‘When midsummer comes, with bavens and bromes they do bonefires make,
and swiftly then, the young men runne leapinge over the same.
The women and maydens together they do couple their handes
With bagpipes sounde, they daunce a rounde;
no malice among them standes’
Anon 15c Ballad.
The summer solstice is actually the 21st June, but Midsummer Day is held to be the 24th, which is the Feast of St John (the Baptist). The custom of holding midsummer fires is very ancient indeed. In the 4th century, St Vincent described the midsummer practice of rolling of flaming wheels down the hills of South Western France and in the nineteenth century, British folklorists found lots of examples of similar midsummer rites. This is a tradition which stretches way back into our pagan past.
St John’s Day on the 24th June holds a similar position in the summer months to Christmas Day in the winter. It’s a day to celebrate the fullness of the year and to mark the tuning point towards harvest and shorter days. The written records of midsummer fires in Britain go back to the 13th century. In the 14th century a monk from Shropshire records ‘In the worship of St John men waken at even and maken three manner of fires; one is clean bones and no wood, and is called a bonfire, one is of clean wood and no bones and is called a wakefire...the third is made of bones and wood and is called St John’s Fire.’
So that’s what bonfire means - ‘bone fire’ - well I never.
St John’s Eve was also auspicious for the collection of herbs and the making of potions and simples. Churches were decorated with birch twigs and fennel and plays, processions and pageants were common. Because the midsummer fires smacked of both Catholic religious fervour and pagan rites they fell foul of the Reformation and of the Puritans. However their influence was not universal across Britain, certain places held onto their midsummer fires longer than most. One of these was the most western tip of the mainland - West Cornwall. Penzance was still holding midsummer revels well into the 1800s. As we’ve seen before there is a strong link between Penzance and St John through the Knights Hospitallers who owned the mother parish of Madron. I wonder if this contributed to keepingthe tradition going?
For those of you who don’t know it, the town of Penzance sits on a short stumpy headland poking out in to Mount’s Bay. This means the streets slope in three directions, down the headland’s spine i.e. south towards the sea, then east and west down the sides. The St John’s Eve tradition was to set fire to what you had most of - and that meant old fish barrels, filled with tar and set rolling through the streets. In addition torches were made of canvas soaked in tar and wrapped round poles, and these were paraded through the streets. In the rural hinterland, bonfires were lit on carns and hill tops and circle dances took place round the embers. The feast of ‘Golowan’ as it was known, eventually foundered in the late 1800s. Two things mitigated against it - fire risk to the many thatched houses in town and the strong Methodist influence which frowned on the associated drunkeness and licence.
But all was not lost. The Old Cornwall Society revived the bonfire tradition across the peninsula in 1921 and in 1991 Penzance again began celebrating Golowan as a community festival. This now lasts a week, and culminates on Mazey Day with a fabulous extravaganza of mock mayor making, stalls, fantastic processions with huge puppets and a wonderful firework display. It’s a great day to be here.
The tar barrels rolled down the streets of Penzance in the nineteenth century would have been used for the storage of pilchards - now rebranded as Cornish Sardines, and I’m intrigued by the casual reference to fennel in some of the records.
So what could be better - Cornish Sardines and Fennel Salad. Terrific.
I grilled the sardines whole over my dinky little barbecue and served them with a squeeze of lemon and finely chopped fennel fronds.
The fennel I sliced very thin, then soaked in iced water for a couple of hours - this makes a massive difference to fennel - it makes it really crunchy. I then made a dressing by lightly browning a clove of garlic in some good olive oil, discarding the garlic and added a tablespoonful of broken walnuts, I then added a spoonful cider vinegar and seasoned well. I poured it over the fennel whilst still very hot. We had a side dish of borlotti beans in olive oil and dill, tabbouleh, and heavenly bread contributed by my friend Donna.
Good food, good friends and a warm summer night - bliss.
'Midsummer midnight skies,
Midsummer midnight influences and airs,
The shining, sensitive silver of the sea
Touched with the strange-hued blazonings of dawn;'
From 'Midsummer Midnight Skies' by William Ernest Henley (1849-1903)