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.

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.