, Scottish Pipers and plenty of local musical talent to enjoy.
Everyone loves a good story
One unique aspect of the Lowender Peran Festival is the traditional story telling. Some real characters are lined up as gifted story tellers each year. Sit back with a pint of Cornish ale and listen to them telling a yarn of Cornish life from many years ago. It provides a unique insight into Cornish life past and present.
☀️ Book a holiday cottage in Perranporth, and experience Lowender Peran Festival for yourself.
St Michael’s Feast aka Helston Furry Day
St Michael’s Feast Day is better known as Helston Furry Day. Locals dress up in their finery and dance the traditional Furry Dance to the famous tune known as the Floral Dance. You’ll soon be singing along to this well-known tune as it was recorded at various times by Peter Dawson, the Eagles and Sir Terry Wogan.
The Floral Dance progresses along the streets following a loud brass band. Streets, shops and houses are bedecked with foliage, flags and flowers – mainly bluebells and red campion in a splendid show of colour.
Helston Furry Day is a local festival that has its roots far back in history. This unique and strangely named festival celebrates the Christian feast day of St Michael. It began as a celebration of the passing of winter and it usually takes place on 8th May. However, if the date falls on a Sunday or Monday (Market Day!), it moves back to the preceding Saturday.
Take your partners for the Helston Furry Day Dances
Helstonians take to the streets as early as 7am to take part in this annual festival which involves a series of dances throughout the town. It is considered an honour to take part in the main dances. Some of the dances are traditionally performed by adults born in the parish who are specially invited to do so.
Having visited the festival in previous years, I found it a really colourful spectacle to watch and the music makes you itch to join in! The ladies wear long full dresses and brimmed hats for the dance while the male partners are dressed formally in long black jackets and top hats.
The long dance of literally hundreds of couples is led by the local band of brass instruments and plenty of drums. They play the well-known Floral Dance music and couples parade, swing and exchange partners as the dance moves along the street. The adult dances move in a long line, going in and out of various buildings, shops, houses and grounds although the children’s dance stays in one place.
Bluebells and Red Campions mark Furry Day
If you want to see the full series of dances, you have to be up with the larks! The Morning Dance starts at the Guildhall at 7am, followed by the Hal-an-Tow which symbolises the fight between good and evil. It starts on St John’s Bridge at 8:30am and includes a reenactment of St George Slaying the Dragon as part of the dance.
You barely get time to catch your breath before the Children’s Dance starts at Wendown Street around 9:50am, then on to the Midday dance back at the Guildhall. Generally the streets are pretty crowded by then, but there is plenty of street entertainment, stalls, side shows and live music to enjoy before the final Evening Dance at 5pm at the Guildhall.
As part of the Furry Day event, Helston’s shops and homes are decorated in foliage and flags. Traditionally green foliage, bluebells and red campions are picked and used.
Altogether in The Floral Dance
Helston’s Furry Day music is immortalised forever in the Floral Dance song recorded by various artists in the 20th century, but its history goes back far longer. The music is as old as the festival itself. However, the words were originally penned more recently by Katie Moss in 1911. She visited Helston and was caught up, literally, in the progress of the Floral Dance. It inspired her to write the words, which go like this:
We danced to the band with the curious tone
Of the cornet, clarinet and big trombone
Fiddle, ‘cello, big bass drum
Bassoon, flute and euphonium
Each one making the most of his chance
Altogether in the Floral Dance.
Dancing here, prancing there
Jigging, jogging ev’rywhere
Up and down, and round the town
Hurrah! For the Cornish Floral Dance.
The words of the song caught everyone’s imagination. It was first recorded by Australian Peter Dawson in 1912, then by the Eagles in the 1960s, and most famously by the loveable “national treasure” Sir Terry Wogan, in 1978. The song certainly captures the joviality, music and all-encompassing dancing that takes place on the streets of Helston each year, so be warned!
☀️ Book a holiday cottage in Helston, and experience Helston Furry Day for yourself.
Cornish language and Cornish hurling
Part of Cornwall’s culture and heritage are the ancient Kernewek language and the equally unique sport of Cornish hurling. Unless you live in a Cornish community, you’re unlikely to come across either unless you attend a special event featuring them.
Kernewek – the Cornish language
Cornwall, or should we say Kernow, has its own language which is learnt, practised and celebrated at Cornish Language Weekends among other events.
This Celtic-based language was declared extinct in the 18th century but has since been revived. However, it is only used as a second language, although you might spot some signposts that have places written in Kernewek as well as English. It’s an important part of Cornish identity and heritage and is growing in popularity.
Tradition has it that the last native speaker of Kernewek was Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1777. However, you’ll come across many Cornish terms still used by locals and the broad Cornish dialect is still alive and well in many local communities.
Five Hundred – a Story of the Cornish Language has a more indepth look at this ancient tongue which is closely related to Breton.
St Ives Feast Day and the Hurling of the Silver Ball
The event is followed by St Ives Feast Day and the Hurling of the Silver Ball which celebrates the consecration of the Parish Church of St. Ia, or St. Eia, back in 1434 AD. The event takes place every year on the first Monday after February 3rd.
St Ives Feast Day begins with a Civic Procession from the Guildhall to Venton Ia Well. The parish priest blesses the silver ball as part of the formal ceremonies at the famous St. Ia’s Church and then the sport begins.
What’s Cornish hurling and where is it played?
St Ives Feast Day focuses on the Hurling of the Silver Ball which is tossed by the Mayor of St Ives into the crowd waiting on the beach below. The sport of Cornish Hurling is an ancient form of rugby, although the ball is the size of a cricket ball. Made of apple wood, it is coated in shiny silver and weights about 570 grams.
Once a common sport, Cornish hurling only survives in two communities: St Columb Major, where it is played on Shrove Tuesday, and here in St Ives on the annual Feast Day.
Two teams battle for possession of the silver ball: The Countrymen and The Townsmen who fight ruthlessly to keep possession of the silver ball. The aim is to get the ball into their goal – sounds easy so far. The catch is that there is no pitch as such but it must stay within the parish boundary (all 25 square miles of it). The ball is passed and played around the streets with occasional forays into nearby fields, woods and farmyards! The goal is a point on the parish boundary and the winning team is the one in possession of the ball as it crosses the line. Of course, this game is only played in Cornwall.
Taking part in the hurling can be rough, so most people prefer to find a good viewing point at the side of the road or near the Guildhall and simply watch the local fun.
The winning team of the Hurling of the Silver Ball competition then presents the silver ball to the mayor on the steps of the Guildhall at the centre of the town as soon as the clock strikes twelve (midday). The winner is presented with a silver coin. In line with tradition, the local children wait outside the Guildhall where they are given penny coins which are dropped to them from the Guildhall balcony.
☀️ Book a holiday cottage in St Ives, and experience St Ives Feast Day for yourself.
Celebrate each solstice
This county of farming and fishing was entirely dependant on the weather and harvest to put food on the table. Consequently, folklore, superstition and pagan traditions were practised alongside Christian beliefs as a “belt and braces” approach to their very survival.
Local festivals in Cornwall particularly focus on Midsummer, the longest day, with celebrations focusing on the bounty of nature and the sun. Six months later, the Winter Solstice was seen as a day to mark the “death” and the rebirth of the sun. These festivals continue with their strange traditions, parades, feasting, singing and dancing. Check out some of the most popular and join in if you get the opportunity!
Penzance Golowan Festival revives an ancient tradition
Two centuries ago, Golowan was a popular Midsummer Festival practiced throughout Cornwall, but Penzance is probably the last place to retain this cultural tradition.
Penzance Golowan Festival co-incides with the Summer Solstice and includes the appearance of the ‘Obby ‘Oss (Hobby Horse). The strangely named Penzance Golowan Festival is a 10-day event based on the ancient Feast of St John. It celebrates Midsummer with parades, rituals, music, arts and drama.
Originally tar barrels were set alight and paraded around the town. Bonfires were lit on the hillside as beacons and paraders carried burning torches through the streets of the town. In the dry midsummer months, the wood-framed houses with thatched roofs were perhaps testing the gods. As you can imagine, the ancient practice caused more than one fire in the town. Eventually the town saw sense and Golowan was outlawed in the 1890s.
Locals in Penzance decided to reintroduce the festival with some updated safety practices in 1991. It has grown to become one of the best community festivals in Cornwall IMHO. The town setting is wonderful and the huge masked figures in the local parade hark back to a time when Cornwall was a Celtic stronghold. Locals believe that such traditions should be carefully guarded and continued to retain the interesting local heritage for future generations.
Family-friendly Golowan – only in Cornwall!
This family friendly festival always attracts a big attendance and has plenty of child-friendly activities. Each year there is a puppet show at the Acorn, often depicting a local story or Cornish legend, and there are certainly plenty of those!
Throughout the week, the town has an ongoing programme of activities and events. There is an exciting fireworks display over the bay in place of burning tar barrels, parades through the streets and live entertainment on the curiously named Mazey Day.
Midsummer Obby Oss, fireworks and the Snake Dance
Midsummer’s Day, June 24th, is also known as the Feast of St John. On the eve of Mazey Day, the local ‘Obby ”ss known as Penglaz makes his appearance on the streets of Penzance. It is traditional for everyone to join in the Snake Dance, similar to the Conga, and dance in a line through the streets of the town.
Mazey Day takes place on the final Saturday of the Golowan Festival and is based on an ancient custom, probably dating back to pagan times. The streets are decorated with greenery, banners and flags. School children and locals dress up in costumes and parade through the streets with huge sculptures and models of ships, pirates and giant fish.
As part of the Mazey Day celebrations, the Mock Mayor Elections take place to choose a local dignitary to be honorary mayor for the day, along with the real mayor of course. The day attracts tens of thousands of merrymakers, so go early to get a suitable parking spot or use the special festival train that is laid on to bring visitors to the town.
Quay Fair Day in Penzance
The day after Mazey Day is Quay Fair Day around Penzance Harbour. The local Golowan Band entertains with live music and the Quay Fair is a great place to buy food, arts and crafts, Venetian masks, local venison and tasty local food from the stalls.
Golowan Maritime Festival takes place as part of the week of festivities. On the final weekend, Penzance harbour is filled with traditional luggers, gaffers, ketches, crabbers and toshers – all worth a closer look!
Back in 2011, the Penzance Golowan Festival found its way into the Guinness Book of Records. It had 8,734 people dressed as pirates who gathered on the seafront to become the largest number of pirates in one place at the same time.
More fiery celebrations at the Winter Solstice
Held in Penzance during the third week in December, the Montol Festival is a 6-day celebration leading up to the Winter Solstice and Montol Eve, 21st December. Whilst most people around this time of year have their thoughts set on the Christmas festivities, the people of Penzance spend most of December preparing for this unique event with its Rivers of Fire!
☀️ Book a holiday cottage in Penzance, and experience Penzance Golowan Festival for yourself.
The Montol Festival is based on ancient Cornish traditions
A great deal of time and effort is put into the Montol Festival and you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the people of Penzance had been celebrating this event for hundreds of years. Although it is an ancient festival, it has only recently been revived and celebrated. It is actually based on ancient Cornish traditions and the locals have enthusiastically embraced everything about it.
The six-day Montol Festival is a fun arts and community festival celebrating the Winter Solstice. It incorporates many Cornish traditions such as Mummers plays, a Ceilidh and Guise dancing when everyone wears a “guise” or mask.
In the week preceding Montol Eve, there are lantern and mask-making workshops, strolling bands of musicians around the town, carol singing and storytelling. It really livens up the late night shopping in Penzance town centre!
The festival culminates on Montol Eve, December 21st, with two parade of lanterns, known as “Rivers of Fire” and beacons being lit all over the town. There is the ceremonial chalking and burning of the “Mock”, a Cornish Yule Log. A stick man is chalked on the log before it is set alight, as a symbolic end to the old season and the birth of the new. The evening ends with street dancing in the pubs and on Chapel Street and a Montol party in St John’s Hall.
Rivers of Fire
The theme behind the Montol Festival is the death and the rebirth of the sun. People carrying lanterns converge at the highest point of the town. It’s the site of an ancient fortress known as Lescudjack Hill Fort. The Lord of Misrule has the honour of setting the main beacon alight. After some brief celebrations everyone makes their way down the hill with their lanterns, thus giving the effect of ‘Rivers of Fire’.
Both locals and visitors to Penzance are invited to dress up for the event in masks and “mock posh” clothing, as detailed in the history books. The Montol Festival is quite spectacular with an excitement in the air which is hard to describe to outsiders who haven’t actually attended this winter festival.
Torchlit Procession at the Montol Festival
This popular Cornish event makes everyone more than welcome, even more so if you make the effort to don a mask or dress up in some other way. Even though it is out of the usual tourist season, it attracts more and more people to attend the event from further afield.
Although the Montol Festival is centred around the evening events, the day actually starts off with a Farmer’s Market at St Johns Hall. Various other events go on throughout the day. If you’re looking for an early night you will be disappointed as the main torch-lit procession doesn’t start until 10:15pm and there is a lot of partying to take place after that. There is an earlier procession for families at 6pm.
The Montol Festival is a wonderful Winter Solstice event held just before Christmas. If you ever get the chance to attend, it is highly recommended as a chance to do something uniquely Cornish.
☀️ Book a holiday cottage in Penzance, and experience Montol Festival for yourself.
Celebrating May Day in Cornwall
May Day is traditionally celebrated to herald the arrival of spring. It usually involves a parade, dancing around the Maypole and the crowning of the May King and Queen. Of course, in Cornwall they do things a little differently.
Traditional Pee Whip Ceremony
Another obscure celebration that you’ll only find in Cornwall is the Pee Whip Ceremony. It is held in St Ives to celebrate May Day. As well as crowning the May Queen and King, the mayor crowns the Prince and Princess as part of the traditional Pee Whip ceremony.
There’s a parade to the harbour and dancing round the Maypole (not as easy as it looks!). It’s a great time to mill around the galleries, pubs and gift shops and enjoy the atmosphere.
This long-held event celebrates the coming of spring, longer days and hopefully some warm weather. You can look forward to dancing around the Maypole, May Sticks and all the fun you would associate with any May Fair, but St Ives May Day goes that little bit further.
At midday you need to be stood outside the Guildhall which is right in the centre of the town on Street An Pol, and yes, that is a genuine Cornish address! This lovely historic building is covered in window boxes and hanging baskets in summer, so you can’t miss it. Inside it has a huge concert hall and it is where the Grand Bard and Mayor choose the May Queen and King. They also crown the attending Prince and Princess in a ceremony known locally as the “pee whip”.
More traditional ceremonial customs follow with the arrival of the St Ives Guisers, dressed in their mock formal black and white costumes. Horn blowers then herald the start of spring and this is followed by May Sticks. The street parade then gets underway as the whole procession moves down to the harbour.
Cornish dancing, choirs and brass bands – it’s a blast!
The whole event brings St Ives waterfront vividly to life with plenty of music, performances, side stalls and activities to enjoy. The RNLI Lifeboat Station will also be open and you can get a closer look at the latest boats, inflatables and equipment that have saved many lives in the area. There is plenty of traditional culture and talent on show, including Cornish dancing and music, local choirs and brass bands performing throughout the day.
Later in the day, if you get a chance, watch the children dancing an intricate circle dance around the maypole. Each child holds one of the coloured ribbons which eventually get plaited and woven around the pole in a pretty display. The children are dressed in red shirts with white overdresses and frilly white mop caps, as in days gone by.
As usual, the St Ives art galleries, potteries, bakeries and independent gift shops are all open for browsing, so take time to wander through the old streets and alleyways. You’re sure to find a few surprises there.
Getting to St Ives May Day the smart way
If you know anything about St Ives, you may be wondering how to park and navigate the notoriously narrow streets on such a crowded day. The answer is, you don’t. Parking is plentiful at the top of town and the walk down is easy (but perhaps not so good walking back when you are laden with purchases, candy floss, ice cream and balloons!)
A wiser alternative may to park and catch the train to St Ives along the St Ives Bay Line. You can leave the car at nearby Carbis Bay or further afield at Lelant or St Erth, which is just four very scenic miles away. The Penzance train also connects with this branch railway if you are visiting St Ives from further afield.
If you are wondering what to eat, my suggestion is to arrive hungry and enjoy the fish barbecue that takes place by the harbour – it is so tasty and delicious. For dessert there are countless ice cream shops just waiting to scoop a variety of flavours of creamy Cornish ice cream onto a cone. Opt for a “proper” topping – a generous dollop of rich Cornish clotted cream and a flake.
☀️ Book a holiday cottage in St Ives, and experience the Pee Whip Ceremony for yourself.
Look out for the Cornish giants in St Agnes on Bolster Day!
The days of giants may be long gone in the rest of the UK, but they live on in Cornwall especially at the annual St Agnes Bolster Festival. It takes place on May Day or over the first weekend in May. Join in the fun firing clay houses and watch the pageant about the legendary Giant Bolster!/p>
The centre of attention at the St Agnes Bolster Festival is the 28-foot high giant figure of Bolster. Cornish legend has it that he was one of several marauding giants that terrorised the community long ago. As in all traditional fairy stories, Bolster would appear from time to time and eat little children. The whole story of the giant’s demise is re-enacted each year (minus the consumption of small children, of course!)/p>
Prior to the event, St Agnes locals get together in a Clay Workshop to make model houses ready to be fired as part of the festival. Other creative hands join the Lantern Workshop to make paper lanterns to light the procession.
The annual May Day weekend festival starts with a lantern procession through the streets of St Agnes as far as the St Agnes Beacon. It takes place on the Bank Holiday Saturday at around 8:15pm.
Once the beacon is reached, everyone gathers around a bonfire and enjoys a barbecue. However, that’s just the start of the event. As part of the evening, the clay house models are fired in the flames and are used later in the weekend events to symbolise the village of St Agnes.
Clifftop drama as the Giant Bolster is defeated
The following day, the Bolster Pageant takes place starting at 12:30pm from the Railway Inn. The brave knight Sir Constantine parades through the streets along with his drummers, dressed in red and black, searching for the Giant Bolster. The colourful re-enactment ends when he confronts the giant effigy on the clifftop above Chapel Porth Beach.
It’s a fun event to witness and lasts for about 45 minutes. Life-sized puppets are used to portray the local characters such as the Mayor, Sir Constantine and even Mrs Bolster! Once the giant has been slain, the Bolster drum band and other local musicians lead the way to the National Trust car park and Chapel Porth Beach. This is where refreshments and entertainment provides a fitting end to the drama.
This is a great day out for families with children who will be mesmerised by the giant puppets. Adults can enjoy an evening of entertainment and live music in the village in the evening.
Counting steeples from St Agnes Beacon
If you have never visited St Agnes, it is a gorgeous spot on the north coast of Cornwall. The village is located between Perranporth and Porthtowan which are both known for their beautiful beaches.
The St Agnes Beacon is a local landmark on top of the headland which is now owned by the National Trust. The Beacon stands 629 feet above the surrounding countryside in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. If you climb to the top there are fantastic views as far as St Ives to the south and the lovely harbour at Padstow to the north.
One fun thing to do from St Agnes Beacon is to count the number of church towers that mark each small community in the surrounding area. Altogether there are 32 church towers to be seen on a good day!
☀️ Book a holiday cottage in St Agnes, and experience St Agnes Bolster Festival for yourself.
Cornwall may be the UK’s top holiday destination, with tiny villages, sandy coves and coastal communities in an area of outstanding natural beauty. However, it holds tight to its ancient myths, legends and superstitions. It has a very unique culture and heritage that is preserved and celebrated in the annual festivals we’ve covered above.
There’s no better way of immersing yourself in Cornwall’s unique identity than by joining in some of these unforgettable and unique festivals. Have fun!