'High o'er the ridge of Bodmin Moor
Grey Rowter keepeth guard
His age-old crown of granite crag
by wind and storm is scarred'
From: 'The Cornish Bells' by Charles Stubbs (1845-1912)
I’m going to Bodmin today. That’s a euphemism in Cornwall for going a bit mad, Bodmin being the site of an enormous Victorian mental hospital now thankfully closed. But actually I really am going to Bodmin –because it’s a fascinating place and because today is Bodmin Heritage Day and tomorrow is Bodmin Riding. There’s so much to say about Bodmin, it’s hard to know where to start.
The County of Cornwall as many of you may know is not far short of 100 miles long from the border with Devon right down to Land’s End. Bodmin Moor is more than half way up from the end, so to reach western Cornwall from the north you have to cross the moor, a place of dark deeds, peat bogs, Jamaica Inn and haunt of the famous ‘Beast of Bodmin’ – a jaguar sized black cat - sightings of which are guaranteed to get the tabloids going. Here's the moor in benign mood.
It also meant that until the coming of the railways, Bodmin was the last outpost of so called civilisation – the assizes were here, the gaol was here, the mental hospital, the barracks and the priory. Beyond Bodmin the gentry and their authority held little sway, religion was tempered with local superstition, there was smuggling and wrecking and the people there lived on their wits and on the edge.
Bodmin has a fascinating history. Before the Reformation it was the holiest town in Cornwall, Bodmin Priory was the proud possessor of the bones of St Petroc which were kidnapped in 1177 by a recalcitrant monk and then rescued from a monastery in Brittany where they had been taken. Henry II gave them back to the Priory having held back a few bones for himself – which bits I wonder? During the abolition of the monasteries, the bones in their 11th century ivory casket disappeared and were found some 200 years later hidden under the floor of Bodmin parish church.
At some point the bones were lost (maybe the beast got them), but on Sunday the casket will be paraded through Bodmin in the sort of procession that is more usually associated with Catholic towns of southern Europe. The procession originated with with the ancient guilds of Bodmin and it’s unusual because it is accompanied by riders on horseback – hence ‘Bodmin Riding’. A special brew of ale will be made for the weekend – ‘Riding Ale’ and on Saturday there will be much jollification as the people of Bodmin try and capture ‘The Beast’.
One of the other historical events commemorated this weekend is the hanging of Nicholas Boyer a former Mayor of Bodmin who was executed in the town square for his part in the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549. The enforcement of prayers in English instead of Latin was staunchly resisted in the far west where Cornish was the vernacular and the failure to translate the Bible into the Cornish language is held by many scholars to be the cause of its demise. The preservation of the Welsh language had much to do with the fact the Bible was translated into Welsh and used in Sunday Schools, thus keeping the language alive, unfortunately Cornish speakers weren’t so lucky then, although these days the revival is gaining strength.
I’m going to make a beef and ale casserole - lovely Cornish beef from the Lizard peninsula simmered slowly in a strong ale. Here we go.
Riding Ale Casserole
1kg of stewing beef - I used shin which I cut myself into bigger chunks than my butcher does.
500ml strong ale ( because I'm making this in advance of the weekend to post on Saturday, I've used Fistral Organic Ale from Atlantic Brewery in Newquay. It has a strong clean citrus flavour and is brewed from a single hop variety - and it's delicious! I'll make this again after the weekend when I've got some Riding Ale from Bodmin and report on the difference)
Bay leaves, thyme, parsley stalks
2 onions, 3 cloves of garlic, 1 strip of orange peel
2 tablespoons flour seasoned with salt and coarsely ground pepper.
Oil – these days I use organic rapeseed oil for almost all my sautéing except where the taste of olive oil is vital.
250ml beef stock approx
Marinade the beef overnight in the ale with the herbs and orange peel.
The next day drain the beef well (keep the marinade) and pat dry with kitchen paper. Sauté the sliced onions and garlic until golden brown and remove from the pan, now put the meat into a plastic bag with the seasoned flour, shake it about, then sauté it in batches in the oil until it is brown and crusty. Deglaze the pan with the marinade and put everything into a casserole and add sufficient beef stock to just cover your meat. Heat the casserole on the hob until it bubbles. Now cover and put in the oven at 150c for 2 hours. I think this is better kept until the next day then gently reheated.
In winter you could make dumplings to have with this, or put it into a puff pastry case. On a chilly summer day I like it with crusty bread, followed by a green salad with a sharp dressing.
The poet Charles Causley lived in Launceston nearly all his life and knew Bodmin Moor well.
I saw a jolly hunter
With a jolly gun
Walking in the country
In the jolly sun.
In the jolly meadow
Sat a jolly hare.
Saw the jolly hunter.
Took jolly care.
Hunter jolly eager-
Sight of jolly prey.
Forgot gun pointing
Wrong jolly way.
Jolly hunter jolly head
Over heels gone.
Jolly old safety catch
Not jolly on.
Bang went the jolly gun.
Hunter jolly dead.
Jolly hare got clean away.
Jolly good, I said.
By Charles Causley (1917-2003)