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Cornwall and Magic

This seems like a good time of year to tell you about my trip to Cornwall, especially the Museum of Witchcraft.

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Like all 12-year-olds who see “The Craft” for the first time, I wanted to become a witch. “The Craft” is essentially a story of adolescent girls trying to gain autonomy against hopeless situations. Nancy comes from an abusive, poverty-stricken home, Bonnie is covered in scars and feels ugly, Sarah has lost her mother, and Rochelle has to deal with racist bullies. Adolescence is hard enough for anyone, but I was particularly friendless, fat, and my home was troubled in a variety of ways. Even though “The Craft” plays out with a high camp factor, the idea that there could be some way of gaining control when the world seems against you had a high appeal. The girl who introduced the movie to me was also in deep need of some sort of control in her life, but she took this out on me by trying to catfish me and convincing me there was a ghost in the ouija board who hated me particularly.

In retrospect, of course, it’s hilarious, but at the time I didn’t have anybody else, and the thought that I was so unlovable that even random ghosts hated me HURT.

I also come from a family where science and magic seemed to play out alongside one another. My grandmother, who was from Ireland, was a trailblazer as one of the first computer programmers. She also matter-of-factly told stories of her father being able to talk to foxes. Of course we can all talk to foxes if we like and not much will come of it, but presumably this was a big deal because the foxes could talk back to my great-grandfather.  If I talked to foxes, they’d probably run away. Not out of a lack of understanding, but more because brevity and captivating speech are not in my wheelhouse. Foxes have better things to do, like make ungodly screeching noises while boning outside my window EVERY TIME I HAVE A BREAKUP. How do they know?

Magic, probably.

My thirst for magic only ever led to a brief dalliance with that book that everyone who watches the Craft when they are 12 buys, Teen Witch! Wicca For a New Generation, by the now much-maligned Silver Ravenwolf. I ended up being too lazy and cynical to ever construct an actual mindful practice for myself, especially considering my poor choice of resources. I could have used a mindful magical practice, and I could still use it now.

Someone pointed out that my fringe matches the line of the rock perfectly. My dress is vintage and from Sue Ryder in Beeston. This is the beach at Perranporth in Camborne I think.

I was living mostly in Sheffield this past year and, despite the distance and sheer pain-in-the-assery involved in getting to Cornwall from where I was living, I wanted to get acquainted with some of that famous Cornish magic. Everyone knows about piskies from Harry Potter, but Cornwall actually has a thriving folklore. It’s also thought to be the setting for much of the Arthurian legend.  I’m a fucking nerd and a stupid baby lady, so all of this appealed to me deeply. Seven hours on a train from Nottingham landed me in Camborne.

The moment I got into a cab in Camborne, my first port of call in Cornwall, our cabbie started singing Cornish folk songs. Here is an excellent rendition of “Going Up Camborne Hill Coming Down” by the Mousehole Male Voice Choir. Note the “r”s! Our next cabbie told us the tale of the Beast of Bodmin Moor with pretty much no prompting. As far as I can tell, the Beast of Bodmin Moor is a very large black cat that goes around mutilating livestock. Is it snuggly? Who can say? Very few have had the opportunity to snuggle it, which is truly horrifying. I spent my first two days in Cornwall taking walks to the beach and watching Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange, a miniseries based on some books an alternate reality where magicians are a real profession and there is a battle between ancient druidic magic and a sort of academic, alchemical magic. With a few rainy days of tea and boardgames under our belt we were all bursting (or at least I was) to go out into the countryside.

A cow cluster at a Quoit
A cow cluster at a Quoit

Our third day started with a trip to Lanyon Quoit, a dolmen or megalithic tomb near Penzance, around which several cows had clustered.  That wasn’t even the original way those rocks were set up. Some storm messed it up in the 19th century and they had to sort of pile the rocks back on top of one another in a way that looked mysterious and pre-Christian. “I want a refund!” I yelled at the cows, but perhaps people of fey descent don’t have the ability to talk to cows. The weather in Cornwall that week was consistently pleasant, from around 18-23 degrees Celcius, sunny, and mild. Back in Nottingham it reached a rare 36 degrees and I was happy to be well away from it.

Stupid beautiful Cornwall.
Stupid beautiful Cornwall.

Men-an-Tol was the next pile of rocks we visited, and a pile of rocks with deep mythology attached. Supposedly if a barren woman passed through the circular rock during a full moon she would conceive, but I feel like that wouldn’t do much good, if, say, she weren’t barren at all and her husband had a secret vasectomy. Like I always say, “You can’t cure other people’s vasectomies with rocks”. I didn’t try it, though I did try leaning my fucked-up knee against one of the stones.
“Just lose some weight,” the stone told me.

“I DON’T WANT TO BE MAGIC ANYMORE,” I replied.

Men-an-Tol. Take with food. Side effects include scrapes from accidentally walking into a rock and deep disillusionment. Drink plenty of clear fluids.
Men-an-Tol. Take with food. Side effects include scrapes from accidentally walking into a rock and deep disillusionment. Drink plenty of clear fluids.

Our next stop was of particular interest to me, and only me, because it was a 7th century Anglo-Saxon church. St. Senara’s in Zennor is not only known to be the resting place of the last native Cornish speaker, John Davey. It also has a spectacular wood carving of a mermaid from the 16th century on one of their pews. I did not try to contain my excitement even though the people I was with were deeply indifferent.


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It was a goddamn Early Modern mermaid in perfectly preserved detail! Mermaids are one of the more intriguing varieties of cryptid because they exist across cultures and have such a deep disparity of representations, from beautiful and romantic to sinister and monstrous. I like that manatees (or “oh what do you call them those swimming potatoes” as my grandmom knew them) were once called mermaids. In the spirit of Halloween this month I wrote two songs inspired by the Zennor mermaid, which if you scroll to the bottom of this entry you can have a listen to at your convenience.

I probably would have stayed forever trying to parlay my non-existent fey powers into communing with church pews, but instead we went to the Tate St. Ives. I cannot say “Tate St. Ives” out loud without first saying “Taint St. Ives” several times.

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Yes, the sea is impossibly blue and clean and beautiful everywhere you go in Cornwall. I should have jumped in the sea right then and never left. I felt deep anxiety the whole time that the people I was with did not like me so I did not want to badger people into swimming. This anxiety was not paranoia and actually turned out to be true but I should have just swam anyway because that’s what you get for inviting someone you secretly loathe and resent on vacation, I guess. In the future I will know to have more fun out of spite.

The Tate St. Ives is small but had some interesting displays, one of which was a room full of wishes written on ribbons that you are meant to tie on your wrist and leave your own wish in exchange. I think I may have chosen a ribbon that said “I wish I loved myself” or “I wish to be kinder to myself”. The wish I left in return said “I wish I was a little bit taller, I was I was a baller, I wish I had a girl who looked good”. If my wish came true, I would call her. That day ended the way all of my favorite days end, with pasties and the revisiting of my childhood trauma by associating with a person who acted like my dad, ruined my sense of reality, and lied about everything.  I sang loudly to Beatles songs in the car, oblivious to how much I was annoying everyone. We traversed the narrow roads of Cornwall, which are all bordered by stone walls over which ivy and foxgloves crawl.

I spent the next day at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, once a Victorian paradise park that became overgrown until it was found again sometime in the past couple of decades. It’s a story best told in some pictures.

In a field of poppies. Dress by New Look and procured at the Sheffield Plus Size Swap
In a field of poppies. Dress by New Look and procured at the Sheffield Plus Size Swap

Once again I was the only one interested in swimming so a trip to some sort of cove happened and I frolicked in the water gaily until I felt too guilty about dragging everyone to the stunning beach on a beautiful day. I asked them to take photos of me at the beach, feeling self-conscious about the request and what they must think. I tried explaining to one of them later that people have told me it makes them feel good and encourages them when they see people with bodies that look like theirs enjoying themselves at the beach, wearing a bikini, trying to be brave. The images are difficult for me to enjoy because they’re not carefully constructed in the best angles, and now I see a photo of a person who was, really, being very brave and putting her heart and body out into the sea and cosmos for judgment.

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And found wanting! I enjoyed my swim. I’m not a strong swimmer but I enjoy the meditation of being punched in the stomach by waves over and over.

The next day we went to Lizard and had intentions to see the southwest most point in the UK but the weather was miserable, windy and rainy and grey with the fog destroying the possibility of seeing anything nice. Instead we made our way to Saint Michael’s Mount, a 12th century fortress on a tidal island.

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We came a bit too late in the day to walk to the island so we took a little ferry boat and walked the gentle climb to the St. Aubyn home. It’s also Castle Dracula in the film “Dracula”! In fact, I saw so many Draculas and they had a ceremony to make me an honorary Dracula because I’m such an emotional vampire. The museum inside held many of the St. Aubyn family’s treasures from the past 500 years. There is a beautiful couch upon which Queen Victoria truly sat her imperial butt.

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They would not let me sit my butt upon it because, although similar in girth, it was not imperial enough. 

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In a Dorothy Perkins dress, size UK 12, even though I am clearly not a size UK 12

Here are some nice pixtures of St. Michael’s Mount taken by someone with a fancy camera.

 

We next stopped in the beautiful little fishing town of Mousehole (pronounced ‘mowzl’), where every year, two nights before Christmas, there is a festival where they serve Stargazy Pie. Stargazy Pie is a fish pie from which pilchard heads and tails stick out from the crust. I wanted to try it but I can’t seem to convince anyone to make it for me. Instead we had full dressed crab, extremely fresh from the ubiquitous sea. The reminder of magic everywhere manifested that day in the form of a crow, who landed on the arm of a tourist and stayed there for an hour.

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We had tickets to the 8:30 production of a “The Magnificent Three”, a supposed send-up of Westerns where all of the songs were 5 minutes of one element of exposition repeated over and over. The venue of the magnificent Minack Theatre, an open-air theater overlooking the sea, made up for any shortcomings of the actual production.

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The next day was witch day, and it started off tempestuous and wet. Boscastle is a gorgeous little village that was unfortunately badly affected by flash floods in 2004 and is still recovering. I would really recommend visiting if you have the means because tourism helps rebuild this worthy little fishing port!

 

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The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic was well worth the trip to Cornwall on its own. It focused heavily on folk magic findings from Cornwall and Devon as folk magic practice was fairly common as late as the 30s and 40s. I loved that it had a section of yonic items, such as Sheela-na-Gig, as fertility idols tend to trend towards the phallic. They also had an amazing collection of poppets, which are similar to voodoo dolls and often used for vengeful spells. The history of magic in Britain reveals, again, the thread of women finding a venue for autonomy and control, and the accusation of witchcraft being a means to take away that control from women. One room of the museum is a recreation of the hut of a cunning woman, complete with cat familiars and plants used for spellcraft.

The weather cleared up and we ate pasties in the sunshine. After filling our bellies we set off for Tintagel, the alleged home of King Arthur that was built way after any plausible date that Arthur would have been alive. Though the climb up was brutal on my knee, it was well worth it for the view from the top.

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I got to take one last dip in the sea before watching the most perfect sunset I’d ever seen.

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We went on to Bath from there, but that’s a repeat of a tale where only one name and one face changed from the last time I told it, and even then only barely. A few weeks after I went back up north I saw the film “A Field in England” by Ben Wheatley, which involves fairy rings, the spaces between life and death, and the conflict between magic and secularism. All of this resonated for me as I felt my search for control and magic fall out of my grasp. I have a habit of romanticizing things that don’t deserve it, of trying helplessly to shoehorn things into a single narrative where they just don’t fit. There is magic and folklore in Philadelphia. There are loud, smelly people on buses in Cornwall.

I can believe my great grandfather could talk to foxes, and that they’d reply in a way he could understand. I don’t think I’m fey. I think that I have to find other ways to grasp my own autonomy, to push myself to create. I surround myself with people who are so kind and so talented that they are magic. I am thinking about growing a garden with lavender and sage and other plants with healing properties.

Here are the two mermaid songs I wrote:

 

This one is a little Cornish folk song of my own invention called “Good Luck From Mevagissey” from the perspective of the Zennor mermaid.

And this one’s a little more sinister.  The creepier, more monstrous type of mermaid.

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