Cornwall in the summer months is a heaving mass of bikini-clad and kaleidoscopically-clothed seekers of sea, surf and summer sunshine. Where would we be without them? But behind the brash Bed-and-Breakfast signs, the postcard and souvenir stalls, and the myriad tourist attractions there lies a strong sense of tradition and our Celtic heritage. I am pleased to report that the Spirit of the Corn is alive and well in Cornwall!
The "Visitors" won’t notice the corn turning from green to gold in the outlying fields, but we watch and wait, with an almost proprietorial interest and a sense of anticipation.
Then the news comes, passed by word of mouth, and the local radio station, that the Harvest is being gathered in. Various fields the length and breadth of the County will become a meeting place for the re-enactment of the centuries-old custom of Crying the Neck, a traditional ceremony revived and celebrated since the early 1920s by the Old Cornwall Society.
It is early September; most of the summer visitors have returned home. In order to attend one of the ceremonies nearby, our local Old Cornwall Society has chartered a coach. With child-like glee we all pile aboard, feeling almost like tourists ourselves, pointing out the landmarks of our town to each other as the coach winds through the streets, picking up members along the way. We trundle out of town, through the lanes, admiring the elevated view the coach affords…..and there is the field, expectantly awaiting its audience!
The corn has already been cut, but down the centre the farmer has left a swathe of golden ears, standing proudly in the late afternoon sun. We all disembark, and gather round; the President of the host O.C.S. bids a welcome to all the visitors who, like ourselves, have made the journey from outlying villages.
The Rector of the local church is present, and a short prayer of thanks is spoken in English and in Cornish before the cutting of the Neck commences.
The farmer picks up his long-handled scythe and with slow sweeping movements cuts his way through the remaining stalks. These are gathered together and tied round with twine, then the golden bundle is raised above his head, first to the East, then the South and the West:
I Have’n, I Have’n, I Have’n he shouts
What ’ave ee? What ’ave ee? What ’ave ee? we reply
A Neck! A Neck! A Neck! he shouts, triumphantly
Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah! we all shout with glee, really entering into the spirit of things.
Yma genef! Yma genef! Yma genef!
Pandr’us genes? Pandr’us genes? Pandr’us genes?
Pen Yar! Pen Yar! Pen Yar!
Houra! Houra! Houra!
Some American visitors who have joined us look somewhat bemused.
The farmer is thanked for the use of his land, then as the sun starts to set, we all follow the Neck which is carried to the nearby church for a short service. It is satisfying to see the church full, often already decorated in preparation for the forthcoming Harvest Festival (the introduction of which is credited to our eccentric Parson Hawker of Morwenstow). The well-loved Harvest hymns are sung, and right lustily we "Plough the Fields and Scatter".
In the olden days this service would be followed by much merriment and debauched revelry, not to mention gallons of cider and beer! Nowadays we settle for a Pasty Supper "over to Vicarage" – not just a pasty (the proper job, mind you – freshly baked and brought in piping hot on the baker’s tray) and a nice cup o’ tay, but a table groaning with saffron cake, Cornish splits with clotted cream, and other goodies. Then in true Cornish tradition we all settle down to a good old sing-song, rising to our feet at the end with a rousing rendition of Trelawny, the Cornish National Anthem.
Thanks are said all round, and like small children at the end of a tea treat, we climb back into the coach, a little subdued perhaps that this ritual, re-enacted year after year, has now come to an end. Although we have a thriving Christian thanksgiving ceremony, we are all well aware that it has its roots in a much older, pagan past.
Historian and Archivist for the Guild of Straw Craftsmen
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