Beekeeping in Cornish folklore (Thursday 10th March 2022)

As detailed in previous post, as a PhD research student I am exploring the folklore of Cornwall as preserved by Victorian writers William Bottrell and Robert Hunt in their collective publications; Hunt’s two-volume Popular Romances of the West of England (1865) with Bottrell’s two-volume Traditions and Hearthside Stories of West Cornwall (1870/1873) and single-volume Stories and Folklore of West Cornwall (1880). 

A century and half since their initial publication, original copies lurk in libraries and can be found for sale online. I am lucky enough to own an original edition of Hunt’s 1871 ‘first and second series in one volume’ (triumphant charity shop find). Hunt was a prolific writer, and an astute businessman, publishing books on a wide range of subjects, always in a limited run, each one going through multiple reprint for subsequent resale (KeeerchiNG!). Bottrell, not so much. His three separate books were published each just the once, also a limited print-run, meaning original copies are hard to come by. Fortunately, all are available as modern digital reprint, and I’ve been working my way through these in recent weeks, dipping in and out of the various tales. Imagine my delight to find beekeeping, honey and mead featured in stories by both …

For example … in his 1870 Traditions and Hearthside Stories; first series, William Bottrell tells the story of ‘Trewoof’, a long-gone mansion house in the vicinity of Lamorna near land’s End. Here, the reader is guided through the house, and out into:

… a delicious garden, richly stored with flowers and delicious fruit … under a sheltering in the hedge of holly, bays, box, and privet, protected on the north side by a close-cut hedge of yew, were placed the row of beehives … On benches, as well as suspended overhead, from the roof-timbers of rustic building, were many hives of bees.  Rows of hives were also placed on shelves against the inside of the southern wall, holes being left in the wall for the passage of the bees: instead of leaving the place, swarm after swarm had fixed themselves unobserved under the rafters, from which the combs hung within reach, dropping with honey. Though the place was all alive with bees they never stung any to whom they were accustomed, who did not molest them’. 

Honey and mead as staple food and drink feature in stories by both writers.

In Robert Hunt’s ‘St. Perran, the miner’s saint’ (1865, first series) everybody – including St. Pirran himself – is ‘ruined’ by overindulgence in ‘mead and metheglin’ whist celebrating the discovery of tin – giving rise to the local saying ‘drunk as a Perraner’, still in use today.

In Bottrell’s ‘Giants of Towednack’ (1870) – told similarly by Hunt as ‘Tom and the Tinkeard’ – a supper of ‘barley bread, cream and honey’ is served to a visiting guest, along with ‘mead and metheglin’.  In ‘A Queen’s Visit to Baranhual’ (Bottrell, 1873), a lavish banquet is finished with ‘white bread, cream and honey’ washed down with ‘brandy, sweet-drink (metheglin) and other cordials’ – after which, the hostess whips out ‘a bottle of rare old mead, and a flask of extra strong brandy’ as digestive remedy for the Queen: ‘glass upon glass of mead, with several sips of brandy’.  In ‘Cornish Castles’ (1873), the combination of bread, cream and honey features as afternoon tea, and again in ‘The fairy Master, or Bob o’ the Carn’ – this time a buffet-style spread of ‘bread, cheese, apples, honey, and other things.’  In ‘Hallantide’ (Bottrell, 1880), ‘old sweet-drink (mead)’ is enjoyed by the women as they gossip after a celebratory feast – while the men sip hot toddies and smoke ‘shag tobacco’ from ‘long pipes’.

Similar stories arise in contemporary collections by other writers across Britain, and there are more from Bottrell and Hunt – evidencing honey as a staple food, and beekeeping as essential component of rural life.

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