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.

Phd & Me (Tuesday 9th March 2022)

Here we are now in March, already. January seemed to drag on for about three years, February passed as one long, cold, dark never-ending (and very wet) blur. But now the daffodils are out and the sun is beginning to shine; spring is on the way. Sadly, the bees from the hive upturned in Storm Eunice did not survive – I tried my best to save them, but the queen had gone and so many had died, there was never any chance of their recovery. So I now have an empty hive awaiting preparation for the coming season, and – thanks to all who’ve so very kindly donated to my Crowdfunder campaign – I’ll be able to start over, in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, my time and attention are very much focused on academics, settling gradually into life as a post-graduate research student. It’s been four month since I enrolled as PhD candidate with the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, and while I’ve known all along what my research subject would be, it’s taken until now to feel comfortable – and confident – enough to share it here.

Firstly, I really like old books. For me, an old book (musty pages, hand-scrawled notes, old library date-stamps and bus-ticket bookmarks) is a window through time, connecting ‘us’ in the here and now with ‘them’ back then and there. A time machine, allowing the reader to travel back through history, to a different time and place. And I have a real thing for history – not that I knew this all those years back at school, when ‘history’ consisted mainly of the names of ‘important’ men and the timelines of war. Give me social history, the history of real people living real lives. This is my kind of history. The history of food, houses, lifestyles – and literature. Of course, living in west Cornwall, this kind of history is all around. Dripping from every street corner, every farm field, clifftop and hillfort, abandoned mine and crumbling ruin, all those prehistoric stone circles, burial chambers, and standing stones. Even the house that I live in, built over a century ago, is a bricks-&-mortar documentary charting one hundred years of social change. For my PhD research I get to channel all of these interests, exploring the lives of Victorian folklorists William Bottrell and Robert Hunt as the primary collectors of Cornish folklore.

The term ‘folklore’ means, at its simplest, the beliefs, traditions and customs of ordinary people – the ‘folk’ – and was coined back in 1846 by English academic William J. Thoms, categorising the rural mass population as subject for study via the lens of colonial middle-class prejudice. Ordinary working people as curious ‘other’. I prefer to think of it as literary acheaology; retrieving the clues buried beneath words on a page. The Victorian era was a time of huge change, socially, economically, politically, and culturally, as religious ideologies crumbled beneath the revelations of Darwinian theory, and the technological advances of science fueled the Industrial Revolution – upturning all that had been before. All across Britain, a multitude of writers (mainly men) rallied into action, intent on ‘capturing’ the disappearing ‘old ways’. William Bottrell and Robert Hunt were two such men. Their combined works became founding texts in the study of Cornish folklore; 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). In the century and half since intial publication, their collective tales have been reworked for retelling, in a myriad different ways. I too will be doing this. My main focus, however, will be these two men themselves; I’ll be looking in more detail at their lives, exploring their motivation and methods for producing these seminal works. I’ll be blog-posting here as I go, sharing my findings and plotting my progress, as I venture back in time via the folklore of west Cornwall, preserved by these two Victorian writers, a century and half ago.

Plan Bee (Sunday 27th February 2022)

So, despite my best efforts, the bees, toppled in Storm Eunice, did not survive. My last remaining colony of honeybees. Gone.

‘You should start a Crowdfunder’ somebody said. To which my initial reaction was: ‘Nooooo – I cannot just ask people for money! And then I got out of my own way. And started a crowdfunder.

The aim is to raise £250, the current ‘about’ cost of a nucleus (start-up) colony of Cornish black bees (native British honeybees, perfectly adapted to this location).

All donations are welcome, large or small. Crowdfund pledges of £10+ will be rewarded with an 8oz/227g jar of honey from these bees (when available). Any surplus funds will go towards more bees, and/or a topbar hive, which is a different style of beehive, with a whole different style of beekeeping, which may be better suited to my windy out-apiary in the field at Crows an Wra.

Stormy Weather (20th February 2022)

OH the irony. Just a couple of days back, I was delighted to find that my bees had, so far, survived winter. And then … Storm Eunice. Same bees; knocked to a heap on the ground. Survival and destruction both for the same reason; the overwinter configuration of my two remaining colonies. ‘Double brood’ being the technical term; two brood boxes (the bit where they live) stacked one atop the other. Two colonies combined together in this have a better chance of surviving overwinter. And they did. Such a tower, however – even with additional weights and straps – did not stand a chance against winds of ‘up to 100mph’ that took the roof off Sennen lifeboat station and London’s O2 Arena, ripped large trees up by the roots, sent garden sheds and children’s trampolines flying, and brought down power cables far and wide, leaving many without electricity for days. And yet … again … against the odds … these bees have survived. Huddled together inside their shattered home.

At first it looked like all of the frames – lying horizontally where they would normally be vertical – were empty. And then suddenly there they were; pouring up and out between the frames to crowd together on the (now front-facing) bottom edges. And for a moment we all stood there, all those bees and me, not entirely certain what to do next. Long story into short, I was able to retrieve and restore them to safety, and am waiting to see what happens next. They may survive. Or they may not. Only time will tell …

Pause & Reflect (February 15th 2022)

I am not much of a ‘winter’ person. I really do not enjoy being cold. Or wet. Or windswept. (Does anybody??). It always puzzles me that we, as (supposedly intelligent) humans, are the only living entity on the entire planet to not follow the natural rhythms of the earth’s seasonal cycle. Pushing ourselves to continue as ‘normal’ through these dark, cold, miserable days – then labelling it a ‘disorder’ if our minds and bodies succumb to the physiological effects of shorter days and longer nights, colder temperatures and reduced sunlight. The ‘winter blues’. A form of ‘illness’ to be ‘treated’ and ‘corrected’. For those of us with so-called invisible disability layered up with the complications of chronic illness, the effects are heightened. The complex regional pain syndrome in my left hand (I am left handed) causes cold in that hand to register not as ‘cold’ but as ‘pain’. The multifaceted effects of fibromyalgia become amplified, and the Christmas period in particular brings in own special kind of hell, with ‘cheerful’ bright flashing (migraine-triggering) lights EVERYWHERE, torturing me with pain, nausea, vision loss, and more, so that I avoid leaving the house as much as possible (becoming more of a recluse than I already am) – turning down invitation to social activities that would (as I know from hard-learned experience) leave me unwell for several days. Because the three conditions interact. Flare-up in my hand can trigger a migraine; migraine in turn can trigger the CRPS in my hand, and the whole lot can then set off a chain reaction of wider-body fibromyalgia symptoms – because all three conditions are rooted in the central nervous, the ‘information superhighway’ of body-&-mind.

Thus I tend to retreat in ‘hibernation’ mode from early December, reemerging in early February, around the time of what is known here in the northern hemisphere as Imbolc (in Christian overlay, St. Brigid’s day) – the midway point between the winter solstice and spring equinox, ie. the official beginning of spring.

Me and planet earth, we got a thing goin’ on.

Not that it is all bad, this hibernation thing. In fact, for me it is the only way forward. Not simply a matter of surviving, but thriving. And although ‘unseen’ in the public domain, I am far from idle. And certainly never bored. This has been particularly true this time around, since I’ve been investing a substantial amount of time and energy in various methods of therapeutic intervention via my local NHS ‘Pain Management’ department. Regular appointments with a whole array of incredibly knowledgeable, skilled and capable health professionals, including occupational therapists and physiotherapists, and (the bit that surprises people most when it comes to managing pain) psychologists. One-to-One input and an online group (currently, week 6 of 9). I only wish this had been available ten years ago, when I first needed it – instead of the dismissive: ‘nothing we can do, you must just learn to live with it’ …

But I digress.

Most significant this winter, has been my enrolment (October 2021) on a 3-4 year PhD, at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. I say ‘at’ but in reality I am home-based here in west Cornwall, working online as distance-learner via the wonders of modern cyberspace. ‘PhD’ sounds terribly grand, frighteningly clever, and somewhat intimidating. In reality it means I have committed myself to the next three (possibly four) years immersed in a subject of my own choosing. Put that way, it can sound a little self-indulgent. This notion is, however, balanced by the fact that my research proposal has been approved by a whole panel of highly accomplished academics, all experts in their own field, together agreeing that my suggested research is, in fact, a worthy cause. Who’d had thought it, eh?! Not bad for a 55-year old grandma who left school at 16 with a handful of average O-levels, returning to education at 22 (by then a newly-single mother of three) … with more than three decades of life lived since, along the way aquiring a Bsc. Hons. degree, an MA., teaching certificate, and more. And yet, still, this last few months, I have floundered. Because it’s all very well getting a place on a PhD programme. But you then have to do the work. Follow through. Walk the talk. Come up with the goods.

Gulp.

Fortunately, now four months in, I am in a much better place than I was at the start, when the initial buzz of acceptance sank rapidly beneath the shock of: ‘What have I done? Am I up to this?!’ Very quickly plateauing out into a rabbit-in-the-headlights zombie state of … ‘What. Am. I. DOING?!?!’ Cue, subsequent blur of funding applications, getting-to-know-you meetings with my two wonderful supervisors, seemingly-endless form-filling, additional funding applications, much buying of books, paper, more books, and a steep learning curve getting to grips with a much appreciated disability-support package (ergonomic equipment and computer software) … plus, most recently, a proper-academic submission of my full three-year research plan … And now I am ‘there’. Wherever ‘there’ is. Point being, I have somehow gotten out of my own way, and am now getting on with it.

Meanwhile. There is a much-neglected allotment needs tending (it can wait) and a colony of bees left to their own devices over winter. So, feeling the need to reconnect with the wider outside world (and with a brief window of blue sky) I headed off yesterday to check on my one surviving colony, which I last looked in on at the end of November. Last year was a mysteriously disastrous year for honeybees, with beekeepers around the world suffering dramatic losses for reasons that so far remain unclear. Inexplicable queen death and general failure. I lost 4 of my 6 colonies, with one of this final two becoming queenless, my only option being to combine the two together pinning all hopes on their overwinter survival, aiming to build back up again this coming season. I cannot overstate the my joy – and sheer relief – at finding them alive and well (as far as I can tell from the quick lift-of-the-roof manouvre I performed, not wanting to disturb them too much at this still-precarious early stage of the year). I did a quick icing-sugar shake varroa treatment, popped on a block of fondant as supplementary feed, and closed them back up. I’ll leave them to it for the next few weeks, and check in on them again towards the end of March, by which point the weather should be starting to warm up, and the queen (assuming she has survived) will have again begun to lay the all-important eggs, replenshing the colony with lots of lovely new honeybees.

Introducing Claydropsdesigns (Sunday 28th November 2021)

We’re a talented family, my little lot. The hubby Rob Spooner is an author. My son is a drummer, my younger daughter a skilled artist, and my older daughter (in addition to being mum to my two fabulous grandchildren) makes her own unique range of polymer clay earrings. She is completely self-taught, and currently in the hobby-that-could-perhaps-become-a-business phase, working it out as she goes along. Claydropsdesigns can be found online at etsy and will also (when I get my act together in the next few days) be available here at SomewhereinwestCornwall via the Shop page. I am particularly taken with these gingerbread men, and of course the various bee-themes danglers – and, my personal favourite, the knitted polo-neck-jumper danglies, which just happen to be an exact match to my own favourite winter-snuggle sweater, with which I’ve been wearing them. And then of course there are the Christmas specials …

Grow your own Soup: or, adventures in pumpkin land (Friday 26th November 2021)

The hubby has never really shared my passion for allotment-growing. He does enjoy the results, ie: delicious edibles; random plant-part (leaf, stalk, flower, fruit or bulb) transformed into plate of food. But, the ‘before’ bit – mud and dirt, seeds and compost – It’s just not his thing. There is, however, nothing like a spot of ‘friendly’ competition to get a man going. Thus, when a friend earlier in the year suggested a pumpkin growing contest – played out in public via the wonders of Social Media – he was in. So began one man’s first attempt at growing-his-own …

Here’s how it went.

April. Let the learning curve commence …

… June …

… July – August …

… September – October …

Sadly, ‘Giant Ginge’ didn’t quite make it to record-breaking proportions. So, no prize win for my man (this time). And, once picked and left to cure, the stalk very obviously started to rot. Meaning, this beasty had to be used sooner rather than later. So, it was, into the oven in large chunks (skin on, seeds removed) to be roasted to reduce moisture content and improve flavour (these giant pumpkins are bred for size, not taste, they are full of water and not the greatest for cooking and eating).

The cooked pumpkin flesh (skin removed) then went into the freezer and came back out again today, to be transformed into a big pan of soup (some of which we ate, freezing the rest as individual portions for future use). This, for me is the real winner. It’s all very well, al that macho ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ competition. Growing something that can be turned into something that can be eaten – this, for me, is the real winner.

Pumpkin soup recipe

When I say ‘recipe’ I use the term loosely. This is more a list of ingredients (in no exact proportion) and a general cooking method, to be adjusted to individual preference.

Ingredients:

Onion (red, white or a mix of each), 1 or 2, also a leek or two, if you want.

Celery, 1, 2, or 3 sticks, however much you want (none, if you do not like it.

Garlic (two or three cloves, more or less or even none, it is your choice)

Pumpkin, whatever type you happen to have, however much you want, either roasted (as above) or simply chopped and used raw.

Root veg: sweet potato, carrots, parsnip, whatever you have, in whatever amount feels right.

Orange split lentils. These give ‘body’ to an otherwise watery soup, but can be left out if you do not like or cannot eat them. (maybe add a normal white potato if you leave out lentils, for extra starch, boosting texture).

vegetable (alternately, chicken or beef) stock, or water.

Additional seasonings: salt, pepper, herbs of your choice. Chilli, etc.

Method: chop onions (and leeks if using), sweat to brown in pan, add celery, cook a further few minutes. Add garlic (if using) together with stock, lentils (if using) and other veg in order of how long it will take to cook (carrots, for example, take longer than pre-cooked pumpkin). Simmer until just soft but not overcooked. Blend or mash (stick blender is helpful here). Add seasonings – either mixed in or sprinkled on top to serve.

Community Spirit (Thursday November 25th 2022)

Well how exciting is this?

Our little community garden (Weethes Cottages Community garden, aka WCCG) is front page news! Ok, so it’s *only* the front page of a small weekly, but font page is front page. We are ‘trending’!

A moment of fame.

Not that this was the aim when we set out to transform the overgrown green in the middle of the street into … well, we weren’t sure at that point exactly what we were going to so with it. We just knew that we wanted to do something with what was then something of an eyesore. An oval of grass, 28m-6m, of no particular point or purpose. This was back in November 2019. Fast-forward two years, and here we are. Front page news, with what is now an actual garden. A wasted space, transformed.

It’s been a steep but enjoyable learning curve, for all involved. My own role has been to get things going, and keep it going. This began with a ’round robin’ postbox drop, inviting all who might like to participate. Local Lib. Dem. councillor Penny Young played a huge part in this early stage, steering us forward under the criteria of various current environmental policies, and helping us seek the necessary permissions. We (various neighbours) had been talking for several months about the possibility, but none of us knew how to actually get started. Penny helped us with all of this.

November 2019

On a practical level, we’ve had some stops and starts. Deciding to go down the ‘no dig’ route, we set to work in November 2019, enthusiastically covering the ground with whatever we could find – I had various pieces of black woven ground cover going spare at the allotment, so we used these, and put out a call (via social media and word) of mouth for large sheets of cardboard – with which we were then inundated, from shops and offices, schools and anybody who’d recently had any large item delivered. All of this we used to cover the entire area, held down (or so we thought) firmly with rocks, planks and various other (again, so we thought) heavy items. The plan being to kill (or, at least, weaken) the grass, in preparation for work to begin in spring. And then … disaster. Typical Cornish weather. A howling gale, lifting everything up and off, so that I found myself out in the pouring rain one dark and windy November night, lifting off everything that had been put down, being concerned that we might find rocks, planks etc hurling through the air doing damage to all of our cars, parked nearby.

Summer 2020

Undeterred, we came up with a ‘Plan B’ – still going with the no dig ground cover, but now covering just a select few smaller areas, leaving most of the grass to do its overwinter thing. This turned out to be the way forward, enabling us to plant up small areas as we went, create different features of interest, over time. This also allowed individuals to get creative, contributing as much or as little as they wanted to, or were able. For some this meant regular daily sessions, getting stuck in weeding, digging, and planting. For others it meant buying or donating seeds, plants, or tools, offering ideas. For some it meant being unable to physically contribute, but nevertheless joining in with enjoying the end result; a shared space, to be used by all. Sometimes it’s ben the little details – for example, the donation of a part-tin of yatch varnish lurking in the back of a shed: exactly what was needed to finish off the project name signs, which I made using bits of old wood, otherwise going to waste. All contributions, large or small, have been equally valued.

2020 of course brought covid lockdowns. Here the project really came into its own, as people (who might otherwise be shut up alone at home) were able to work together, yet separately, outside, in shared purpose. This had the effect of really bonding people together, and since then, friendships have grown -as has the garden. A further year on, and this summer (2021) has seen things really taking shape, with the addition of gravel pathways connecting two seating areas, one with a bench and the other with a picnic table, and an ever-changing display from the variously planted areas. In July we participated on the Eden Project’s Big Lunch, everybody coming together in celebration of joint effort. And this week we made it to the front page! Who knows what the next two years will bring, eh?

National Honey Monitoring Scheme (Saturday 25th September 2021)

Beekeeping has so many different aspects to it. Pottering around outside in all weathers, communing with nature, talking to insects, growing flowers, and eating all that lovely honey. Well, yeah, all of that. But it also hits a few nerdy spots for those with a mind thus inclined. That would be me, then.

Last year I joined the National Honey Monitoring Scheme, which is a project aiming to monitor long-term changes in the health of the UK countryside. How am I contributing to this ambitious plan? By sending in an annual sample of honey produced by my bees. Me and several hundred (or is it thousands of?) others around the country. These samples are analysed for pollen content, revealing the types of flowers the bees have visited for food, providing a snapshot of crops and other habitats surrounding our apiaries – thus building up a substantial profile of the entire UK.

Quite a quest, huh?!

Last year’s sample went from one of my hives then at Sennen. A particularly delicious liquid gold honey, with a sweet citrus note. It took eight months for analysis results to come back, and I was surprised (and somewhat disappointed) to find that the primary source was a mix of brassica species – (turnip, cabbage and cauliflower, broccoli, oilseed rape, various mustards). So much for that ‘citrus’ note?! Additionally there were various types of ivy, also bramble, heather and numerous wildflowers. Quite a mix, and a fair representation of location; rural coast dominated by monocrop fields, interspersed with woodland and wild habitat.

This year I’ve sent honey from a different location, just four miles west of Sennen, a little further inland at a place called Crows an Wra. Still surrounded by farmland. So very possibly a similar profile. I just have to wait another eight months to find out …

Is there a doctor in the house? (Friday 24th September 2021)

Not yet, but there will be in a few years from now. Not that I’ll be able to fix anyone’s broken leg, because I won’t be *that* kind of Doctor, but one of those academics with a head full of knowledge that I myself find fascinating but does not necessarily enthral the crowd at my local pub (and is unlikely to save any lives). I am nevertheless feeling both excited and accomplished at being accepted as a Doctoral research student at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies. I am also feeling a little overwhelmed, because … well, y’know what they say about ‘be careful what you wish for’ … this of course only the beginning, for now the real work begins (just one week from now: start date October 1st. Gulp).

It’s a funny old feeling – like the world (well, not the entire world but my own personal little patch of it) has shifted, whilst at the same time remaining the same. The news came on Thursday, initially, by email (followed the next day by a more official letter) and in celebration we (hubby and me) went skipping off downhill for fish & chips on the prom (tiddley-om-pom-pom). Ah yes, we know how to live. Even the intermittent cloudy showers could not spoil it for us. There’s a lot to get organised – a major point being funding (or, at this point, lack of, but I’m aiming to get this sorted ASAP). And in the meantime, this last few days – while I have headspace free – I’ve been plodding on with the edit of my MA thesis material, which I am reworking into what I hope will be saleable products, ie. a series of books aimed at those with an interest in local Cornish history and folklore … (I know, I know, I ‘m being a little cryptic here, not quite revealing the whole just yet. But I will. When myself and my work are ready for public scrutiny) …