Cornish Folklore: The Legendary Tom Bawcock of Mousehole

Cornish Folklore: The Legendary Tom Bawcock of Mousehole

The sea and the rugged Cornish coastline dotted with fishing villages and harbors is a fertile breeding ground of many legends and traditions.  For many of the Cornish folk living around the coast, the sea provided them with a means to make a living by fishing.  As well as selling their catch for small profits it was the basic ingredient of their diet.  To catch the fish they needed suitable weather so their livelihoods were inextricably linked to the sea and the weather.

georges_jean_marie_haquette

Georges Jean-Marie Haquette (1854 – 1906) – Public Domain

Stormy Weather

Tom Bawcock was a legendary fisherman in the 16th century who lived in the Cornish fishing village of Mousehole. Like many other local people, he made his living from fishing the seas around Cornwall.  According to legend during one wintertime the area was afflicted by a series of storms and bad weather which prevented the local fishermen from putting out to sea.  This is said to have happened around Christmas time and the fishing boats remained stationary in the harbor. This bad weather continued over a prolonged period and the local people could not catch the fish that consisted of their main diet and began to starve.

Brave Tom Bawcock

According to local folklore this state of affairs continued for some time and by the 23rd of December with the village people in dire straights, one man decided something had to be done.  Tom Bawcock decided he would chance the weather and take his boat out to try and make a catch. Bravely he took his fishing boat out in the most appalling of weather and horrendous seas but good fortune was with him.  He managed to drop his nets and haul in a huge catch of fish.  When he returned he found he had several different kinds of fish all mixed together.

baked_stargazy_pieBy KristaBaked stargazy pieCC BY 2.0

Stargazy Pie

These were all placed together in one big pie with egg and potatoes providing enough to feed the entire village.  They called the dish stargazy pie.   In this dish, some of the fish heads are deliberately placed to poke through the pastry as if looking at the stars and the tails protrude as well so that it looks like the fish are leaping in and out as they would in water.  Placing them this way is also said to let the fish oils run back into the pie improving the taste and nutritional value.

Tom Bawcock’s Eve

Naturally, the villagers were delighted and Tom became their hero. A festival has been held on 23rd December which became known as Tom Bawcock’s Eve ever since in the village of Mousehole. During the evening of the 23rd, a huge stargazy pie is the centerpiece of a parade through Mousehole accompanied by villagers carrying lanterns and the pie is then eaten.  But even the Cornish weather can affect this and sometimes the lantern parade is postponed if the weather is particularly bad.

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The lantern parade for Tom Bawcock’s Eve – Public Domain

There was once an older festival held in the village during the end of December which also featured a fish pie made with several varieties of seafood and it may be that Tom Bawcock’s Eve has evolved from that. Over the years the festival has grown and since 1963 the famous Christmas festive illuminations of Mousehole are included adding extra color and sparkle.

The origin of Tom Bawcock

There are alternative theories as to how the festival originated.  One proposed by a nautical archaeologist, Robert Morton Nance (1873–1959) an authority in his time on the Cornish language and one of the founders of the Old Cornish Society put forward the idea that the name Bowcock  was derived from the French Beau Coq. He thought the festival was from an era that pre-dated Christianity and thought the cock in pagan times was the bringer of light or the sun in the morning with its crowing.

Another explanation is that the name Bawcock in Middle English is a nickname for someone who is regarded as a good fellow and Tom a generic name used to describe any man.  So Tom Bawcock would mean any good fellow and perhaps, in this case, any good fellow, who was brave enough to risk his life to feed the village.  It could have been a kind of Harvest Festival celebration in honor of any or all of the village’s brave fishermen if read like this.

The Devil in a Pie!

There is a tradition that the Devil never went to Cornwall.  According to Robert Hunt, after the Old Nick crossed the River Tamar he noticed the Cornish people liked to put everything in pies.  Not fancying his chances he decided to hightail it back  before they decided to place him in one!

References, Attributions and Further Information

Copyright zteve t evans

 

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The revenge of the Mermaid of Padstow

The Doom Bar of Padstow

Over the ages the Cornish people evolved their own unique traditions, folklore and legends full of smugglers, pirates, giants and mermaids. One such example is the folktale of the Mermaid of Padstow which offers an explanation of how the Doom Bar, a large sandbar, that has accounted for many shipwrecks, was created.

The Doom Bar of Padstow lies in the estuary of the River Camel on the north coast of Cornwall.  It is a sandbar that has been a hazard for ships for many centuries wrecking many that sailed accidently upon it, or were forced by storms.  The term, Doom Bar is derived from Dunbar Sands which it was once called and dunebar, or sand dune.  A part of the eastern part is thought to have been above water in the distant past and covered in forest about 4,000 years ago that was eventually covered by sand and dunes and a rise in sea levels the cause of which is unknown.  The area it covers and its shape can vary depending on wind and tides and there are several traditions and legends about how it was created and two involve mermaids.

The Mermaid of Padstow

Mermaids are strange creatures and can be perilous for humans who encounter them.  They are sometimes seen as harbingers of doom bringing storms, drownings and shipwrecks.  Sometimes they are immoral temptresses winning the hearts of young men and luring them into the sea to their deaths, or never to be seen again on land.

One folk tale told by Enys Tregarthen tells how a curse from a dying mermaid created the Doom Bar in revenge for her murder by a local man named Tristram Bird.  According to the tale He had brought a new gun and gone down to Hawker’s Cove to shoot seals with it.   As he was hunting he found a beautiful young woman sitting on a rock, singing a sweet song and brushing her hair with a golden comb.

Mr Bird was entranced by her song and beauty and fell in love with her.  Approaching her he begged her to be his wife but the woman refused.  Deeply hurt by her rejection he shot her with his gun.  It was only then he realised that she was a mermaid and that had been the reason for her rejecting him.  There was nothing he could do to save her and as she died she cursed the harbour from Hawker’s Cove to Trebetherick Bay laying a “doom bar” across it.  Immediately a terrific storm hit the estuary and when it subsided a bar of sand lay across it covered by wrecked ships and dead sailors.  Ever since then the Doom Bar of Padstow has been causing a hazard for shipping ever since.

Another tradition told in the ballad, The Mermaid of Padstow a local man called Tom, or Tim Yeo killed a seal which turned out to be a mermaid.  Another explanation given by John Betjeman tells how a mermaid was found by a local man who fell in love with him.  He being mortal could not be with her in the sea for long.  She could not stay on land for long and so they were doomed to remain separated.  Nevertheless,  she was desperately in love with him and tried to entice him beneath the sea to live with her forever.  He was not ready for such a fate and rejected her but she tried to pull him in the sea to be with her.  He only escaped by shooting her.  Enraged by pain and rejection she grabbed a handful of sand and flung it towards Padstow.  From this handful of sand, more sand accumulated around it and the Doom Bar grew to what it is now.

Shipwrecks

Since records began in the 19th century there have been over six hundred shipping incidents on the Doom bar and most of these have resulted in wrecks. Two of the most notable wrecks on the Doom Bar was HMS Whiting, in 1816, a 12 gun Royal Navy warship ran aground there  and in 1895, the Antoinette, a three masted sailing vessel of 1,118 tons, making it the largest vessel to be wrecked so far.   To make it safe for navigation the vessel was blown up with explosives resulting in a cloud of sand and smoke that could be seen for miles.  However, in February 2010 the shifting sands revealed the remains of a large wooden vessel believed to be the Antoinette

Perilous

As with many folk tales the legend of the Mermaid of Padstow strives to explain the creation of a natural feature of the local environment in simple terms.  Many a good ship has floundered on the Doom Bar and even in modern times it needs to be approached with care and respect or it can prove perilous.  The same can be said about mermaids for they too can be perilous!

© 13/01/2016 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

Copyright January 13th 2016 zteve t evans

Joseph of Arimathea in English tradition

Joseph of Arimathea by William Blake (1757-1827)

Joseph of Arimathea holds a peculiar place in the mythology and traditions of England. He was a wealthy Jewish merchant from Judea who was also a contemporary follower of Jesus Christ.  As a member of the Jewish council, or Sanhedrin, he was a man of considerable influence in his  own country.  Joseph of Arimathea is so named because he came from Arimathea in Judea.  He was mentioned in all four gospels and from these we know he was a good and righteous man

Joseph’s legacy

Joseph  was believed to have converted thousands of people to the Christian faith, including Ethelbert, a local king of the time.  He was also said to have founded Glastonbury Abbey. At his death at the age of 86, it is said that he was so respected that six kings bore his coffin.   His life and actions in Britain remains enigmatic and whatever the truth is we will probably never know but Joseph of Arimathea remains an important figure in English and Christian tradition.  Read more …. Continue reading

The Welsh legend of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach

The legend of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach is also known as the Lady of the Lake, though not the one associated with King Arthur. This is completely different and is associated with Myddfai in Carmarthenshire, Wales a small community situated on the western edge of the Brecon Beacons which encompasses six mountains. It is popular with tourists and the area around is steeped in the myths, legends and traditions of Wales.

Myddfai is associated with two related legends of which there are many different versions. The first is the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach, or the Lady of the Lake and the second is the Physicians of Myddfai, which sprang from the first. This article will deal discuss the legend of the Lady of Llyn y Fan Fach that has been pieced together from a number of sources and presented here.  Read more Continue reading

Spirituality: The Whale totem

Animal totems represent the virtues and special characteristics of an animal. They are not pets and people use them as an aid to get in touch with nature, help create inner harmony and wisdom and to help the evolution of their spiritual being. By getting touch with the qualities of an animal a deeper affinity and understanding of the animal is created both with the animal and with nature, leading to greater harmony with the universe.

Right whales – Public Domain

A totem is a symbol, picture, sculpture or other object that reminds us of the animal spirit it represents. Animal totems do appear in other traditions around the world as well as in North America. People experience animal totems differently because there are many stages of personal and spiritual development and everyone has different needs and tasks to accomplish in this world.

Whales as an animal totem

Whales are sea creatures that have been on the planet for millions of years. They are perfectly adapted to their marine environment living in harmony with the sea and the natural order. They move through their environment with grace and power. Some species of whales are known to communicate with each other over great distance.
The Whale Totem symbolizes harmony and ‘Oneness’ with nature, the power and mystique of the sea, ancient wisdom, communication and communion.

Precious gifts of nature

Whales have been the inspiration for many stories, paintings, songs, legends, works of literature and film. They are present in all the oceans of the world and are known by many people and societies many of which have created traditions and rituals around them. In the past many human societies hunted them and depended on them for their survival. Some species of whale were hunted to the brink of extinction.
The Whale Totem reminds us that the gifts of nature are precious and not to be taken for granted. The Whale Totem also symbolizes inspiration and creativity. It reminds us that humans also have natural gifts that can actually enhance the natural world if only we choose to use them wisely. The keyword being ‘choose’ for we do have choice on this which also means we have responsibility for the consequences.

Nurturing children

The female whale if very protective towards its young and often they will join together with other females to form groups that encircle the young. This allows the mother to hunt for food while the calf is protected by other females.
The Whale Totem symbolizes nurturing and protection of young and reminds us of our responsibilities to children.

Harmony

There are many different species of whales and many of these are very different from each other. Some are hard to tell apart even by experts. The color, size and characteristics of whales vary greatly and for the most part they all seem to get along tolerably well.

The Whale Totem symbolizes living in harmony with each other. It reminds us that there are also different races of humans, with different characteristics, and we come in different shapes and colors and that each of us have a right to be here and our need to live in harmony with each other.

For everything there is a season

Many whales are great travelers who move with grace, strength and endurance through the ocean relying solely on their own powers and resources taking only what they need along the way to survive. Some species of whale such as the Baleen have to migrate to find food for their survival in different seasons. No one understands how they know it is time to move on or how they find their way to their new feeding grounds which can be thousands of miles apart.
The Whale Totem symbolizes grace, strength and endurance in moving through their environment and reminds us to tread lightly on the planet taking only what we need to get by. It also symbolizes trust in intuition and knowing when to move on, telling us that for everything there is a season and a time for every purpose. It teaches us to trust the natural order.

Qualities of the Whale

There are many wonderful virtues and qualities that whales possess that would help a person evolve spiritually and in wisdom. A person who can see these virtues and qualities and tries to emulate them, even if only partially successful, will experience greater harmony and ‘Oneness’ with nature and the universe. They will grow in wisdom and intuition and in doing so learn how to take only what they need from the world. They will become someone who nurtures and accepts and fulfils their responsibilities to the young, offering them protection to grow spiritually and in doing so will experience the flowering of their own soul.