The Kings of Cornwall

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King Doniert’s Stone, in between Minions and Redgate.

That Cornwall was once ruled by a separate and unique lineage of Kings ignites a schoolboy-like excitement. It makes me think of Tolkien. It also highlights that this little chunk of land oozes with its own idiosyncratic history.

Just the names of the Kings brings to mind a wild, fierce and proud people roaming a landscape that was far wilder, more disparate and sparse than Cornwall is today: Constantine, Caradoc, Geraint, Conan (!).

King Doniert’s stone, on the edge of the Moor, is a monument to that lineage. It commemorates King Dungarth, the ruler of an 8/9th century Cornwall that was, by this time, a failing and faltering remnant of the once ferocious and lore-inspiring post-Roman, Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia. Crumbling in the 8th and 9th century, after centuries of independence, to Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Indeed Dungarth was probably the last of the line. He was also possibly an under-king.

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This particular King set in stone, is said to have died a fairly insipid death – drowning in the River Fowey which flows from the moor, over the Golitha Falls and, in a somewhat disappointing end to its moorland journey, through Trago Mills.

Presumably Doniert/Dungarth/Donyarth drowned at the mouth of the river, whereupon it is actually deep enough to drown without being seriosuly inept. Nearby to Fowey town after all you can find Castle Dore. A hillfort that would have certainly been inhabited around that time. This castle was also possibly a royal seat.

The history of Cornwall (and Devon as they were intertwined) after – and even during – the Roman occupation of Britain is somewhat convoluted.

To say the least.

I suppose this would be why we refer to the departure of the Romans up to the arrival of the Normans as the ‘Dark Ages’.

Generally it is agreed upon that from  what is now Cornwall, Devon and a chunk of Somerset were homogenous in culture and practice enough to be called one thing: Dumnonia.

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All props for this image go to Thomas Leonard @ http://thomashoskynsleonardblog.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/the-ancient-kingdom-of-dumnonia.html

However History, being a somewhat modern invention, has a way of compartmentalising and taxonomising things for ease of understanding. So there is always the possibility that they were a (perhaps innumerable) loosely affiliated bunch of tribes, naturally sharing such things as language or farming/building practices due to their geographical proximity.

Sub-Roman inhabitants of Cornwall, Devon and Somerset where they around to be spoken to might have obligingly raised their eyebrows at modern historians for suggesting their similarities and then smashed their head in with an axe. I suppose this somewhat like the modern Cornish in certain circles.

The reason the actual history of the Kings of Cornwall/Dumnonia is so difficult to objectively ascertain is simply the ever-expanding myth, legend and fantasy of the Arthurian Romance. A myth largely starting with the Normans, it has infiltrated the facts to a startling degree and is possibly one of the most enduring and powerful in Western Europe. That is actually quite an impressive feat when you think about it.

What we do know is that there existed a series warlords, chieftains or Kings (perhaps a later label) of an independent and warlike people, with a strong Celtic past and identity.

We can also take the position that the Romans didn’t bother too much with them. Perhaps they were more trouble than they were worth, as there is little evidence of full-scale Roman occupation west of Exeter. Perhaps they just didn’t fancy it. Although it should be noted that there are some sites however, even as far west as Gweek, possibly indicating co-operation to some degree.

Another piece of definite knowledge would be that the Dumnonii had pretty strong links (naval, economic and cultural) and possibly an identification with the Welsh and probably Irish kingdoms and Kings (I love the term ‘High King’, it is again very Tolkien, but alas this seems to be mainly applied to the Irish).

The links to Wales, and to a lesser degree Ireland, are most obvious in the similarities of language and culture, but perhaps most importantly, from the 4th and 5th centuries onwards, Christianity. Spreading out, rather frighteningly effectively and rapidly, to Cornwall and Ireland from the nucleus of St. Davids in Pembrokeshire which provided a real binding of the Celtic ‘Nations’.

Lastly, following the departure of the Romans, we can also assume, from sources of the time, that there existed a remaining Romano-Brittonic aristocracy (the Romans were not entirely arrogant, as we often assume them to be, they empowered and mingled with the many of the local tribes and indigenous power to ensure compliance) that were connected to, perhaps strongly, perhaps not, to the independent Kings of Dumnonia. This is where the seed of the Arthurian story is sown.

There was  certainly a strong native resistance to the (pagan) Saxons, Angles and Jutes who started to move over incrementally through the open door left by the Romans (‘immigration’ is a better word than ‘invasion ‘for this) and gradually pushed West. It is in this resistance that we find the only historical possibility of Arthur, who might have been a warlord or prince that led a confederation of Britons, including the powerful Celtic kingdoms, against the Saxons. A confederation that, according to the accounts at the time, won an important victory at the now famous Battle of Badon.

The Saxons gradually won this century battle of attrition but the warlike Kings and people of Dumnonia almost certainly played a part in this resistance.

Doniert’s stone, fittingly crumbled and broken, symbolises the last of his line and the last of the Celtic independence from and resistance to the Saxons. Or, maybe more accurately, resistance to change in general.

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The Art of Hair Wrapping

Spinning strands of cotton around hair is my Summer job. I love it.

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I have no idea where the popularity of this past-time has sprung from but unnervingly popular it is. Almost a tradition in some families. The longest queue this year was 3 hours.

It’s like some affliction, you see the glint of “I need that” flash in the across the faces as they stroll past and then, inevitably, sometimes after a very public tantrum, they will join the queue with a resigned parent.

They’re not cheap either, to be perfectly frank. We charge 75p an inch, the Padstow/Newquay/Polzeath/Perranporth wrappers (McDonald’s wraps as my dreadlocked co-worker terms them) charge £1.

The thing that makes this job so enjoyable, aside from the shocking freedom of working entirely for yourself, is the creativity, I make a new pattern each time and am getting way better at the symmetry.

I also think there is a weirdly primordial pleasure in arranging and playing with bright colours… I’m new at it relatively speaking, so I am not as good as my colleagues.

The people who taught me to wrap take it really quite seriously. Amusingly seriously from an outsider’s point of view as I once was. However, I am initiated now…

There are too many hair wrappers that do a terrible job, for maximum amount of money in the shortest time as they know they are dealing with a passing trade. Certian restaurants do this too. It pisses me right off. It is even more reprehensible when you factor in the main demographic are young girls who are just excited to get a hair wrap to show off.

There are clear definable rules that make for a good wrap and I will lay these out here for all those who consider buying one on your visit to Cornwall or on your travels around it.

  • Do not ever buy a clip-in wrap. They will fall out almost immediately.
  • Watch every hair wrapper you come across and what they do.
  • Avoid any wrapper that does not put a plait in the hair before they spin colours.
  • Anyone who offers you only three colours is being stingy. 5 is the optimum, 6 for very long hair.
  • I would avoid anyone who shows you a choice of set patterns and asks you to choose one. This is lazy and uncreative. We put a new pattern in each time and create it is as we go based on how we feel or the colours chosen.
  • Personally, I think £1 an inch is too much.
  • Check the tightness. This is the key. If a wrap is loose, or looks loose, it will not last. A good wrapper should be tightening the spun cotton as they go. The end result should be a solid stick of colour basically, that softens after a wash. I have seen a hair wrap of mine last for 1 1/2 years and counting. A good hair wrap should last at least 6 months to a year left to its own devices. Admittedly the hair between the scalp and the wrap will start to dread as it grows but whatever.
  • The only places I have confirmed good hair wraps are Looe, Bude, Mevagissey/Fowey and Polperro.

See? Serious business. It is hilarious really. You should see the tribalism and territorialism involved.

I’ll leave you with an example anecdote. I was passing through Polzeath the first year I started in earnest and was naive enough to think the troupe that take over the grassy knoll by the road there might offer advice. The conversation went something like this – after politely feigning interest in their activities:

“Do you want a hair wrap?”

“No thanks, we do it actually, just scoping out places to go and pitch up”

Pause.

“Uhh…You can’t come here…” The others stop making their clip-in wraps and look over at this point.

“Um. I don’t want to come here? This is clearly your pitch..”

“This is our pitch”

“…Yes. I was wondering if you knew of anywhere that might be good?”

pause

“No. Well, maybe Padstow. That’s busy.”

“Yes, it is busy.”

“This is our only source of income you know. We live off this for the year.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. You can’t come here”

“Bye.”

 

 

 

 

 

Field Thoughts

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Things can sometimes illicit a powerful and unexpected response. This photograph of a field outside of Downderry does this.

A complex mixture of feeling, hard to pin down…

An ideal, a distant desire from childhood; a piece of vivid imagination garnered from some long-lost book or photograph that has become entwined with memory over time. Not wholly my own.

I believe it might stem from the ‘Reader’s Digest Book of Natural Wonders’, a book I once pored over almost daily. I remember an image of the Rocky Mountains, wild, expansive and empty and this somehow now comes with more palpable, corporeal memory of a warm, blue clear sky. The sound of a single propeller plane and the feel of prickly half-dried grass with tiny quick footed wolf spiders hunting amongst it.

It also brings a fleeting, rapid and expansive showreel of a whole life, again not mine, but one I could have had. All the alternative complexities of that in a strobing snapshot of images and imagination.

Like a glimpse through a window of a stranger’s house at night. A glimpse of another life in the walls, paintings and furniture.

The photograph above seems to represent all of this. It’s expanse is melancholy but uplifting. Yearnings to just go, yearnings to settle. A world of infinite possibilities but necessarily only few of them ever to be realised.

It’s an elusive and ephemeral state and I can’t feel it long enough to do it justice. It’s almost as though I exhaust it if I try to keep conjuring it back. So I suppose that will have to do.