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Reflections on Bolster Day
I was recently asked, as an artist, whether I would like to contribute to the Bolster Festival in St Agnes, which has happened every May for several years now. St Agnes is a village close to the cliffs on the North Coast of Cornwall, and it's associated with the legend of Giant Bolster.
According to the legend, Bolster was one of number of Cornish giants who terrorised local communities by eating sheep, cattle and, supposedly children. He met a gory end after becoming infatuated with a local village girl, Agnes, despite being already married. Agnes asked him to prove his love by filling a pit on the cliffs with his own blood. Bolster, though, didn't know that the pit opened to the sea, and therefore died in the attempt. Supposedly the cliffs at St Agnes are stained with his blood to this day, and certainly they do have a spooky red tinge to them.
The centre-piece of the Bolster festival is a re-enactment of the Legend of Bolster on the cliffs, using a giant effigy which has been in the possession of the village community for more than a decade now. It looks a bit like a puppet from 'It's A Knockout', but the scale is just right as is the degree of menace, and, accompanied by a massed army of drummers, the pageant is a perfect piece of open-air theatre.
Cornwall is good at events of this kind. Bolster now takes its place in a hierarchy of several such in-county festivals that, by virtue of their longevity, still has Helston's Flora Day and the Padstow's Obby Oss at the top. But what do these festivals tell us about rural culture and communities?
The main impulse that creates and maintains these festivals is social and communal. They are partly driven by economic interests, as they are always encouraged and supported by local business who recognise their potential for bringing in visitors. But they are primarily about communities wanting to find ways to both celebrate their identity, their singularity and their uniqueness, and in the process to make their own culture, rather than be passive consumers of someone else's.
Urban communities, particularly if they are minority groups, have similar festivals, like the Mardi Gras or Notting Hill Festivals in London. In both urban and rural cases, it is the feeling of being a minority that seems to engender the need for a community to assert its identity in this way. But what is distinct about the rural festivals? Perhaps it hinges on the fact that rural communities have a different relationship to history than urban communities. Most cities in the UK expanded during the Industrial Revolution, or later, and so their histories are embodied in buildings that are less than 250 years old. This period corresponds to modern history, and to a period in man's development that is accessible through written records. Most cities retain very little evidence of their ancient past - if they had an ancient past at all - and provide little or no respite from utilitarian modernism. Thus the narratives and stories that attach themselves to cities may be dense and multivocal, but they are also more readily available, contemporary and prosaic.
History does not write itself onto the landscape in the same way. Landscapes change less rapidly than cityscapes - for example the contour of a hill only changes with the epochal slowness of geological time - and the identity of communities that are bound by their location is also more stable. This is what Denys Val Baker - in referring to Cornwall as The Timeless Land - is alluding to. It seems, as a direct consequence of this that, in many rural parts of the UK the ancient legends and stories that attach to places, many from a time before the written word, manage to retain their currency and emotional charge. These legends, together with other aspects of folklore, still have resonance and meaning. Arguably, though, they are also a defiant expression of spirituality and otherness in an increasingly decentred, materialistic and market-driven world.
Photos: Jon Crwys-Williams