23 September: Crying the Neck

As you plaited the harvest bow
You implicated the mellowed silence in you
In wheat that does not rust
But brightens as it tightens twist by twist
Into a knowable corona,
A throwaway love-knot of straw.

From 'The Harvest Bow' by Seamus Heaney (1939 -)

In Cornwall the last sheaf cut at harvest time was called 'the neck' and in common with many other country districts when it was cut, the end of the harvest was celebrated by the ceremony of 'Crying the Neck'. In 'Cornish Feasts and Folk-Lore' published in 1890, Miss Courtney tells us that the oldest reaper called out 'I hav'et! I hav'et! I hav'et' and his companions replied 'What hav'ee? What hav'ee? What hav'ee?' He then shouted 'A Neck! A Neck! A Neck!' and they all replied 'Hurrah!' The neck of corn would have been made into a miniature sheaf gaily decorated with flowers and ribbons. This was then hung in the farmhouse until the next harvest or sometimes tossed between the reapers, the winner legitimately being able then to kiss the girl of his choice.

There were similar traditions in other parts of the country – in East Yorkshire for example the reapers cried 'We hev'er, We hev'er! A coo in a tether!' Then there would be then a general scramble for apples in the stack yard when the last load was brought in. In September the Old Cornwall Societies across the county will be celebrating 'Crying the Neck' as a way of keeping the old traditions alive - good for them.

After the harvest comes the Harvest Supper, sometimes called the 'Mell Supper'. The word 'mell' coming from the Old Norse 'mele' meaning grain. This was an occasion for general rejoicing and not a little relief that all was safely gathered in. Until the 1840s harvest festivals were a purely secular if not pagan celebrations, but enter onto the scene the Reverend Robert Stephen Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstow.When Hawker became Vicar of Morwenstow in 1834 it had been neglected by the Church of England for years, as to be honest, had much of Cornwall - the Methodist tradition in the south west is a legacy of that. Morwenstow really was a wild west area but it suited the young cleric down to the ground and he ministered to all - sailors, fishermen, smugglers, wreckers and miners.

Hawker was a real eccentric. He married twice; firstly to his Godmother 22 years his senior, then to a young woman 40 years his junior, both marriages apparently happy and contented. He once dressed up as a mermaid, excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sundays and far from donning clerical garb he habitually wore a claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman's jersey, long sea-boots, a pink hat and a shawl made from a yellow horse blanket. He talked to the birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a pet pig.

On September 13, 1843, Hawker put up a notice in the church for a new type of service:

'Let us gather together in the chancel of our church, and there receive, in the bread of the new corn, that blessed sacrament which was ordained to strengthen and refresh our souls.'

Harvest Festival was born.

Hawker built a little hut for himself on the cliffs near his home and it can still be seen, it belongs to the National Trust these days. He used it to commune with nature, write poetry and smoke a little opium, here it is.....

I've been wanting to make a poppy seed roll for ages, so this is my Harvest offering for the Reverend Hawker - a sweet loaf stuffed with the seeds of papaver somniferum, otherwise know as the opium poppy. Have a slice with your nightcap.....zzzz.

Poppy Seed Roll

I made a sweet dough with 200ml milk, 120g melted butter, 2 eggs, 1/2tsp vanilla extract, 500g strong flour, 1.5 tsp salt, 60g sugar and 2 tsp easy blend yeast. I kneaded it until it was smooth and elastic then let it rise in a warm place for an hour and rolled it into a rectangle about 2 centimetres thick. I then spread on the filling.
Put 100g sugar and 100ml milk in a pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 5 minutes.
Now add 100g poppy seeds and 75g chopped sultanas, 2 tablespoons of honey, a tablespoon of candied peel and the grated rind of one lemon.
Bring to the boil again and simmer for 5 more minutes, it will be quite thick and will thicken more as it cools. When it is cool add one egg white - keep the yolk for the glaze on the roll.

Roll up the dough into a big sausage with the seam underneath, tuck the ends under and allow to rise for 30 minutes. Brush with the yolk of egg. Bake at 190c for about 35 minutes. Keep an eye on it and if it's getting very brown cover lightly with foil. Cool, dribble over glace icing and sprinkle with poppy seeds.

Foot note
I actually made two of these with double the mix, I put too much filling in the first one and too little in the second one so the picture is an amalgam, but they tasted lovely and were wolfed by all the picnicers at the 'Peace in the Park' festival yesterday. The egg wash gave them a wonderfully shiny chestnut glaze.

‘A good sword and a trusty hand!

A merry heart and true!

King James's men shall understand

What Cornish lads can do!’

From ‘Song of the Western Men’ by the Rev. R.S. Hawker 1803-1875


Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...

I really love your posts, so informative and so easy to read... lovely.

and a new festival day will be the 24th when i turn 40!!!

Gerry Snape said...

Every year at the harvest time my paternal grandmother.. a farmer's wife in south Armagh, would give a harvest supper for her workers and over their heads string up the harvest plaits and crosses. I don't think that these were christian crosses though she was a believer, they were of the old ways and the tradition was passed down through her family. Facinating!

pebbledash said...

Absolutely fascinating! Lovely to bump into you in Penlee, Liz. Bet the Poppy Seed Rolls went down a treat!
D x

corncockle said...

A really nice blog! I attended two Crying the Neck ceremonies this year, one locally and one up on the moor (Bodmin). They are also Crying the Neck up at the Eden Project over their Harvest period, so the Corn Spirit will be well and truly put to bed this year!
This website has some good pictures:

Liz said...

Thanks all -it's decidedly nippy down here since the equinox, but clear skies and fresh breezes are blowing the cobwebs away. Michaelmas before we know it...

Choclette said...

Love that Rev Hawker - I like the opium connection he must have been on it. To my shame I haven't heard of crying the neck. I suspect we have lost many of the Cornish traditions up here in the east of the county.

Charlie said...

I loved reading this - I have a photograph of my children sitting in the Hawker hut and your wonderful post reminded me of a very happy day.