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Cornish Fire Beacons

Western Morning News 25.6.1929










Could the ancients have returned to the hills of Cornwall last night, the spectacle which would have met their gaze would not been an unfamiliar one, for on almost every hilltop in the county a summer bonfire blazed merrily.

The occasion was the first organized attempt to revive the ancient celebrations of Midsummer's day, and the experiment met with unexpected success. One of Cornwall's principal charms is its wealth of romance and legend, and the Old Cornwall Societies during their short career have done much to weave together the last remaining threads of folk-lore which were fast slipping from memory. But nothing which they had yet attempted has been taken up with such widespread and popular enthusiasm as their proposal to revive the Mid-summer bonfires.

Few of Cornwall's ancient customs can boast of a longer or more romantic history. The ceremony itself is older than history, its origin springing from a pagan rite in the days when the sun was worshipped as the deity. At that time the period of the sun's longest light-the summer solstice-was celebrated by a series of sacrificial fires to invoke blessing on crops, &c. The celebrations were continued for three days while the sun climbed to its highest point in the sky and captives taken in battle, and criminals, were thrown to the flames. With the coming of Christianity the summer solstice observances were transformed into a commemoration of the nativity of St John and conducted as a holy festival. The winter solstice, December 25, which was used to make another entreaty to the sun to shed its warmth, was also transformed into a holy festival to commemorate the birth of Christ.




It is not surprising that a great many superstitious beliefs should have grown up round such a festival, and many quaint stories are to be found concerning them. The ashes of the midsummer fire were collected and treasured as a charm, which was supposed to protect its owner and his property from witchcraft. Even many years after the celebrations assumed a Christian character, it was believed that if the ashes were to attain their full power it was necessary that some living creature should be thrown to the flames, and rabbits, pigs, chickens, &c., took the place of human sacrifice.

Despite the fact that the ceremony had changed its pagan for a Christian character, it did not quite lose its connection with the seasons, as at a very much later date little girls used to dance round with floral hoops, while another instance of the changed character of the ceremony is provided by the fact that young people indulged in such games as kissing-rings on the hillside.

It would thus appear that the ceremony changed from an act of pagan worship and an act of Christian commemoration to an occasion of pure pleasure, carried out, no doubt, with scarce a thought to its origin and its meaning; and eventually, like many other customs in Cornwall, it fell into disuse altogether.

The custom was not by any means confined to Cornwall, it being at one time general in England, on the Continent, and even further. It is said that even now the Chinese indulge in guise dancing at Christmas and times of eclipse to frighten away the dragon which is supposed to be trying to devour the sun.



In deciding to revive the custom the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies certainly hit on a very popular idea, and it is not surprising that the imagination of the public was fired by its romantic associations. The Federation at first approached the matter rather timidly, and decided to content themselves with a small beginning. But the affair attracted much greater attention than they anticipated, and if all the customs connected with the ceremony have not been revived, they at least made a very good start last night, when fires were lit at the following places:-

Castle-an-Dinas, near St. Ives.

Trencrom, near Hayle.

Green Lane Beacon, near Camborne.

Carnmarth, near Redruth.

Wheal Mount, Sithney, Helston.

Manhay Beacon, Wendron.

Roskruge Beacon, St. Anthony.

St. Keverne Beacon, near Lenarth.

Tregonning Hill, Germoe.

The Beacon, Falmouth.

St. Agnes Beacon.

Pentire Headland, Newquay.

Hensbarrow Beacon, near St. Austell

Bodmin Beacon.

St, Cleer Downs, near Liskeard.

Kit Hill.

For once the weather was kind, and a doubtful day terminated in a perfect summer evening. There was clear visibility for miles around, and on Carnmarth, the centre of West Cornwall, an immense number of people gathered and sang 'Trelawney' until the signal was received from the Penzance Society on Castle-an-Dinas, when Sir Arthur Carkeek applied the brand to the eight-foot high tower of fuel, which blazed up instantaneously.

At that time conditions were as perfect as could be expected, and Brown Willy could be distinctly seen with the naked eye. Castle-an-Dinas, on the ridge of the south-western horizon, appeared very distant, as did Trencrom and Rosewall, the other beacons in the western area.

A moment later the glare from the Truro Society could be seen on the top of St. Agnes Beacon, and this was followed by the fire at Hensbarrow, where the St. Austell Society were operating. Falmouth also had a fire just above the town.

Unfortunately a land mist set in, and the hills beyond Hensbarrow were blotted out, so that the Redruth sightseers were not able, as they expected, to see the last link in the chain at Callington, but, taking at things into consideration, the experiment may be considered to be a great success.

In addition to the official fires, a great number of small private fires burst out all over the district.





Penzance Old Cornwall Society decided to precede the lighting of the fire by a pilgrimage to St. Ives, and in a surprisingly short time no fewer than 120 tickets were sold, which necessitated the engagement of quite a number of 'buses.

At 8, Miss Julyan read a paper on the history of the town, and the party then returned to Castle-an-Dinas, where Mr. Hooper created a proper atmosphere by giving a sketch of the Midsummer festivities. The distinction of lighting the first fire in the chain fell to Miss Julyan, the president of the society.

St. Ives Old Cornwall Society arranged quite an extensive programme in connection with their ceremony, and entered into the real spirit of the festivity. At 7.30 the assembly made its way to the Green at the bottom of Rosewall hill, where folk-songs and folk-dancing were indulged in, and light refreshments comprising "fuggans" and pasties partaken of, after which they proceeded up the old Miners' Path to the top of the hill, where they received the signal from Castle-an-Dinas, and their pile of 50 fagots was set ablaze. Hayle Old Cornwall Society journeyed to Trencrom, where their fire was lit by the hon. secretary, Mr. Turner. Camborne also joined in the chain with a fire at Green Lane, Beacon, while a huge stack of fuel on Carnmarth, where Redruth Society assembled, was lit by Sir Arthur Carkeek.



In the Helston area the fire at Wheal Mount Sithney was lit by Mr. Cowls; that at Manhay Beacon, Wendron, by Rev, G. H. Doble; at Roskruge Beacon, St. Anthony, by Mrs. Vivian: at St. Keverne Beacon by Mr. P. D. Williams, Lanarth; at Tregonning Hill by Mr J. M. Cowls.

Falmouth fire was lit on the Beacon, the town's highest point. It is believed that the Iast occasion when a fire was lit to give warning of the coming of an enemy was in 1779, when a combined French and Moorish fleet sailed into Plymouth. It was feared that they were going to attack the western seaport, and Francis Bassett raised a force of several hundred Cornish miners, who marched to Plymouth and helped to make the defences more secure. For that service he was made a baronet, and later became Lord de Dunstanville. Falmouth Branch of the Old Cornwall Society were responsible for last night's arrangements, and the boys of the various schools were asked to collect material for the fire.

Hundreds of people assembled on the Beacon between nine and ten o'clock to witness the lighting of Falmouth's bonfire. Among the contents of the fire were 500 old church cassocks.

Just before 10 o'clock Mr. T. A. Webber, ex-Mayor of Falmouth and chairman of the Falmouth Old Cornwall Society, explained the origin of the custom. Shortly after 10 o'clock the bonfire at Carnmarth was observed, and then Falmouth's fire was started by Mrs. T A. Webber. A good blaze ensued and the signal was answered by St. Keverne.

It was not a good night, for it was rather light, and a thick haze hung over the country, which rather obscured the view. After awhile St. Austell's fire cou'd be just faintly discerned, but only at intervals.






St. Agnes Beacon was one of the most important links in the chain, and this was in the charge of the Truro Old Cornwall Society, though nothing had been done towards arranging for the fire until yesterday afternoon, except that permission had been obtained from the owner, Mr. Coulter Hancock, for the fire there.

Yesterday Mr. John Rosewarne got to work and arranged for the conveyance from Truro to the site of a dozen empty tar barrels, a number of packing cases, and some straw. These were all ready, with Mr. T. H. Rogers, secretary of the Truro Society, and Mr. J. Rosewarne, and a number of interested persons in attendance for picking up of the signal from Carnmarth.

It was a beautifully fine night, and a few minutes after ten the light from St. Ives was seen, followed almost immediately by that from Carnmarth, and the fire was ignited on the St. Agnes Beacon, thus passing the signal on to Newquay.

Mr. A. M. Blueti, vice-president of the Truro Old Cornwall Society, set fire to the St. Agnes beacon.

In connection with the local branch of the Cornish Association at Newquay, a bonfire was lighted on the Pentire Headland.

Following an ideal summer's day, with a beautiful sunset, about 3,000 visitors and residents made their way to the Headland overlooking the River Gannell and Fistral Bay to witness the huge bonfire, which was lighted by Dr. Stephens, vice-president, in the absence of Sir Hugh Protheroe Smith, the president of the local Cornish Association. Previous to 10 o'clock Cornish songs were sung, and folk-dancing indulged in by both residents and visitors. Capt Peters, headmaster of the Council School, and Miss Stephens, headmistress, had arranged folk- dancing and a floral dance, which was accompanied by a piano, taken to the Point for the occasion.

As 10 clock fires were seen from St. Ives, a distance of 30 miles, St. Agnes Point, and Carnmarth. This was followed by the fire lit by Dr. Stephens, and in the distance could be seen Hensbarrow fire. After three cheers had been given, the fire was Iighted, and watched by a large crowd.



Owing to circumstances, the task of preparing the St. Austell Society's fire on Hensbarrow Beacon could not be undertaken by members of the Old Cornwall Society, but the hon. secretary, Mr. W. J. Rich, delegated the preparation of the fire to Mr. Harvey, headmaster of Roche Council School, who willingly agreed that the children and himself would gather the materials on the Beacon, and that he would obtain sanction for the lighting of the fire.

At the Bodmin Beacon no less then 15 different blazes were seen. Many of them, it was presumed, were not the "official" fires of the Old Cornish Society, but were the work of people anxious to participate in the novelty of the occasion.

Amongst those recognized were the fires at Hensbarrow, St. Cleer Downs, Kit Hill-very faintly and one in the vicinity of Padstow. The Bodmin fire was not a large one, and soon it went out, but it was not sufficient for those present, for all the gorse that was available was collected, and another fire was started.

To pass theme away wrestling was indulged in on the Beacon, and was watched by a large crowd.

Liskeard Old Cornwall Society bonfire at Saint Cleer Downs attracted a crowd of 1,000. Prior to the lighting of the bonfire Mr. E. Spurway took his stand on an adjacent rock and called upon the vicar of St. Cleer to open the proceedings with a recital of the Gorsedd Prayer. Mr. Lewis Scantelbery addressed the gathering on the origin of the ancient customs arising from sun worship and developing to the bonfires at later ages. Shortly after ten p.m. the light from the Western Beacon at Hensbarrow was perceived, and immediately Mrs. Dawson, wife of the vicar, applied the torch to the bonfire, which blazed up at once and gave the signal in turn to the Callington bonfire on Kit Hill, which responded with equal promptitude. Several other fires were observed on neighbouring heights.

St. Pinnock Silver Prize Band halted at the bonfire, and played selections.






Kit Hill, rearing its giant head to an altitude of 1,067 feet above sea level and dominating the eastern end of Cornwall, is an impressive place to visit on any occasion, but to be there in the gleaming of a beautiful Midsummer night just before the mantle of darkness completely gathers to its embrace the magnificent surrounding countryside, is to experience an atmosphere which is tense, if not eerie.

In the blaze of sunshine one had viewed the four points of the compass stretching away from the base of the hill in an unending panorama. With the dipping of the sun behind the western rim of Cornwall one watched long shadows chase one another across the countryside, turning from blue to purple, until distance gently lessened, leaving just a sight of the immediate surroundings and the knowledge of the great beyond stretching out into the night.

Last night the wonderful silence of eventide on Kit Hill was broken. Here in a modern atmosphere was taking place one of those age-old scenes which played such a part in the lives of the ancient Cornish folk, who, so simple in their habits and so profoundly superstitious in their outlook, left to the world of to-day a wealth of quaint customs and peculiar ritual.



All around the countryside began to lose its characteristics as night-time fell, and wrapped it in gentle embrace. Did the spirits of the ancient Phoenicians, those daring adventurers and traders in Cornish tin, roam Kit Hill to watch the quaint custom which had not disturbed their tranquility for a century? Did the ghosts of those warriors who fell in the slaughter of the battle of A.D. 835 on the slopes of Kit Hill, between the forces of Egbert, the Wessex King, and a combination of Britons and Danes, stir in their centuries of slumber to watch events? Did the pixies and the elves come out to join in the revels or gaze in stupefied amazement at the scene? It was very easy to be imaginative on Kit Hill as one looked through the gloaming to the westward and awaited the flare of hill-top beacons.

By vehicle and on foot the Cornish folk of this part of the county wended their way to Kit Hill. The trek up over its gentle slopes was nothing like so irksome as when the ancients stormed the summit to light their beacon of rejoicing and join in their revels and customs. In those days there were probably just the few rough mining paths leading to the hilltop: today there is a road of excellent surface, which carries motorists and picnic parties to the highest point.

At the spot where the pixie revels were wont to take place there is now an eighteen holes putting green; and where the village maidens and men sang their folk-songs and linked hands in their folk-dances the brass band of Callington provides a somewhat crude touch of modernity.



Here where the Parliament of Tinners for Devon and Cornwall used periodically to meet before the reign of Henry III. for the formation of mining laws and regulations, the rallying of Cornishmen of the eastern end of the county took place a full hour before the beacon fires were to form their chain along distant hill-tops. The ceremony opened impressively with the reading of the Gorsedd prayer by Rev. R. W. Marsh. The sun was riding low in the western sky when the minister uttered this prayer, and it was an impressive moment in the silence of the breeze-swept hill when he paused at the end.

Then came a brief welcome from the Presi dent (Col. E. J. Marsack), after which the Recorder (Mr. William H. Paynter) gave a short description of many ancient customs connected with Midsummer.

After this the people gathered in the shelter from the wind, but kept a keen eye looking to the western hills for signs of the fires in these districts. Gradually the twilight gathered, but the western sky was still aflame with the rays of the setting sun. In the distance the lights of Plymouth began to twinkle, and the Eddystone sent out a modern beacon light to shipping. Then, at 10 o'clock, the first fires were seen away on the Cheesewring, and gradually these pin-points of flame bobbed up in various directions, until altogether somewhere about half a dozen ecu'd be seen. The president then took charge of the torches, and set fire to the Kit Hill pile.

In a moment it had flamed up, and then it stood out a mass of flame and smoke, and must have been one of the most conspicuous beacon fires throughout the long chain. People still stayed on, and as the fire lessened they danced around on the green, and so completed the ceremony marking an old custom as interesting as it was impressive.